Women of the past: babies

We often look at our ancestors with rose-coloured glasses and look back nostalgically at the wives of past centuries with great fondness. We think they were happier than we are today. That they loved their large families, they took their role as keepers of their homes seriously and without complain, their husbands loved them dearly and life was rosy and beautiful. This photo is the sort of imagine we have in our minds — happy smiling mother and child.

Sadly the reality is very different to our view — for many ordinary women: life was exhausting and full of drudgery, husbands beat their wives (for many centuries it was considered acceptable to beat one's wife as long as you didn't kill them), women died in childbirth or lost many of their children to what is now curable diseases, they had no way of escaping a loveless marriage and had to endure their husband mistresses without complaint or they husbands departure for something better.

Women could not choose their futures as we can today and any decisions made on their behalf were made by men who saw them as weak, feeble and not able to make their own minds. They were seen as second-class citizens.
Source: Shorpy.com

Can you imagine living in a world where your entire life was controlled by your husband, by the church, by the state and by social conventions whilst your husband could do as he pleased, including having a mistress and prostitutes. I couldn't and I don't think many modern women would but for centuries women have. 

However, women did have some small control over one part of their lives, the number of children they had (even if not always successful) through pregnancy prevention and abortions. It is a topic that many women find distressing but we do need to look at it from the perspective of women of the past and not from our comfortable middle class eyes. 

Pregnancy prevention and abortion is not something new to the 20th century. Mothers have passed down information on how to prevent pregnancies and carry out abortions to their daughters and have done for centuries. This has been part of the secret women’s business being conducted behind closed doors and not recorded in the history books (as they were written primarily by men). We like to think that mothers of the past loved having large families, many did not.  It didn't mean they didn't love their children, they just didn't want so many. As a result, they found ways to either prevent pregnancies or have an abortion. Being endlessly pregnant at a time of limited medical care was difficult, never knowing if the next pregnancy would kill them, or their baby would even survive and wondering how they would find the food to feed the next hungry mouth made life tough.

Birth rates from 1800 to 1900 declined by 40% in the USA, quite clearly the methods being used by women were working. In 1800, birth rates in the USA were higher than any European nation. The typical American woman bore an average of 7 children. However, this started to decline and by 1900 the average number of children born was 3.5. Why did the birth rate decline? I think you might be surprised — because in reality it isn’t any different to the reasons given now in 2015.

Cost and control.

Children cost money (they did then and they do now) and parents had to make a significant investment in the form of education all the way through to preparing them for respectable careers and marriages. The emerging middle class became concerned about social mobility (upwards of course) and maintaining an acceptable standard of living resulted in new limits on family size. This is no different to many of the views today.

Depression years, USA - (Shorpy.com)
Control was the final realisation that after centuries of women being controlled by men, they could take control their decisions and one way was deciding on how many children they had. A letter written by a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests the desperation felt by many women who were single-handedly responsible for bearing and rearing a family's children. "Harriet," her sister observed, "has one baby put out for the winter, the other at home, and number three will be here the middle of January. Poor thing, she bears up wonderfully well...She says she shall not have any more children, she knows for certain for one while."

The decline in the birthrate carried far-reaching consequences for family life. It meant, first of all, that motherhood ended earlier for women. Women underwent the strain of pregnancy less often and had an increasing number of years when young children were no longer their primary responsibility. Smaller families allowed parents to invest more time and energy as well as more financial resources in the upbringing of their children. Doesn't this sound familiar to the current times?

During the depression years in the USA, it has been estimated that around 700,000 abortions took place resulting in the deaths of around 16,000 women. This showed an overall abortion rate of about 25%, with a sharp increase from 1929 to 1931. Almost all were conducted illegally. It shows the desperation that women felt and to what extremes they went to in preventing another mouth to feed when they had nothing at all. Whilst it may be easy to sit back in our comfortable homes and lives and judge these women, only those who have experienced such extreme poverty could remotely understand their plight. 

The Slums of London, 1950s
(the times of Call the Midwife)
The 1950s has been depicted as the era of "happy marriages" and "beautiful bouncy babies". This is no coincident, this was orchestrated by governments of the time to create what they considered a healthy happy family environment.  Both the  British and American governments produced many pamphlets on the topic of families and sex in their attempt to create utopia. As a result we think of the 1950s as the time of prosperity and the devoted housewife. It really wasn't as good as we are led to believe. Whilst we all have examples of happy family life, it wasn't a bed of roses for all women. One just needs to watch "Call the Midwives" to see what life in the slums of London looked like — not a place we would want to live in and certainly not the imagines that appeared in magazines in the 1950s.

Interestedly this was the period in history with the highest rate of births for girls aged 15 to 19. Single young women getting pregnant isn't something we associate with the 1950s. The decline in birth rates from the 1960s onwards is the result of the introduction of the pill and the sexual revolution which in fact started well before the 1960s. One just needs to watch "Call the Midwives" to see what the life of a poor woman in London was like in the 1950s — not one we would want to live and certainly not the imagines that appeared in magazines in the 1950s. 

It is interesting to look back in history and see it "warts and all" because it reveals that we are good at looking the the rosy side of history and not the unpleasant side of the past. Women then and now go through struggles — life isn't smooth sailing and no where in history have women had it easy!

At least in our modern age we have some control over our lives, we can make decisions jointly with our husbands, we are listened too and not treated as weak and stupid. We can space out our children's births, we can limit the number of children if need be and as I wrote about last week, housework is so much easier these days so it removes one of the strains in our lives. And if our husbands abuse us, we can walk away and get help. And if our marriage ends in a nasty mess, we don't loose everything. 

Modern society does have its many problems, but it did in centuries past too, its just different. 


  1. This is an interesting assessment of history. Probably the greatest assistance to women came from their faith and the opportunity for education.

    Not all women were subject to one pregnancy after another--work life and time away from home by husbands influenced time for sex. It wasn't always on their mind.

    1. It’s a small peak at a segment of history that we often don’t look at. Many of those in the upper classes had smaller families due to travel of either the husband and wife (especially when they went on their grand tours) and other activities the kept them apart such as the mistress. But the statistics do show that poorer families had larger families (especially in place like London) and they were the ones most often unable to feed an extra mouth. These were also the most uneducated group of women. My purpose of this blog post was to highlight a part of history that we tend to think of with nostalgia when it wasn’t for many. Of course, it doesn’t mean these women were miserable, they just found ways of having some control over their lives.

  2. In Sweden there were women called "angel makers", really really sad, it existed until the early 1900:s, of course it was illegal. The angel makers received newborns from desperate single mothers who left them to the women because of the horrors it meant to be a single unmarried mom. They were supposed to pay a very small fee a month for the baby to be raised by the angel makers, the babies were neglected and mistreated, and if there was one only payment it counted as a silent agreement for the woman to neglect and mistreat the baby until it would die, it became a business for the angel makers. The last one in court for this was in the beginning of the 1900 i think :-(
    Another thing that also happened was that desperate girls took their childrens lives right after birth, very sad to read.

    I collect old swedish magazines, and i have from the 1930:s and forward. In the pages were you can read the readers ads, there are girls in "distress" begging for kind people to take them in as maids and to later either adopt their child or let the girls live and work there together with their baby. One woman was going through a divorce and needed someone to take in her 5 year old little son for a couple of months, that is just heartbreaking to read.
    It is also heartbreaking to read the ads from girls/women asking for "kind" people to adopt their babies, and signing with "a plea for help". I can go on and on, another ad is from a mother of many (a poor family) who asks for used clothes in baby sizes and up, womens and mens clothes for her and her husband, that she could adjust herself. I wonder if her husband ever found out that she wrote that plea? And I wonder where those babies are today, some should be over 80 years old now. So many sad stories and memories that people carry around with then :-(

    1. It is really interesting you have mentioned the “angel makers” in Sweden, because in Australia and certainly in Britain, right up to early 1900s we had the same (which I had never heard of until very recently). I did some research into these “carers” (our earliest form of childcare) and was horrified at what they got up too. Many of the babies died from neglect and starvation and placed in mass graves (some very young). As their mothers were often single and poor no one cared. It was only when doctors started to wonder why so many babies were malnutritioned did they realise that the “carers” were watering down the cows milk with dirty water and leaving milk in the sun to go off that they started to act. Sadly many 1000s of babies had already died. By 1910 laws had changed to put a end of this arrangement.

      I recently read about the children on the “Adoption trains” that travelled across the USA in the late 1800’s with children parents could no longer look after and many were mistreated by their new “parents”. They were treated as slaves, the children were abused and authorities turned a blind eye.

      We also have the tragic stories of children sent from the UK to Australia in the middle 20th century (right up to the 1960s) and being told their parents had died — this wasn’t true, their parents couldn’t afford to care for them any more. Many of these children were sexually abused by the church (Catholic and others) and only recently has their been an investigation into these tragedies, but only after years of protest from the victims.

      Sadly so many people look back at the past with nostalgia and it simply wasn’t that great for anyone who was poor. Today we have chooses, these women did not and it is hard to imagine what life was like to be so desperate to give up your child or terminate a pregnancy.

  3. Dear Jo, these are really important things to learn about, as you say it is hard to imagine the decisions that women had to make, and some of them are even alive today, imagine having to live wondering what happened to your child :-( thank you for bringing it up

  4. Life has always been hard, and will continue to be so. Very interesting post.

    1. Life has, but we do look back and think ours perhaps is harder when its just different.

  5. Life has always been desperate for a good number of our world's population. It's easy to put on the rose-colored glasses. This was an interesting post but sad. It makes me glad we have more options today.

    1. I agree, let's be even more thankful we live in this age rather than grumbling:)))

  6. Such tragic times. Great research provided. Well done. Visitn gyou this week from Darling Downs Monday link. Feel free to visit back anytime

    1. I think many forget that sad times have always been with us and the past wasn't as rosie as we like to believe. Thanks for stopping by:)))

  7. This is so informative and really gets you thinking. Thank you for sharing it at the #SmallVictoriesSundayLinkup!

  8. Every period of history has its dark side - it's inescapable. The Scriptures do warn us that sin and darkness will get worse in the end times though, so times past have to have been not quite so dark as the world is today if we are now living the end times... Sobering thought.

    1. There has always been suffering and desperation throughout history, I think perhaps women today are making some decisions not based on desperation, but rather about "me" which makes it very different to women of the past. For example, having a baby is inconvenient not because they can't feed them all. That makes it much more "end of times".

    2. Oh yes, that is very true - good point.


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