Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Female- Who'd Be One?

Kristen's blog on loving her genre, and then Jen's about sex in YA, have inspired me to recycle another of my old posts, this time from my first, now defunct, blog.

I write and love historical fiction. Being transported to worlds that are now long gone, discovering new and fascinating facts about humankind's past - and discovering that we modern folk are not so very different from our ancestors - is what I adore about the genre. And my particular obsession is with Paris of the mid-nineteenth century.

This was a time when the city was the centre of scientific and medical advancement, yet disease and filth mired its streets. When an Emperor still sat upon the French throne, but for the first time, bourgeois entrepreneurs could make equally king-size fortunes with their silk factories or their sugar beet industries, or through gambling on the French stock exchange, the Bourse. A time of innovation and renewal, with most of medieval Paris being demolished by the Emperor's master architect, Baron Haussmann, and replaced with the elegant apartments and grand, tree-lined boulevards we see today.

A time when, despite all this wealth and beauty, poverty was a mean fact of life for a vast number of the city's inhabitants. And poverty, and it's effect on women who, through lack of contraception, bore child after child, is what I discussed, a few years back ....

Female - Who'd Be One? [originally posted 1st April 2009]

Nineteenth century contraception was a recent subject of discussion on Compuserve’s Books and Writers Forum. It's a fascinating topic, one I've researched in depth in order to convincingly (I hope!) write the main character of my book, a nineteenth century physician who practices in the slums of Paris and sees the grim reality of the lives of working class mothers and their children.

Children. Women bore many of them, for it’s safe to say that nothing really worked as far as contraception was concerned in the nineteenth century. Especially not if you were poor.

In Paris, condoms sold for the princely sum of 50 centimes a piece, more than twice the price of a loaf of bread. Not something to squeeze into the family budget, particularly when condoms were also widely viewed with disdain as the accoutrements of prostitutes.

The rhythm method was not widely known either, and many of those who did practice it mistakenly believed a woman’s fertile time was during menstruation, with little risk of pregnancy outside this time. Cervical sponges soaked in lemon juice were a little more effective, but overall the most commonly used method to control fertility was coitus interruptus - which, human beings being only human, was highly unreliable.

For many poor, working class women, an unwanted pregnancy was a catastrophe. If a mother was unable to work due to pregnancy or while recovering from childbirth, she inevitably lost her job. Devastating, for without the mother’s income, and with an extra mouth to feed, how was the family to survive?

It seems that miscarriage frequently solved this dilemma. It was a common occurrence amongst working class women, due to malnutrition or diseases such as syphilis, small pox, typhoid, cholera, and measles. Industrial toxins also played a role, with many female factory workers miscarrying from exposure to mercury, phosphorous, antimony or lead.

But for those women who did not miscarry, and for whom yet another pregnancy would push their families into grinding poverty, abortion was the terrible yet logical answer.

The fact it was a crime did not deter, nor did the bizarre and dangerous methods employed by abortionists. White wine brewed with absinthe and rue was a commonly prescribed, but mostly ineffective, abortificant. Yew, savin, and ergot were also used, but were of such toxicity that even the slightest overdose would result in the death of the mother. The most common and most effective method of abortion was the injection of liquid (usually hot or cold water) into the uterus, sometimes mixed with an irritant, such as soap. Unsurprisingly, many women who sought the services of an "angel maker" died as a result.

The sad tale does not end there. Within days of their birth, the unwanted babies of those women for whom abortion was not an option, or for whom the procedure did not work, were sent off to wet nurses in rural areas outside Paris. In fact, there was a thriving business in the exporting of babies from the city, with menuers and midwives acting as intermediaries – for a fee, of course – to place babies with wet nurses. Year after year, cartloads of squalling newborns were sent off to their fates in the countryside; a report of 1866, cited in "Metro Stop Paris", gives a chilling description of the journey these babies set out on:

"I have never travelled on the roads of the Perche without being overcome with emotion, seeing these huge meneurs' wagons in which nurses and nurslings returning from Paris are piled in pell-mell like animals returning from market. This revolting vehicle in known aptly as a Purgatory."

Many babies quickly died. Malnutrition and disease were often the culprits, but neglect also contributed to many a death, with a single wet nurse often having as many as half a dozen babies to care for and feed at once.

Another option existed for mothers unable to care for their babies, however - "le tour", a small, revolving door in the wall of the convent of the Daughters of Charity, the order established by Saint Vincent de Paul in the 1600s. Mothers placed their babies in le tour (occasionally with a note that named the child or explained the circumstances of their abandonment, but not often) rang the bell and left, never to see their child again.

This practice was only abandoned in 1863.

In an effort to alleviate all this suffering, charitable creches were established in Paris to care for babies and thus enable their mothers to continue to work without giving up their children. Public Assistance was also available, but for a great deal of the nineteenth century welfare was tied to marital status - only single mothers threatening to abandon their newborns, or threatening suicide, were eligible for help - and the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, with weeks going by before mothers received any aid. Long, hungry, weeks.

All rather depressing, isn't it?

It makes me marvel at the strength of these women who had so many babies and somehow continued to work for the pittance that was barely enough to keep their families alive. It also makes me grieve for those women and their babies for whom abortion or abandonment were their only options.

But above all, it makes me feel profoundly grateful to live in an era in which women - not all women, but many more than ever before- have the ability to decide whether to bear children, and to be supported in their decisions.

If you'd like to read further on the lives of working class Parisian women in the nineteenth century, I highly recommend POOR & PREGNANT IN PARIS by Rachel Fuchs, and METRO STOP PARIS by Gregor Dallas.


  1. So interesting!

    Thank you for posting this. It was fascinating to have a glimpse into life in those times.


  2. For many women it's still abortion or abandonment. It'd be nice if everyone got on board with birth control pills and devices instead of being stuck in some medieval mindset that these are tools of the devil.

  3. Ah! I remember this post! Gives me the heebes. I raise my glass to all those women who struggled before me.

  4. As women, we really are fortunate to live in the age and in the countries that we do.

    Thanks Rachel, for the reminder that our sisters fought hard for the freedoms we have now.

  5. Wow! What interesting information from that time! Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, I'm hosting Roland D Yeomans today, who self-published his book THE BEAR WITH TWO SHADOWS and is sharing his journey with us as well as a four book giveaway!

  6. I remember this post Rachel! It's fascinating. White wine with absinthe and rue? I think you'd be more likely to throw up...

  7. @ Misha - glad you found it interesting. :-) And I forgot to mention the other reason why I love writing historical fiction - all the lovely research you have to do, and all the amazing facts you stumble across. I'm in my element!

    @ Rogue Mutt - what you say is true. Regrettably, for many women things have not changed all that much.

  8. @ Kristen and Susan - amen to that, ladies! Really makes me sit back and appreciate my kids and the life I am fortunate to have.

  9. @ Nas Dean - thanks, and thanks for dropping by. I'll have to swing by and check out your comp - I do love a book giveaway!

    @ Deniz - yes, I think that was the main problem with it. I actually had my first taste of absinthe last year, at a little French-themed night club. A very pretty colour, but man, was it potent!

  10. Thanks for the insight into this area of French history.

    Did some fascinating study on a similar period in English history when studying Womens' History. Women living in the Western world today are certainly much more fortunate than our forbears and a walk through history certainly reminds us of that.

  11. @ Adina - Looking to our past is a real eye-opener, isn't it? And I suspect the experience of English women in this era was probably quite similar to their counterparts in France, no? Good to remind ourselves of how things once were, so we can be grateful for what we (in the West, at least) have now.

  12. I've only tasted absinthe once myself (in Paris) but it sounds awful combined with rue and wine! Although I have to say, I hope my next story idea comes in a time when there are more drink options - it's very hard writing in a time period without tea and coffee!