History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 February 2009

Historical romance, birth control and birth rates

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award winning tome “Team of Rivals” (a 754-pager that is surely Kindle worthy) about Abraham Lincoln’s political genius. What strikes me are the side stories about the women, and how so many of them had sooooo many children. Mortality for the mother and children was very high. But no one was immune, rich or poor, to endless childbearing and the risks involved.

In the 19th century, almost all women got married. The idea of consciously trying to limit having children would have been revolutionary (except for those “ladies of the trade”).
According to census estimates, an American woman had on average SEVEN to EIGHT children in 1800 (a wife of one of Lincoln’s political friends had SIXTEEN starting at age 22!). By 1900 the number dropped from seven to eight to about 3.5. That number has fallen to about two today. In fact, birth rates have been in decline for some time--they first started falling in the mid 1800s in New England and then among pioneers as they headed west. Why? Before then, it has been speculated, children were educated at home or in church. Once public schooling became available, children became more expensive to care for and less helpful around the house. Women were also freed up from all-day children-rearing, allowing mothers to enter the paid labor force.

However, money doesn’t historically appear to be the only incentive for smaller families.
"We know for sure that you don't have to reach a high level of per capita income for fertility to decline, but we don't know exactly what sets it off," said historian George Atler at Indiana University. "Whether it's general change or attitudes about birth control is still a question debated among demographers today.

Attitudes have definately changed. The dogma of most major religions during the 1800s fdiscouraged birth control, and birth control and divorce were forbidden in the United States. In 1873 the Comstock Act made it illegal to send any so-called obscene materials in the mail, including information about contraception (a topic I have blogged on before). However record sales of family planning books published in the 1830s suggest that the public (women?) were ready to keep families small, regardless of religious or political pressure.

"Moral Physiology" by Robert Dale Owen and Charles Knowlton's "The Fruits of Philosophy" became popular for advocating contraception methods. Owen described coitus interruptus. Knowlton's book included instructions for women on how to wash with a spermicidal solution.

Hacker's historical research may better inform us about the current worldwide trends toward smaller families. "All nations are experiencing fertility declines," said Hacker. "It's becoming a social policy issue as countries face prospects of caring for an aging population."

Much of this info came from:

I must admit, I’ve been reading a lot about the social history of women and now when I read a traditional romance, I worry when the heroine sleeps with the hero without thinking of the consequences--the fall from grace, the expense of children, the risk of death. As a reader, I want her to have that conversation with the hero---even if the book is a historical, no, ESPECIALLY if the book is historical. Maybe she could actually make a conscience effort to avoid getting pregnant. But birth control is still almost never discussed in romance. Any thoughts on why this is? The ick-factor takes the romance out of the sex scene?

Has anybody ready any romances lately where birth control is discussed and done well (a few coitus interruptus scenes come to mind from some recent historicals I’ve read, but not many)?

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Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

What a great post, Kathrynn. This is a topic near to my heart. I am a huge social history buff.

I remember several Mary Jo Putney titles that directly addressed contraception -- Angel Rogue and Petals in the Storm are two that come to mind.

My current WIP, a Regency, will address the issue, because the heroine has a fear of childbearing after witnessing her mother's slide in to clinical depression after a long series of stillbirths and miscarriages. One of the reasons she's been avoiding marriage is because she doesn't want to be constantly pregnant and risk the suffering her mother has endured.

One tidbit I've learned is that "French letters" (early condoms made from animal intestines) were primarily used for prevention of syphillis and other STDs, not for prevention of conception.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Doreen, I'm going to have to look up the MJ Putney titles. I think romance heroines have gotten older, smarter and stronger in the last five years...not as many damsels in distress and young girls who are happlessly seduced then fall in love with the brute!

There were women through history that did exactly what your WIP heroine is doing...making the choice to avoid childbearing.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, I've wrestled with this issue -- kept myself up late at night over it, in truth -- and brought it front and center into the plot of my erotic historicals.

The hero in The Bookseller's Daughter insists upon condoms because when he was a teenager he got a servant pregnant and she died in childbirth (though of course Doreen's right that condoms were mainly to protect against disease, but the intent is there -- and realistically enough, my heroine gets pregnant anyway).

The heroine of The Slightest Provocation uses sponges, which was about as successful a method as you would have had in 1817. And I make her very meticulous and insistent about the procedure (not easy, when you want to write hot sex), and impatient that she can't get her maid to be as careful about her affairs.

In The Edge of Impropriety, my 36-year-old heroine has had rather a wild life, so the realistic truth of her situation is that "years of certain expediencies could make a woman barren." In fact historians have speculated that this was the situation with many leading Georgian courtesans (though one hates to think too hard about those nasty "expediencies").

And in Almost a Gentleman, after a carriage accident and a miscarriage, my heroine is told she can't have children. Of course, in romance such a diagnosis (plus the advent of The Right Guy) works better than Clomid to induce eventual happy fertility. Which is why I wanted the painful realism in Edge -- as a kind of penance for falling back on this convention.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Doreen. I've always had a problem with heroines in historicals who indulge in sexual intercourse with the hero, and don't worry about getting pregnant. I just finished writing a post about Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire's lover, who for years made sure not to get pregnant with Voltaire, only to find herself knocked up at 42 with her new lover's child.

I know that some women also used douching as a method of birth control besides the sponge. There is a scene in the new version of the Forsythe Saga when Irene douches after sex with Soames, so as not to get pregnant.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, you have managed the birth control issue soooo well in your books--up front and out there. Kudos! This is why (one of the many reasons why) you are an award winning and RITA nominated writer. ;-)

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, oh dear, 42 and pregnant with a new lover's child? Whatever happened to Emilie after that?

6:39 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I think an author has to walk a fine line in discussions between the hero and heroine about contraception. The idea of contraception between a hero and heroine who are not married SHOULD be discussed, but it is difficult to do so without ruining the mood. However, any heroine who DOESN'T think about it comes across as rather foolish or unrealistic. And I have to agree with Kathrynn. Pam, you do a terrific job of walking that line in your books!

6:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Had some kind of posting issue . . . let's try again.

I've made damn sure to have my characters aware of and concerned about contraception. Regardless of time period, a woman who doesn't think about it comes off as less than intelligent (at least she does to me). She fails the test of "women I'd want to hang out with".

The thing about French Letters that always puts me off (and that I've rarely seen done correctly in a book, likely because it's sooooooooooooooo not spontaneous) is that they weren't used dry, just out of the package like a modern condom. They had to be soaked in water and softened. And they take a good while to soften up (as anyone who's ever made sausage knows).

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Now that's a scene that would take some skill to write...Hero says..."Hold that thought, my dear....I need to soak something." ;-)

9:39 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kathrynn! There's a letter of Emily Cowper's after the birth of her fifth child in which she says she is making a point of enjoying the baby because this will be her last child (underlined for emphasis). Emily was in her early 30s at the time and it was indeed her last child, despite the fact that she quite clearly did not cease her love affairs. So I'd infer she was doing something to prevent further pregnancies.

I like it when contraception is addressed in historical fiction, or if contraception isn't used at least the characters consider the risk of pregnancy. My mom and I wrote a Regency in which the radical novelist hero took the Silver Fork novelist heroine to a lecture on the use of sponges. Mélanie talks about using sponges in "Beneath a Silent Moon" and another character, Quen, reminds his former lover that they "went to rather uncomfortable lengths" to avoid getting pregnant during their affair.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Kathrynn, Emilie du Chatelet died several days after giving birth, and her daughter died not long after. Unfortunately, having an abortion back then was as risky as going through the pregnancy, otherwise, I think that Emilie might have attempted it. She had premonitions from the moment that she discovered that she was pregnant that she wouldn't live.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the nice words about my efforts, Kathrynn and Louisa. And I forgot to mention that my current heroine, besides using sponges, supplements them with what must have been an extremely widely used expedient -- prayer.

Interesting (if distressing) sidelight to the discussion: there was a version of the rhythm method current during Georgian times. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very good version, based on a wrong understanding of the mechanics of female fertility. Which (or so biographer William St. Clair speculates) is why we have Mary Shelley and lost her mother Mary Wollstonecraft (one of the saddest bargains in the history of English literature).

12:20 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Diana Gabaldon discusses birth control in several of her books. I'm thinking specifically right now of The Fiery Cross when Brianna wants to avoid pregnancy and Claire gives her some Native American herbal remedy.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I've read also that becoming pregnant above the age of 40 then was pretty much a death sentence for the woman, although I'm not sure why exactly. Rosalie Calvert, who lived in Maryland during the Federal era, thought that she'd entered the end of her childbearing years when she was in her late 30s, which seems very early for menopause. She also recommended separate bedchambers for birth control! She had nine pregnancies she carried to term, and five of those children survived to adulthood.

I think we have to remember that the solution of sexual activities other than intercourse is something that was very problematic for Georgian/Federal era couples (and possibly for romance couples too, who have to go the whole hog, so to speak). Sex without a fighting chance of conception was seen as a sin; hence the use of condoms to prevent disease and rarely to prevent conception. I believe Boswell did once, when he had an affair in Italy with a woman whose husband was absent for a long period of time, but it was a real moral crisis for him.

Most men's concept of birth control was to offer to support any resulting children...

Great post, Kathrynn.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Janet, I'm surprised about the over forty thing. Two of the late 18th century Lennox sisters (described in Stella Tillyard's "Aristocrats") had children well into their forties (past forty-five) and Fanny Burney had her first (and I think only) child in her early forties. My great-grandmother had kids in her forties, late in the 19th century (part of the reason, I think, why my mom didn't blink at having her first kid (me) in her early forties).

Offering to support any resulting children was probably giving more thought to the consequences than a lot of men did!

9:13 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I wonder if the over-forty thing was particularly felt by women who'd had lots of children already. Perhaps what saddens me most here (if one has to choose) is the sense of simply being used up. I think I remember, for example, that Jane Austen's mother was given to much complaining about her physical ills, rather to sharp-tongued Jane's annoyance. But after having given birth to eight children, who knows what stresses, exhaustions, and malfunctions Mrs. Austen's body was prey to? (Not to speak of constant financial pressures.)

7:09 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Think about what is must have been like for someone like Queen Anne who had so many pregnancies and only one child who managed to survive past the age of one, and then he died as well. I'm not sure why Emilie du Chatelet was so convinced that she was going to die, but she just had this premonition, perhaps because the love affair with Saint-Lambert was so fraught.

10:37 AM  

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