Sunday, February 1, 2015

Let's Get Scientifical #1: Premarital Sex, Birth Control, & Childbirth in the 19th Century

Welcome to Unwritten's February blog event! Of course, this is the month of love, so I wanted to celebrate that theme as I've done in year's past. But this year, I've decided to add a scientific spin to it. All month long, talented authors from several genres will write about some aspect of love from their books as it relates to science. It could be social, psychological, biological, or anything in between. Our blog event is sponsored by "HMC by Kate", a fabulous independent jewelry crafter. Kate's giving away one of her very beautiful necklaces that I think fits our theme perfectly. She's also offering everyone who stops in a 10% discount on any item from her Etsy store. Be sure to enter the giveaway at the end of this post and check out her lovely offerings! Without further ado, please welcome our guest author:

Premarital Sex, Birth Control, & Childbirth in the 19th Century

by Mishael Austin Witty

When I decided to have Jane Cooper Addison give her virginity to her husband before marriage, I knew I was taking a risk. Jane was a product of the 19th century. As such, she would have been subject to Victorian mores. Besides that, her character is loosely based on one of my own ancestors (Jane Compton Austin), so I didn’t want to drag her (as far as I know) good name through the mud. But I needed a conflict between Jane and her father, and there was no greater conflict I could think of than that of her blatant disregard for his Victorian values and controlling nature.

The fact that Jane would even want to have sex with her husband before they were married goes against the social climate in which she lived. In the 19th century, women weren’t supposed to feel sexual desire. The ones who did were either extremely crazy or evil...and beliefs about mental health problems at the time would have made these two conditions about equal to each other. Since Jane’s father was a minister, this would have been particularly difficult for him to handle—“knowing” for a fact that his own daughter was irredeemably evil.

Still, it’s no stretch to believe Victorian women wouldn’t be all that interested in having sex—even with their husbands—since most birth control methods (which relied heavily on male withdrawal) were largely ineffective. As a result, many sexual encounters ended in pregnancies—some of which were terminated prematurely by midwives using herbal means to induce abortion. In the 1860s, about 30%  of all pregnancies ended in this way, and this was when the push to criminalize abortion began. Also at around this time, one out of every 200 women died in childbirth, and one has to wonder how many of these deaths were due to botched abortions (either legal or illegal).  

How many women felt trapped by their forced submission to this patriarchal society? Even the clothing styles—with the corsets and layers upon layers of petticoats—demonstrated the need for keeping women “in their place.” And their place was often in the bedroom—either on the bed performing her “marital duty” to her husband or delivering babies. The average woman in 19th century America gave birth to six children during her lifetime...and she often didn’t have access to pain management, except for chloroform, the use of which was limited due to the belief that women were destined to suffer the “curse of Eve” and should, therefore, not have the pain and trauma of childbirth lessened in any way.

I placed Jane Addison in this world, but I wanted her to be different. And she is. She’s stubborn and rebellious and determined to find her own way in life. Kind of like a Kentucky Scarlett O’Hara...except not quite as self-centered. I love Jane and her story, and I hope you will too.


Mishael Austin Witty is a professional editor and the internationally bestselling author of SHADOWS OF THINGS TO COME, a Christian thriller/suspense novel, BELIEVE IN ME, a sweet contemporary romance/women’s fiction novella, and SUN’S PARTING RAY, her first historical novel.

She has also published several short stories with Helping Hands Press: PROTECTING ZOE (Kathi Macias’s 12 Days of Christmas) and several entries in THE SAN FRANCISCO WEDDING PLANNER (a series written with five other authors).

She lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, three cats, and two daughters. Connect with her online in the following places:



This beautiful handmade necklace from HMC by KATE

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  1. A touch scary, but fascinating thank you.

  2. Definitely fascinating. It makes me happy to be a modern girl!

  3. Neat entry :) I think I read somewhere that up to forty percent of all first time pregnancies were born less than nine months after the marriage. I could see that as being one of the many reasons a 'shotgun' marriage got it's name, especially in rural or western areas of the day.

  4. ^One more thing, even though it's not from the Victorian era, I do have a 1915 medical and obstetrics book by Dr. Joseph DeLee (I think). Boy, even then, some of what women had to go though would have ran your blood cold...not to mention the drawings and pictures of malformed babies and birthing injuries :O


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