Birth Control? Not So Much . . .
It’s really hard being a historical writer. We work for hours, sometimes years, learning as much as we can about the period we are writing in – from speech, to food, to dress, to religion, and on and on. Even then, there is always someone who knows more than you and things trip you up. When they are pointed out you cringe and make a vow to not do THAT again.
One of the easier things to get, however, are the social mores and constraints. These, in my opinion, are biggies. If you get a word inserted that’s not of the time period, or you do not perhaps call an article of clothing by its right name, only a few people will notice.
Get a social more or code wrong, and you’ve upended the entire story. You no longer have historical fiction, but some sort of new hybrid of fiction that forgets the basic underpinnings of how society worked in that particular time period.
Or so one would think. Apparently, a lot of people are not paying attention to social customs prior to the birth control pill. I am left shaking my head in wonderment at such a major faux pas.
First, a little history is in order. The birth control pill was first approved for contraceptive use in the United States in 1960 by the FDA, but the first pills were not available to married women in the US until 1965 after the case Griswold v. Connecticut. Interestingly, they were not available to unmarried women in all states until after Eisenstadt v Baird in 1972. Now in widespread use, along with other methods that have come along, it is the norm for women (and men) to manage the size of their families and have sex whenever they like without the consequence of having children (for the most part.)
This was NOT the case before 1972.
Now, invariably someone will point out that women had ways of controlling their families, and that is true. There have traditionally been herbs (Queen Anne’s Lace, pictured below, and yam’s root to name a few), as well as herbal concoctions that could bring on a woman’s courses. There were also other methods, but due to the graphic nature of their description, I will not mention those here. All I will say is there is nothing new under the sun, and many of those methods are forerunners of birth control used today.
The problem with all of these early methods of control, however, was the fact they were not reliable. (Actually, today’s methods are not totally reliable either.) As for the herbs, they had to be used fairly quickly. By the time a woman knew she was pregnant, generally six weeks to two months, perhaps even longer, it was too late for them to work. But they were available, and generally speaking, everyone knew of their use. (People in the past were much more versed than us in herbal medicines. It was, after all, all they had.) They were not, however, in widespread use, and men and women did not rely on them to prevent pregnancy as couples rely on birth control methods today.
And now you are probably scratching your head and asking – what does birth control have to do with historical fiction?
Historical fiction is defined as anything occurring before 1945 or so, with some now placing the 1950s in this category and others not. That means that all historical fiction should be taking into account the fact that women could become pregnant. Lately, I seem to read historical fiction (unless it is Christian/Inspirational) with women having sex at will with no thought given to a possible pregnancy. They never drink an herb to bring on their courses. They never fret about the idea a baby might have been conceived. They never worry about their reputation should they find themselves unmarried and pregnant.
I just want to shake my head, and lately I feel like screaming. The fact of the matter is, the idea of pregnancy was a huge deterrent to having sex outside of wedlock in the past. In fact, often times that threat alone kept any number of couples from falling into temptation. If couples did succumb, generally they were courting, which is fairly close to having agreed to a marriage.
Men, and especially women, did not sleep with multiple partners throughout their teen years or over a lifetime as many are in the habit of doing today. It just was not done, and the threat of pregnancy was the biggest reason. If a woman did sleep around, and especially if she became pregnant, she was considered loose and her reputation suffered greatly the rest of her life.
I would like to think that authors are just ignorant about such matters and/or give it little thought. Unfortunately, I think it is the opposite. I think, rather, that many authors shove the idea of unwanted pregnancies to the side in favor of stories that are more modern and sensual in order to keep readers engaged in their books. That’s fine, and those books sell, but I am not certain those works do not then become historical romance and not historical fiction, or even some subcategory that omits certain historical aspects that could change the plotting of the story.
After all, smut does sell. Unfortunately.
And here’s another tidbit I will close with. If the threat of pregnancy did not deter a man from sleeping with a woman, her father and brothers sure did. They were always waiting in the wings to avenge the lost virtue of their sister.
And that's an historical fact as well.