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Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America.

By Janet Farrell Brodie (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994. xviii plus 373pp.).

In recent years, studies of family limitation have moved away from the whiggish frameworks, rooted in modernization theory, that dominated the field in previous decades.(1) When earlier demographers, historical sociologists, and economic and social historians explained why American fertility rates dropped during the nineteenth century, they linked the decline to broad processes of economic, social and cultural modernization. These shifts were supposedly evident in improvements in contraceptive technology, the declining availability of arable land, the increasing difficulty of maintaining a family's status position in a market economy, and the rising costs of preparing children for adulthood. More recent historical scholarship has abandoned the quest of overarching generalizations and instead examined specific communities, focusing on changes in the family economy, the organization of production, and, especially, spousal relations.(2) These studies' conclusions vary widely, even in assessing the impact of shifting spousal relationships. Scholars disagree about whether family limitation was a product of growing spousal affection or of women's increasing assertiveness within the domestic sphere; whether it reflected a new image of women as frail, weak, and passionless figures or as active agents capable of exercising control over their lives and destinies) and whether the most widely used contraceptive methods required spousal cooperation.(3)

Few works, however, have directly addressed the issue of how knowledge about fertility control was diffused. Much of the scholarship takes it for granted that "folk" methods were sufficient to reduce births and that a new "modern" outlook--emphasizing calculation, planning, rationality, and foresight--reinforced married couples' ability to control births. Yet as Lee Rainwater and Karen Kane Weinstein showed in . . . And the Poor Get Children, their classic study of the psycho-social and religious factors that inhibited the adoption of effective birth control techniques in working-class families in the late 1950s, any compelling explanation of fertility control must explain how couples acquire accurate information about contraception and how such techniques become culturally acceptable and psychologically available.(4)

In her important contribution to feminist history and theory, Janice Farrell Brodie shifts the study of fertility decline in precisely this direction by asking how Americans got birth control products and reamed to use them. Through the judicious use of druggists' catalogs, patent records, advertisements, vice society publications, business manuscripts, and gynecological advice literature, she charts the gradual, uneven diffusion of knowledge about reliable contraceptive techniques and devices. She introduces readers to a host of little-known gynecologists, medical sectarians, free thinkers, water curists, itinerant lecturers, book publishers, and contraceptive goods manufacturers who disseminated information about reproduction, female anatomy, and contraception between 1830 and 1880.

The result is a work that will radically reshape the debate over what motivated women and men to limit the size of their families, by shifting attention toward discourse, language, and information networks. The book begins by examining the diaries of Mary Pierce Poor, a Unitarian reformer and wife of a Northeastern lumber speculator and railroad promoter, which provide a rare record of the sexual life of a Victorian couple and their attempts to limit family size. Brodie adroitly shows how Poor tried to limit births in response to concerns about family finances, childbirth, and her children's health by concentrating sexual activity during what she considered the safe period (days 9 through 15 of the menstral cycle), and perhaps by using vaginal douches and delaying weaning.

While not arguing that Poor's behavior was typical in a statistical sense, Brodie does contend that public knowledge about pregnancy prevention was radically transformed beginning in the 1830s. Especially after 1850, public lectures, marriage guides, medical books, and newspaper advertisements for contraceptive and abortion-inducing services and products spread physiological, anatomical, and contraceptive information and sparked bitter public controversy. Unlike the English debate on birth control which was motivated by Malthusian fears and focused on the working class and the unmarried, public discussion in the United States focused on married middle-class women, was increasingly targeted at a female audience, and emphasized women's health as the primary rationale for preventing pregnancy.

The volume not only contains a wealth of information about nineteenth' century reproduction products--condoms, douches, vaginal pessaries and sponges, spermicidal preparations, abortifacients, and early varieties of the diaphragm--and marketing networks, it also examines the cultural backlash that arose in response to the commercialization of reproductive technology. Like James Mohr, Brodie emphasizes the role of regularly-trained physicians in the movement to criminalize abortion and restrict the sale of contraceptives and dissemination of birth control information.(5) Brodies concludes that the postbellum social purity movement had lasting effects on the dissemination of birth control information, markedly reducing the number and quality of contraceptive advice publications and decreasing the variety of distribution channels.

Ideal for use in women's and family history courses, this book is a major contribution to our understanding of the diffusion of knowledge about birth control in nineteenth-century America.


(1.) For an excellent critique of modernization as an explanation of fertility decline, see Karl Ittmann, "Demography and Working-Class History Challenging the Modernization Model," International for and Working Class History 39 (1991) 49-60.

(2.) Recent studies that address the causes of nineteenth-century fertility decline in specific communities include John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek Lik on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven, 1986), 205-206, Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bond: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven, 1986), 28; Nancy Grey Osterud, Bonds of Community The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca, 1991) 72-80, Mark Stem, Society and Family Strategy Erie County, New York, 1850-1920 (Albany, 1987).

(3.) For differing interpretations of the relationship between changing spousal relationships and declining fertility rates, see Jan Lewis and Kenneth A. Lockridge, "'Sally Has Been Sick' Pregnancy and Family Limitation Among Virginia Gentry Women, 1730 1780," Journal of Social History 22 ( 1988) 5-19; Daniel Scott Smith, "Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America," in Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner, eds., Clio's Consciousness Raised (New York, 1974), 130-132; Carl N. Degler, At Odds Women and the Family in America (New York, 1980), 178-226.

(4.) Lee Rainwater and Karol Kane Weinstein, . . . And the Poor Get Children (New York, 1960).

(5.) James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy (New York, 1978).
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Author:Mintz, Steven
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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