THE STATE OF PREGNANCY AND THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN 18TH CENTURY BRITISH SOCIETY

The relationship we have with the body its image and representation has varied through times along with cultural scientific and philosophical evolutions. Today we have specific expectations over what is the proper way to behave stand, talk, dress and look just as 18th century people did. Whether male or female our 21th century perception of the body is cultural.  In other words it evolves with time and consequently with space. Studying the History of the Body in 18th century Britain allowed me to apprehend how a part of our contemporary perception of the body ensued from the perception people had in 18th century. Even if three hundred years separate us from them; I found myself able to understand them better as well as the world we are living in. I chose to focus my essay on pregnancy in 18th century Britain. The first question that crossed my mind was how it felt to be pregnant in the century of Enlightenment. Did pregnant women take advantage of this profusion of new advanced knowledge in science, philosophy, arts, politics, and so on and so forth? In 18th century, women had only a little part to play in society. The low literacy rate of women was both a cause and a consequence of it. Men being more literate than women were it devised and created a hierarchy in British society. Women only had a narrowed place in public life since they did not have the right to vote. However women found a place in the labour market they worked in cottage industry; two third of the women of Cardington in Bedfordshire worked as spinners or lace makers in 1782.  In times of economic struggle they were sent back home which shows how vulnerable they were. Moreover, their low wages did not allow them to access independence therefore being dependent on men through marriage and forced to be a part of a family unit to access security. Yet the law recognized a greater part to women in England compared to other European countries while it permitted them to own land separately from their husband. Apart from women from higher classes, women were free to court and marry whom they pleased since arranged matrimonies were not the norm. It is clear that any social improvement gained by women was acquired under the strong domination of men, as a consequence women’s role in society even if “central to so many aspects of economic life” was “confined to the margins”(1).

1

    Sculpture Model of a pregnant woman 18th century

Sources that only deal with the state of pregnancy are difficult to come across. To fulfil my study I found primary and secondary sources that helped me to better understand what is was to be pregnant in 18th century Britain. Knowing that women did not have a secured role in the British society I found it interesting to try and show how the elementary and natural act of pregnancy in a way granted them a part to play in society.  In the article “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century” by E. A. Wrigley and the book Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785 I learned that medicine wondered and evolved around pregnant women and their state of pregnancy to secure the life of both the mother and the unborn child. In the articles “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy Myths and Realities 1790-1840” by Judith Schneid Lewis and “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England” by Linda A. Pollock I learned how the state of pregnancy permitted women to create a female bond and a social group that pressed with all its weigh in the British society. And finally in the article “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster” by Nicholas Rogers I learned how society organized around illegitimate pregnancies and how the rise of illegitimacy can be a sign of a sexual “revolution” for women.

In this context we can ask ourselves how the state of pregnancy did allow women to play a part in 18th century British society. The evolution of medicine and medical research on the state of pregnancy shows how pregnancy was not only considered to be natural anymore but as a “disease” with its cure and symptoms therefore recognizing women the credit they were due, this will be my first part. In addition to this idea the state of pregnancy allowed women to create a strong bond similar to “sisterhood” and exist as a solid social group in the British society, this will be my second part. Finally the British society organized to deal with the problem of illegitimacy in order to make sure that the weight of “bastards” would not be on the community; this shows how society handled illegitimate pregnancies therefore recognizing the right and existence of women in that situation and giving them recourse to ask the father to contribute financially to the unborn child’s life; moreover it can be the sign of a sexual “revolution” for women.

Medicine evolved and stopped considering pregnancy as a natural thing and started to envision it as a “disease” with symptoms and cure. This very realization meant that women were recognized the right to be granted medical care and attention as well as the recognition of pregnancy as something which does not only concerns women but the entire society.

In the 18th century we can note a rise of the fertility rate partly due to improvements of nutrition, and the shortening of the interval between births (2). Medical treatises explaining the way to cure the troubles of pregnancy were published. For example William Buchan gives a proper diet to pregnant women and advises them to eat less of the most nourishing aliments, and do some exercise (3). He also explains the symptoms of pregnancy like heart burn, morning sicknesses, headaches or toothache, incontinency of urine, difficulty of breathing. To cure those symptoms he advises to eat prunes, figs, roasted apples and if the pain is too strong he recommends the use of bleeding. He offers a routine to secure the pregnancy advises pregnant ladies to wake up early and go to bed early (4). Moreover he explains that the mother to be has to be kept calm and comforted. Buchan sets some rules that can ease the troubles of pregnancy, secure the health of both the child and the mother in order to carry the pregnancy to the term (5). Medicine takes a real interest in pregnancy and starts to value the state of pregnancy not as a real disease but as something which deserves medical care and attention. This is the sign of the recognition that pregnant women undergo a real process which put their lives and their children in danger. The common belief ensued from customs and religion that the state of pregnancy is a natural original process is overcome. Women get the credit they deserve for being pregnant thanks to the newly medical interest in them. This is a sign of the recognition of their identity as women by the society.

2

1)     Woman’s jacket, maternity, quilted white cotton Jacket belonging to three-piece maternity ensemble of quilted white cotton with thin cotton wadding and coarse cotton backing. Jacket is tight fitting with center lacing; cut short in front allowing points of vest to extend below natural waistline. Untrimmed low neckline. Back of jacket is shaped to fit closely, then flared into full pleated and gathered peplum ‘skirt,’ ending with deep point at center back waist. Long fitted sleeves have vent at wrist, each closed with three linen covered buttons. Trimmed with 3/4″ looped linen fringe. Jacket designed to be laced over under vest, which expands waistline to accommodate pregnancy. Women had clothes dedicated to pregnancy to ease their ordinary life while pregnant. This shows how women tried to find ways to handle the state of pregnancy and make it easier to go through.

3

     Woman’s under waistcoat for maternity Under vest belonging to three-piece ensemble of quilted white cotton with thin cotton wadding and coarse cotton backing. Under waistcoat is sleeveless with high neckline. Open, straight front extends to shaped points below natural waist. Only front panels and back shoulder area are quilted in diamond pattern; lower back panel is plain cotton with worked eyelets to adjust size. Seams turned out. Garment is intended to wear under jacket to fill in enlarging waistline of pregnancy.

The role of women in 18th century British society was little as we already said. Women were wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers in a patriarchal society where men imposed their domination firmly (6). The British upper-class contributed largely to creation of a “cult of domesticity” (7) placing the women at the heart of the household. This common rule affected the way men and women interacted with each other. Some historians consider the implication of male doctors in pregnancy as a theft of women most fundamental experience (8). Male doctors conveyed male “chauvinism” (9) of the British society. Some even argue that the medical implication in pregnancy attacked the trust women had in their ability to be pregnant and to be mothers (10). Some doctors accused the way of living of upper class women as incompatible with the state of pregnancy. Many books and treatises led upper-class women to believe in this idea that they were less capable to become pregnant and carry a child than less advantaged women (11).

Pregnancy was managed by women themselves as a “collective female ritual”(12) nourished with solidarity and sisterhood. Medical recipe books were often written by women and transmitted from generations to generations, the idea of sharing the experience was quite important even if the relationship between women cannot be idealized. Women supported themselves emotionality and technically as part of the same group. It created a female bond, a link between them which strengthened the existence of a social group of women (13).  This is the creation of a “female culture” and identity in the British society. They organize themselves support help and transmit the knowledge they have. The solidarity was preeminent their bond permitted them to interact with one another in a social group. Thanks to this solidarity they exist as a group in a society which neglected their participation to public life (14).

Until 17th century illegitimacy was consider improper. Sexual intercourses were admitted between married men and women. The Poor Law Act of 1576 and 1610 punished the parents of illegitimate children because they were not able to support their children therefore obliging the community to support the price. Local authorities refused to take charge of the illegitimate pregnancies. In 18th century however there was a rise of illegitimacy pregnancies directly resulted from the rise of pre-nuptial pregnancies and sexual intercourses. Industrialization and urbanization can be seen as some of the causes of this major switch in morality and sexual behaviours. It favored the rise of illicit sexual activities between journeyman in tailoring or carpentry and shoemaking and single women. Some historians argued that this is the sign of a sexual “revolution”. 80 to 95% of women who were pregnant with illegitimate children were single, some of them were widows. Some were maids or housemaids employed in inns, taverns, shops or modest households. Most of these women lived in London for a long time before they got pregnant with an illegitimate child. The common image of a lonely country girl coming to the big city and gets pregnant within the months following her arrival is a myth; most single women engaged themselves in sexual relationships after they had found a job. They were women who supported themselves and had worked in the city for several years before they became pregnant with an illegitimate child Most single women entered sexual relationships after, and sometimes well after, their entry into the service economy”(15). Most of these illicit unions happened in households or neighborhoods “Margaret Hind, the servant to a victualler in Portugal Street, testified that she entered a sexual relationship with an esquire’s servant in nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields whom she met “by carrying Beer” to his master’s house. Mary Evans, on the other hand, became pregnant by a footman who lodged at her parents; while Frances Hutcheson met her lover through her uncle with whom she lived near Temple Gate. He was a journeyman to her uncle’s resident landlord”. Here is the idea of a sexual “revolution” we need to use this concept wisely but it is clear that those women were a part of a generation which did not  envisioned marriage as the only solution to find security. Those women had a job they were independent and it seems like they almost decided when they had children and most importantly with whom. In 1733 an act toughened the laws against men responsible of illegitimate pregnancies women who got pregnant were granted the right to demand money to the man whom they were having a child from. By this mean women pregnant outside of marriage were granted protection. The society recognized their vulnerability as women and offered them the protection they needed. Single women had rights and could almost act on an equal foot with men. Single women pregnant with illegitimate child had a place in society; the law admitted their existence and offered them protection. Even if the main goal was to avoid the community to pay for the illegitimate unborn child it is undeniable that the growing number of illegitimate pregnancies and sexual intercourses outside of marriage shows a slipping of morals and a sexual and social liberation for women.

4

      Petticoat, maternity, quilted white cotton 1780-1795 England Petticoat belonging to a three-piece maternity gown of quilted white cotton. Full quilted skirt is gathered to waistband, fastening with tape ties at pocket slits on hips. Quilting is done in ground pattern of small diamond lozenges with border around hem and on each side of center front seam showing compartments formed by undulating floral bands. Thin cotton batting and coarse backing. Made from an old bed quilt.

Women had but a narrow place in 18th century British society. Men were dominant and strongly affirmed their domination over women. However pregnancy offered women exclusivity something they had for themselves aside from men. Medicine research studied pregnancies and elevated it to the range of medical matter therefore recognizing the act performed by women as important unique and essential. Pregnancy now had its cure and symptoms. Around this fundamental experience women gathered and organized themselves forming a social group with tight link of sisterhood. Pregnant women formed a social group in a society that did not give them any credit since pregnancy was considered natural and originally attributed to women. I cannot say that women obtained a social position and identity thanks to pregnancy. But it is undeniable that pregnancy allowed women to realize that they belonged to a group which society could not ignore anymore. Indeed society had no choice but to admit that women existed and belonged to it when the loosening of moral values and therefore growing number of illicit sexual intercourses resulted in a rise of illegitimacy pregnancies.

6

    A courtroom scene with a judge, a pregnant woman, a guilty looking man and an angry wife. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth. In this image a young woman comes to court to force the father of her illegitimate unborn child to recognize the existence of his child. This shows the emergence of illegitimate pregnancies and how society recognized women the right to protect themselves against illegitimacy. 

(1)  Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of BritishStudies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (Edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies, 436-466, 450

(2)  E.Wrigley,  “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century”, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), (edited by Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society Table), 435-464.

(3)  Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785 ,530-532

(4)  Ibid

(5)  Ibid

(6)  Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies), 436-466, 448.

(7)  Judith Schneid, “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy: Myths and Realities 1790-1840”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), (Edited by : Oxford University PressStable), 97-114,  97.

(8)  Ibid.

(9)  ibid.

(10)                 ibid.

(11)                 ibid 98.

(12)                  Linda A. Pollock, “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England, Social History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Oct., 1997), (Edited by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd), 286-306, 289.

(13)                  Ibid.

(14)                 Ibid 288.

(15)                  Nicholas Rogers, “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster, Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989), (Edited by: Oxford University PressStable), 355-375, 358.

Bibliography

Nicholas Rogers, “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster, Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989), (Edited by: Oxford University PressStable), 355-375.

Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785, 530-532

Linda A. Pollock, “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England, Social History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Oct., 1997), (Edited by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd), 286-306.

Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies), 436-466.

Judith Schneid, “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy: Myths and Realities 1790-1840”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), (Edited by : Oxford University PressStable), 97-114.

 

E. A. Wrigley,  “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century”, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), (edited by Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society Table), 435-464.

 

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