Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

By Fiona Veitch Smith, author of The Art Fiasco and other books, (see bottom of this page for more details)

In The Art Fiasco, the fifth in my 1920s murder mysteries, Poppy Denby encounters a number of women who have varying experiences of motherhood, sexual exploitation and sexual freedom. If readers look beyond the fun, fashion and mystery they will find an exploration of how access to contraception and dealing with the consequences of conception outside (and inside) marriage, impacted upon career opportunities for working and middle class women in the early 20th Century.

For thousands of years women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception. Environments that are either sharply acidic or alkaline are hostile to sperm and therefore these methods may have had some effect.

In 1885 the first commercial vaginal suppository using cocoa butter and quinine sulphate was developed by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist. This was later replaced by hydroquinine, a more potent spermicide, and sponges soaked in quinine sulphate. In 1906 Friedrich Merz developed the first known commercially produced spermicidal jelly, called Patentex. Female barrier methods became from the 1880s with the diaphragm and later the Dutch cap coming onto the market, and later in the early 1900s, female condoms became available. The male condom, in its various forms, had been around for millenia, but for the first time contraceptive choice was given to the female partner, leading, in no small way, to the increased emancipation of women by allowing them to control their own fertility.

So, who were the women using contraception in the 1910s and 20s, and where did they obtain it? Well, as they could only be purchased from certain pharmacies or prescribed at private clinics, they were primarily available to the middle and upper class. Free sexual health services were still a thing of the future. In The Cairo Brief,Poppy notes that her sexually free friend Delilah Marconi might very well have ended up at the home for unwed mothers that they visit in the course of their investigation, if it hadn’t have been for her contraceptive know-how and wealth. Of course, the barrier method still sometimes failed, but even then women with more wealth were able to make arrangements to travel away out of public view to disguise their pregnancy. Assuming they did not have an abortion. That was an option, with varying degrees of safety, illegally available to both middle-class and working-class women. But the more an abortionist could be paid, the better the chance of survival.

Issues of childcare were also class dependent. In the 1920s, career opportunities were opening for women, but many of them – even if they were educated well enough to qualify – were unable to pursue these paths due to childcare constraints. Who was going to look after the baby? Wealthier women could afford nannies. In The Cairo Brief we see a miner’s wife worrying how she is going to look after yet another baby. And then we see Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, a wealthy barrister (now married to Poppy’s editor Rollo), blithely managing to have twins and return to work.

The law, too, was also a barrier to career advancement with The Marriage Bar in place in certain professions, such as teaching, that legally required women to resign if they were to get married.

Societal convention, religious belief, social and domestic conservatism, unequal educational opportunities, male opposition and political legislation all had a role to play in limiting women’s career advancement, but access to contraception was pivotally important. The 1920s saw a rise in demands for better access to birth control and the first free clinics were opened by Marie Stopes. Stopes is more usually remembered as a provider of safe abortion (and her eugenicist views) but her main thrust at the beginning of her career was the provision of contraception to married women. In the next book in the series, as Poppy is contemplating the possibility of marriage and what it might mean to her career, these issues become vitally important. But that’s another story…

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com

4 thoughts on “Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

  1. Pam Lazos October 29, 2020 / 2:06 pm

    I am beside myself thinking about the havoc that the newest Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barret can now wreak on women’s rights here in the U.S. and I’m terrified for my girls, Mari. 😭

    Liked by 1 person

    • MariHoward October 29, 2020 / 8:14 pm

      It’s scary isn’t it – in your country but also in ours, people in power who want to (while still making economies ‘grow’ etc) destroy advances which give women a better deal than the hierarchy of the past. How old are your girls now? (Mine is 39, can’t believe it!!) There appears no hope for the world at this point: we all tremble at the thought of the election results…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pam Lazos October 29, 2020 / 9:11 pm

        There’s nothing but hope. My girls are 25 and 20 and the 25-year old said, “how exciting to live in a time that’s people are all fired up and really trying to make the world a better place.” The kids are going to fix the world we broke because there is no planet B, Mari. ❤️💕💗

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ged Cowburn October 29, 2020 / 2:51 pm

    My mother was born in 1908 and a devout Roman Catholic. Between 1934 and 1955, she had eight children. I can’t help thinking about her as I reflect on this .

    Liked by 1 person

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