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

Bringing smiles to the child refugees held in a toilet paper factory: guest post by Paul Alkazraji, author of ‘The Migrant’

The Migrant – a road adventure tale first caught my attention with its exciting cover, promising a step away from my usual kind of reading, along with entering the world of South Eastern Europe (and I do have a few Greek genes myself). It turned out to be a road trip story, set with danger …  the author, fellow writer Paul Alkazraji, now lives and works in Albania, and writes below about visiting Greek camps where very many Syrian refugee families are living. I’ve followed that up with my review of this fast-paced novel, which takes place in Albania and Athens … Paul Alkazraji in Greece

First, welcome, Paul, and over to you…

As the ‘Migrant Crisis’ began to develop in Greece in 2015, I felt that we in the church in Albania might be able to do something to help the situation. One of the worst trouble spots, Idomeni Camp at the border of Greece and North Macedonia on the ‘Balkan Route’, was only a three-hour drive away.59640223_2322937934467593_8557672743292633088_o

On our two visits there we loaded my old Mercedes Benz 240d with water, plastic sheeting, tinned food and basic medical supplies, and gave them to the groups of volunteers and NGO’s who were arriving too. Up to 10,000 migrants would become stuck in the muddy fields and along the railway lines in makeshift shelters and tents. Frustration would eventually erupt and some died there.

Later in 2016, I visited the ‘Softex’ camp on the industrial periphery of Thessaloniki where over a thousand mostly Syrians had been hastily accommodated after the camp at Idomeni was closed in May. It was one of many where some 57,000 refugees were held in official government camps throughout Greece after new border fences were built and the Balkan migration route closed.

Teams from our group of Albanian churches had been making weekly runs since the spring to bring children’s activities including face painting, action games and a bouncy castle. They also bagged up and distributed fresh vegetables tent by tent up to 600 portions a day.   

Many of those tents were erected inside the former ‘Softex’ toilet paper factory to provide additional shelter from the not-too-distant winter. In the gloomy darkness children pushed each other around in rickety prams and played with broken bricks. There were makeshift street stalls, coffee shops and flat-bread bakers, and it had all the aromas both sweet and foul of a Damascus souk.Softex Camp

“When we first came here, I saw they were living in bad conditions, and if you’d asked me to enter, I would not,” said one church team member Klaus Kalemi. “But I did because I wanted to help. I think that all of them were hoping for a better future, because I saw the writing on the walls here everywhere.”

I met one small boy, Mohamed, from Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria, there with his parents, two sisters and four brothers. “We came at night in a boat. It had a motor and there were no waves. In the morning we were in Greece. I did not see any fish,” he said.

Syrian refugee child and Paul Alkazraji.“One of the most needed things in the camp is something for the children,” said church team leader Lysiena Topi. “You can see them fighting because they don’t have anything to do. When we went in, at first the managers would say to us, ‘Okay you can try!’ But after we had finished the (activities), they would say, ‘We don’t know how you do it. These kids love you!’ We see the smiles in their eyes…”

My review of The Migrant …60168837_2218491378245051_9168583930788446208_o

Here’s a thoroughly enjoyable, page turning, adventure read. Even though I don’t usually choose books in this genre, I was caught up by the story from page one. The fast paced road trip was vividly described, and the characters believable. This is a story of youngsters who disappear from their village, attempting to climb out of rural poverty, their hope to find work in another country.  There they find themselves in the clutches of criminals and traffickers.  As pastor Jude, the ex-criminal Mehmed, and policeman Luan drove hell for leather from Albania to Athens in a borrowed car, we are with them in all the thrills and spills, their mission to find out what has happened to Alban, and Kela, from their village. 59729418_2322937701134283_6893805191666073600_oDescriptions of the landscape and of daily life in Albania, and of Athens in the riots created by the austerity program in 2012, form the backdrop to their desperate journey, their fears, and the conflicts between them.

?border crossing Albania?We are catapulted into an ending which is both believable and redemptive, though not for all the characters, and certainly not for every hopeful young adult who starts the journey. It could be repeated in many countries of our world, and should be told.

When beginning the book I had not known that there was a prequel novel, involving the characters of the pastor Jude and his wife Alex, and how Mehmed’s former life was changed. When I discovered this, it helped me understand their situation and relationship. I feel that some of that story could have usefully been introduced near the start of The Migrant, and would’ve explained some literary references!

My other critical thought is that a bit more ‘content editing’ could have made for a clearer and more smooth flowing text. In such a fast paced novel, this would have transformed a good reading experience into a very good one.

Recommended to take as a companion on a long journey: you will be transported from your plane or train!

The Migrant was published by Instant Apostle in February 2019

Links: Chapter 1 of The Migrant is free to read here

Or on Goodreads  Or Amazon:Amazon

Paul is on Twitter @paul_alkazraji