• What Contraception Meant to a Century of Women Writers

    Julie Philips on Reproductive Justice and the Great 20th-Century Mother-Writers

    I simply could not have existed, as I am, in any other preceding time or place. . . I could have been a professional writer at any period since the 17th century in Britain or in France. But I could not have combined this latter with a life as a sexually active woman until the introduction of contraception.

    Article continues below

    –Angela Carter

    In 1926, the year that the painter Alice Neel got married in Pennsylvania, effective contraception for women was still only a distant rumor emanating from New York City. Even if she could have obtained a diaphragm—but it was illegal then to send them, or even information about them, through the US mail—she went to live with her parents-in-law, where she lacked the privacy to use it. Neel once said, “In the beginning I didn’t want children. I just got them.”

    In France, where Ursula K. Le Guin got married in 1953, all forms of contraception were illegal. The new couple’s most valued wedding gift was a gross of US military-issue condoms, sent by a friend in the armed forces in Germany, with suggestive comments written all over the box. When Doris Lessing had a tubal ligation in 1948, securing for herself the sexual freedom she celebrated in The Golden Notebook, she was undergoing a new and controversial procedure.

    In New York in the 1930s, Grace Paley recalled that…

    Article continues below

    …we all knew that birth control existed, but we also knew it was impossible to get. You had to be older and married. You couldn’t get anything in drugstores, unless you were terribly sick and had to buy a diaphragm because your womb was falling out. The general embarrassment and misery around getting birth control were real.

    To paraphrase the novelist Jenny Offill, there is no writing apart from the body that writes. When I began writing about the lives of some 20th-century writers and artists who were also mothers, I was struck by the role of bodily autonomy in women’s creative lives. It’s not just money and a room of one’s own. The great 20th-century mother-writers and -artists whose work towers above us now—Lessing, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Susan Sontag, the list goes on—all owe their careers and lives to the right to reproductive health care.

    I was surprised—though I shouldn’t have been—to discover that a book on mothering was also about not-mothering. Yet the disaster of an unplanned pregnancy, for women born between 1900 and 1945, is a story that runs throughout my book. Of the women I’m writing about, almost all struggled for access to birth control. Several had at least one abortion. To have some control over the timing and material circumstances of pregnancy and child-rearing is essential to the practice of the mother-writer or mother-artist.

    Before the 20th century most contraception was ineffective (sponges, withdrawal), plus awkward and disgusting. (A typical practice was douching with a household cleaner such as Lysol). More reliable methods were expensive: when D.H. Lawrence lost his virginity in 1910 the packet of condoms cost him 5 shillings from his 40-shilling weekly salary as a teacher (convert that to $800 a week and the condoms would be $100). Even the rhythm method only became an option in 1929, when scientists discovered when ovulation occurs.

    The great 20th-century mother-writers and -artists whose work towers above us now—Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Louise Bourgeois, and so on—all owe their careers and lives to the right to reproductive health care.

    Before effective contraception, Shakespeare’s sister is the archetype, the young woman in Woolf’s story who goes to London full of talent and hope but ends up seduced, betrayed, throwing her pregnant body in the Thames to drown. For every woman writing at the kitchen table to support her family, like Harriet Beecher Stowe (seven children, penniless husband) or Margaret Oliphant (widowed, three living children of her own, three of her brother’s), who knows how many promising writers gave up when the physical, financial, or emotional demands of their children became too great?

    Article continues below

    Not having a sex life is for most women, including mothers, not an option. Twentieth-century women married for love, or out of economic dependence, or to leave home. They had affairs for the pleasure, joy, or risk of it, or for company and support without the stifling commitment of a marriage, or as a declaration of independence. The writer Naomi Mitchison thought that sex was “utterly important, it is fuel for the imagination, it puts brilliance and vigor into one’s vision.” Discovering the pleasures of lovemaking between women, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, “The orgasm focuses. I lust to write.”

    Not surprisingly, the careers of mother-writers first began to flourish in the 1920s, not coincidentally the decade that saw the first safe and effective birth control for women, the diaphragm and cervical cap, become more affordable and widely available. In the 1936 case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (the contraception debate was as absurd then as now), the US Court of Appeals ruled that contraceptives could be sent through the mails, paving the way for the full legalization of contraception in 1972. The invention of latex condoms in 1920 made prices drop. As usual, educated middle-class women obtained contraception more easily than poor women, but slowly women in Europe and America began gaining control over their fertility and their bodies. Mitchison publicly advocated the diaphragm for polyamorous relationships, saying it made love possible both in and outside of marriage.

    Still there were bars to contraceptive use—not only laws and lack of information, but social shame and lack of privacy. In her novel The Group, set in the 1930s, Mary McCarthy famously described the problems even for a wealthy young American of using a “pessary” or diaphragm. First her character is daunted by the expense, what with “the doctor’s fee, plus the price of the pessary and the jelly and the douche bag.” Then she must undergo a distressingly intimate fitting, after which she realizes she can’t take the equipment back to the hotel where she’s staying without awkward questions from her roommate. In her embarrassment and discomfort she abandons her new contraceptive kit under a bench in a public park.

    In Rhodesia in the late 1930s, Doris Lessing knew so little about her body as a teenager that she could hardly believe sex led to pregnancy. In her memoir Under My Skin she describes meeting a white South African couple who had come to Cape Town with their three small children so the wife could get fitted for a diaphragm. She was Lessing’s age, 21:

    She took out her new Dutch cap from its film of silky powder and said, “But look at it, just look, I can’t use that thing.” “But sweetheart, we’ve got to.” “Oh, heck, sweetheart, you mean I’ve got to.” “But when I use a french letter you just get pregnant.” “When you use a french letter, you mean.” And they fell into each other’s arms, laughing.

    Article continues below

    She was pregnant before she went home to Windhoek.

    Angela Carter, as a married woman of 21 in 1961, did use a cervical cap; in her diary she wrote with pleasure about making love with her husband but complained about the “obscene” stickiness and mess of the “plug,” the wiping of her fingers on her nightgown after use.

    Women had unintended pregnancies all the time. Le Guin’s Harvard boyfriend knew for a fact that under some circumstances a man didn’t need a condom. Susan Sontag married at not quite 18; through contraceptive failure, her husband got her pregnant within a year. Audre Lorde was 18, living on her own, slept with her boyfriend from her political action group so she wouldn’t feel so lonely; she never told him he’d gotten her pregnant.

    The most reliable form of birth control, though neither safe nor legal, was abortion. Sontag and Lorde had abortions. Paley had an abortion when she was married, pregnant for the third time, unwell, and “exhausted with these two tiny little kids; it was just about all I could do to take care of them. . . My whole idea in my heart had always been to have five, six children—I loved the idea of having children—but I knew I couldn’t have this kid.” Carter had a legal termination in England in 1973.

    Le Guin had an illegal abortion after her boyfriend, hearing she was pregnant, broke up with her on the spot. If she had gone through with the pregnancy, she would have been expelled from college, because the price for education for women in 1951 was the strict policing of their sexuality. She had been planning to teach and do research; she would have lost her ability to make a living, she wrote, “and do the work [I] knew it was [my] gift and [my] responsibility to do.” When she asked her father whether it was unethical to end the pregnancy, he spoke not of the limitations of her body but of the potential of her mind. An abortion, he told her, was far better than “sacrificing your training, your talent, and the children you will want to have” to bring an unwanted child into the world.

    Article continues below
    Then as now, the greatest obstacle to women’s control of their fertility was men’s desire to keep that control for themselves.

    Alice Walker, looking back on the illness, panic, and despair of her pregnancy in college, put the equation in the simplest possible terms: “It was me or it. One or the other of us was not going to survive.”

    Then as now, the greatest obstacle to women’s control of their fertility was men’s desire to keep that control for themselves. “What men frequently do when they want to manage and govern women,” Toni Morrison has commented, is to “focus on their babies—whether they’re having them or not having them. Reproductive organs become the focus.” Adrienne Rich wrote that “Women are controlled by lashing us to our bodies.”

    Doctors have been among the controllers, withholding information or treatment at women’s most vulnerable moments. In a maternity ward in 1952 after the birth of her second daughter, 11 months after the first, the artist Faith Ringgold asked her doctor to prescribe her a diaphragm. “He was reluctant even to consider this since I was only 22 years old and I did not have my husband’s permission,” she said. “I told him that I had birthed two babies in one year and that I did not need my husband to tell him that I would not have any more.”

    She got her contraception, but when Rich chose to have a tubal ligation in 1958, after giving birth to an unplanned third child, she had to present a letter, countersigned by her husband, to a committee of physicians who sat in judgment over her fitness for the procedure. In 1983, when Carter, not formally married, was expecting a much-wanted child with her partner, her woman doctor, in the middle of an exam, “pressed down on my belly so I couldn’t move and said, ‘Of course you’ve done absolutely the right thing by not having an abortion but now is the time to contemplate adoption.’”

    Carter’s close friend Lorna Sage, having gotten pregnant and then married at 16, asked the family doctor about contraception after the birth of her daughter. He refused even to speak of it, telling her,

    “Now that you’re married your husband will take care of that.” What he was saying. . .was that he wouldn’t aid and abet me in acquiring any control over my own fertility. In any case, he must have thought, I was now in all probability going to revert to white-trash type and have more babies, and in a way decorum demanded that I should; I was some sort of nymphomaniac, and mustn’t be allowed to have my cake and eat it.

    Then there were the romantics who regarded contraception as cynical, clinical, a barrier to the true expression of love. In the 1940s the Canadian-British writer Elizabeth Smart heard this line from her emotionally predatory poet lover, George Barker, and was persuaded, believing their sexual union could not be complete without the possibility that “Eternity” might “enter the bed.” Barker fathered four children with Smart plus at least eleven more, and contributed to the support of none of them.

    When the Pill was approved for use in the US in 1960 and the UK in 1961, some doctors feared that it would give women too much control. Thwarting maternal instinct, the Pill would keep a woman from having the children for which she unconsciously longed. In 1964, when Le Guin told her doctor she wanted a more reliable method to prevent another pregnancy, he asked her in surprised condescension, “What do you want, 100 percent certainty?”

    “I looked at him,” Le Guin relates, “and said, ‘of course.’ I didn’t say, ‘you asshole.’”

    Yet by that time Alice Walker was on the Pill, along with 6.5 million other American women in 1965. Birth control pills and, a few years later, the options of vasectomy and legal abortion gave women a control over their bodies and the hours of their day that is reflected in the greater numbers of women who are combining mothering and creative work.

    The morning-after pill is available now over the counter, but that wasn’t true when I was starting my own writing career. In 1990, when I phoned Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn the morning after a condom broke, the receptionist refused to help me and snapped at me when I pleaded with her. Only after I hung up did it dawn on me that her bluntness came from fear and frustration. Clinics were already under immense pressure and she wasn’t allowed to give me the information. One of my roommates gave me the number of an Upper East Side gynecologist, who slipped me the medication and falsified my bill.

    The fight for abortion rights is a fight not only for women’s bodily autonomy, but for their creative power.

    Beyond the right to abortion there are broader questions to consider of reproductive justice. This includes medical care: Neel’s infant daughter died partly because Neel and her husband had no money for a doctor. It includes safety: when Morrison’s sons were teenagers she felt “in constant dread for their lives, because they were targets everywhere.” It includes the right to parent a child: In 1962, after Sontag’s ex-husband discovered that she was in a relationship with a woman, he tried to use her sexuality as grounds to win custody of their son.

    It includes access to the resources to raise children and write. I’ve been able to work party because I live in the Netherlands, where daycare is subsidized, contraception and childbirth included in affordable insurance policies, where nurse’s aides come to your home for a week after the birth and well-baby care is free. The situation isn’t what it was: austerity budgeting has reduced resources for child care and schools. But raising my two children here has given me an idea of what it’s like to live in a system and a society that, at least to this extent, values women’s bodies and their work.

    In 1976 Adrienne Rich wrote, “We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world. . .sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy, will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.” The fight for abortion rights is a fight not only for women’s bodily needs, but for their creative power. To make the hard, lonely journey of the writer or artist requires ingenuity and persistence for any traveler, let alone one with children.

    It is the women who have had the authority to make that journey in their own time who have given their voice, gifts, work, and children to the world.

    Julie Phillips
    Julie Phillips
    Julie Phillips is the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. A biographer and critic fascinated by questions of gender and creative work, she has written for many publications including 4Columns, Lit Hub, and The New Yorker. The recipient of a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, she lives in Amsterdam with her partner and their two children.





    More Story
    On the Rise of European Populism In this episode of Keen On, Andrew talks to Catherine Fieschi, the founder and executive director of Counterpoint, a London-based...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

    x