WARNING: In this article I will mention from time to time the common names of plants used as abortificants. These medicines can be very dangerous and I cite them as historical information only. Modern chemical and barrier contraceptives are far more effective and much safer. If you suspect you are pregnant and do not wish the embryo to develop, or if you wish to enjoy a sexual relationship andavoid pregnancy consult a qualified doctor or birth control clinic. If for any reason you cannot use modern contraceptives and wish to find out more about natural birth control, please consult a trained herbalist, preferrably one who has a recognised qualification in conventional medicine. Any attempt to treat yourself is likely to have very serious consequences.
If you have not read earlier parts of this series, use the links below to go back
Part 1: Cavewomen and Contraception
Part 2: Bronze Age Birth Control.
Part 3: Witchcraft: The Burning Issue.
Out Of The Darkness
The era known as the Enlightenment was not all sweetness and light for women who wanted to control their reproductive process. It also brought several outbreaks of religious fanaticism.
While the ideas of those who rejected religion in favour of reason seemed to offer hope of reviving the old skills of the wise women and village healers and refining them by bringing a more ordered and scientific approach to investigation and the recording of information, any progress that might have been made was nullified by the Industrial Revolution. The almost simultaneous mechanisations of agriculture and industry drove peasants off the land and away from the villages their families had lived in for generations while the mechanisation of industry and urbanisation of areas around the centres of industry removed those who still had the skills to use herbs for birth control from the source materials of their trade.
Not only was it hard to find tansy, pennyroyal, wormwood and rue in the close packed streets of the towns, it had become an offence punishable by transportation to the colonies to walk into the country, find a stretch of woodland and gather the plants. Every blade of grass was owned by somebody.
New religious groups were growing at this time too, among them the freethinking Moravians and the almost pagan Unitarians. These preached equal rights, not just on grounds of colour though both were totally opposed to slavery, but on grounds of gender too. The upstart churches, denounced as unchristian by mainstream religions won favour among the liberal minded bourgeoisie but many factory owners preferred the mainstream denominations or the more extreme versions of Pentecostalism for purely pragmatic reasons. The traditional patriarchal god, angry and implacable fitted nicely with the idea of the all powerful boss who controlled not only his workers livelihoods but their lives.
Though the rift between protestant and catholic churches had never been wider, one thing they remained united on was the vilification of women. The she-demon, temptress, the one whose sin in eating from the tree of knowledge had been punished by the monthly "curse," was still central to the doctrine of the major churches of the western world.
It was not "the monthlies" that truly cursed womanise' lives though, but the dogmas of male dominated churches and the ruthless greed of the men who controlled society.
Sewers and Socialism
In all pre-Christian societies from India to Ireland and even in the cities of the Mayan civilisation in Mexico and central America there is archaeological evidence of sewerage systems to take away the human waste to cesspits.
One would expect then that London, capital city of the world's greatest trading nation and the centre of a rapidly expanding empire that would soon dwarf the territories of Rome would, after twelve hundred years of Christianity have come up with a system of disposing of sewage more efficient than simply throwing it in the street. Novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding in his diary for 1750 wrote that because of the insanitary conditions in the streets three quarters of all children born in the city did not survive to their fifth birthday.
Progress under the patriarchal regimes then had moved from not caring about women's' physical health to disregarding their feelings to.
There was no bereavement counselling in those days, no social worker to offer any kind of cold comfort to women who had to watch child after child succumb to disease or malnutrition, only some tight - lipped and compassionless pastor piously intoning about accepting "the will of God."
Despite the warnings of Fielding and others the situation did not get better but worse. The Industrial Revolution had just begun when his complaint was written; as towns like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds and Birmingham grew into cities, the overcrowded and filthy conditions exacerbated the hardships of poverty for millions more.
The influence of the liberated minds of humanists, Unitarians, Methodists and Moravians was working insidiously against the patriarchy though. Liberal writers began to argue for state education until the age of eleven, propose that the labouring classes organise into trade unions and friendly societies to offer mutual support in times of hardship. Intellectuals in Britain, Germany, France and The Netherlands resuscitated the ideals of equality. Inevitably these radicals turned their attention to women's' rights and eventually the right of women to control their reproductive process.
Nothing much changed initially, men were still firmly in control despite the work of female writers such as Mary Woolstonecraft, a friend and supporter of Tom Paine whose book The Rights of Man inspired several of the instigators of the American War of Independence.
Woolstonecraft, like Paine, campaigned in her writing for the education and politicisation of the working class, going as far as to open a school with the aim of proving girls could achieve as much in education as boys. She was also very vociferous in the cause of female emancipation because in those days throughout Europe and in the American colonies a woman was still the property of her father, guardian or husband.
While the radicalisation of the bourgeois middle class was fomenting such revolutionary thinking the march of capitalism in the industrial areas seemed unstoppable. As capitalists grew stronger so the lot of the poor worsened. Social reformers were starting to notice a correlation between poverty and uncontrolled breeding though.
Mary Woolstonecraft was a pioneer, though like many pioneers she achieved little in her lifetime her contribution was vital in the way it inspired others.
One of the people it inspired several decades later was the young George Bernard Shaw. In an early work addressed to the factory and mine owners he wrote, "Your slaves breed like rabbits, their poverty breeds filth, ugliness, dishonesty, disease, obscenity, drunkenness and violence. In the midst of the riches they pile up for you their misery grows."
Into the mess that was industrial society strode one of the most remarkable women of her era, Annie Besant.
The daughter of a wealthy middle class Irish family and estranged wife of a country preacher, Annie had rebelled against the lot of women and decided to make her own way in the world. She had been shocked and disgusted by the poverty and ignorance she had witnessed among her husband's parishioners and the damage done by repeated pregnancies and overlarge families. Was it the will of God she asked her church leaders, that while wealthy women such as herself had access to knowledge of birth control, the poor were condemned to this extra suffering as if poverty was not hard enough to bear? The Calvinist doctrine that worldly wealth indicated one was favoured by God, while the poor suffered because of the impurity of their souls was still popular at the time and Mrs. Besant did not win many friends. She did win some though.
When a British social reformer and radical politician Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant joined forces and published their work euphemistically titled The Fruits of Philosophy, which contained little about the thoughts of Plato and Socrates but was full of practical information on family planning and birth control, society egged on by church leaders and pious politicians, was scandalised.
Besant and Bradlaugh were brought to trial on charges of publishing obscene material and corrupting public morals. Even though both were sentenced to six months in prison it was a good result for them. They had courted prosecution and used the trial to shamelessly promote their publication.
All publicity is good publicity, The Fruits of Philosophy was widely circulated and knowledge of how to calculate the days of ovulation and avoid intercourse, use herbal preparations such as the old favourite Tansy and Pennyroyal to rectify the situation after a missed period and to use a small sponge attached to a length of silk ribbon and soaked in brine as a surprisingly effective combined barrier and spermicide spread throughout the working class communities.
Now poor women in towns had the knowledge the rich and countrywomen who still passed on the old knowledge from mother to daughter had always benefited from. There was only one enemy left to deal with, The Church.
The male spirit is nothing if not vengeful and Annie Besant was to pay a greater price than prison for her rebellion. The estranged husband who already had custody of their son now went to court to have Annie declared an unfit mother and gain custody of her daughter also.
After a period of depression she returned to her reforming work and joined a socialist group, The Fabian Society, which campaigned for social justice, and also continued to campaign on behalf of poor women, touring America and Europe to spread knowledge of birth control.
Later in life Annie Besant became spiritual, joining the Theosophist Church of Mme. Helena Blavatsky and publishing several works of her own on Theosophy.
(Not related to this article but is an interesting aside, the Wikipedia page for Annie Besant features a lot about her later enthusiasm but no detail on her much more important campaigning on Birth control and women's rights. The paragraphs dealing with that aspect of her life had very obviously been removed. I already had that information in history books and had only wanted to provide a link. The malicious edit shows the determination even now of some groups to suppress all information about Birth Control.)
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Annie Besant because what she did for women improved the quality of life for everybody
At the height of Annie Besant's notoriety, in Corning, New York, a woman who would pick up and pass on the torch came into the world. Margaret Sanger was born into a devout Roman Catholic family, her mother went through eighteen pregnancies (with eleven live births.) Sanger was sixth of the eleven children and spent much of her childhood helping in the house and caring for younger siblings.
Having been radicalised while working as a nurse in the slums of New York, she began writing a column for the New York Call titled What Every Girl Should Know which featured advice on personal health matters, sex and birth control in fact it was she who coined the phrase "birth control." Sanger became even more an activist after separating from her husband, launching a monthly newsletter on contraception and family planning. Its title was The Female Rebel and the slogan it adopted was "No Gods, No Masters." she spread the message that "every woman should be the mistress of her own body."
That got her indicted for sending obscene material through the post.
She escaped to Europe, only returning when she felt safe from religious persecution. On her return Sanger opened birth control clinics and wrote incessantly of the link between the suppression of birth control and the poverty and squalor of the poor. She became a thorn in the side of the establishment, which as ever in the US was much influenced by extreme religionists. She died in 1966 after living long enough to promote the contraceptive pill.
In Britain Marie Stopes, born a year after Sanger, followed an almost identical career path to the New Yorker, although from a more privileged background. Her father Henry was a highly regarded scientist whilst her mother Charlotte was the first woman to gain entry to a Scottish University. Despite her academic ability Charlotte was not awarded a degree but a certificate although she had passed the same examinations as male students.
Charlotte's experiences at University turned her into a passionate feminist and campaigner for women's rights, a political stance she instilled into her daughter.
Marie inherited a talent for scientific work from both her parents and won a scholarship to University College of London in 1901.
There she achieved a double first in Botany and went on to earn a Doctorate of Science (now known as a PhD) in 1905, making her Britain's youngest Doctor of Science.
While she was a student Marie was active in the Suffragettes and was as passionate about women's rights as she was about science. She married in 1911 but found her husband held traditional views about how married women should behave. They divorced after five years.
One of the contributory factors to the break-up was Marie's writing a book on the marital relationship, arguing that marriage should be an equal partnership between man and woman.
Though initially rejected by publishers the book, Married Love, was accepted by a small publishing house owned by a socialist family and was an instant success.
When Married Love was published in the U.S.A. the courts immediately declared it obscene and banned it.
The next book from Stopes, inspired by her meeting Margaret Sanger in London after Sanger had fled America to escape prosecution, was about birth control and abortion. It was themed on the Sanger's slogan that "no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body,"
In 1918 Marie Stopes book Wise Parenthood angered leaders of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and also most non conformist churches. There were calls for her imprisonment for corrupting public morals, the same offence as Besant and her collaborator Charles Bradlaugh had been jailed for.
Allying her scientific background and social connections to the nursing skills of Margaret Sanger though made Marie Stopes a more formidable opponent than Besant had been. Though church leaders railed and reminded the judiciary that all forms of contraception were equally abhorrent in the eyes of God no prosecution was brought and in 1921 Marie Stopes, backed by her wealthy second husband, founded a charity that still runs the Marie Stopes clinics which offer advice, counselling and free contraceptives in all major towns in Britain.
Although the first condoms were available at the time they were prohibitively expensive and not very efficient and also were thick enough to have been used to patch bicycle inner tubes according to jokes of the period. Stopes, an eminent scientist of her day, still advised use of the brine soaked sponge that wealthy women had used for centuries, backed up with properly prepared and supervised herbal infusions to prevent the development of an embryo at the earliest stage.
It is perhaps surprising to find that even the leaders of liberal churches regarded both pre and post coital contraception as a blasphemy only ninety years ago. Since the beginnings of the Marie Stopes charity, medical science and technology have moved a long way. We now have barely perceptible condoms (men are still reluctant to use them though) inter-uterine devices, vasectomy procedures (men are still reluctant to have the snip though, its ironic that the gender always most eager to face bullet or blade on the battlefield are so reluctant to submit to the scalpel on the surgeons table,) contraceptive pills and even more advanced medicines and technologies on the way.
It has taken women three thousand years from the advent of the patriarchal religions to get from being evil demons, the concubines of Satan (see Part 2) intent on corrupting men's pure and immaculate souls (embarrassed cough from author) to where we are now and there is still a long way to go to Marie Stopes' Margaret Sanger's and Annie Besant's dreams of equality.)
USEFUL LINKS for birth control
Further reading and websites for ancient history:
Tufts University Classics Dept. online archive of ancient texts.
Home of the Internet Classics Archive, the largest online archive of classical literature
Internet Sacred Texts Archive, sacred texts from all over the ancient world
The Hinduism Website
The Ayurveda, Bhagavad Gita, Ayur Veda, Rig Veda, Maharabharata and more
Oregon Biophysical Research Lab
Sister Zeus website - Silphion page
History Books and Research Papers:
The Myth of Eternal Return: Mircea Eliade (trans Willard Trask) Princeton 1994
Illustrated World Religions: Huston Smith
1) The Way Of Aminal Powers
2) Myths of the Primitive Hunter Gatherers
The intellectual Adventure of Early Man: H & H.A. Frankfort, Chicago 1947
The Epic of Gilgamesh (traditional - search for Gilgamesh)
The Zend Avesta (traditionl - search for Avesta)
The Golden Bough: Sir James Frazer
The White Goddess : Robert Graves
The Mythology and Rites of British Druids: Edward Davies
The Republic: Plato
The Virtues of Women: Plutarch
The Heritage of Persia: R.N. Frye.
other books too numerous to list have been referred to in preparing this article.
Click Here to read Medieval To Modern," A Short History Of Abortion and Contraception - Part 4"