Birth control in the early Nineteenth-Century:

By the end of the eighteenth-century, the issue of population and birth control had become a topic for discussion. In 1797, Jeremy Bentham published an article advocating the use of a sponge method of birth control, and the following year, Thomas Malthus's influential Essay on Population (1798) appeared, advocating "moral restraint" and the postponement of marriage until partners were able to support all possible offspring; birth control in marriage was not seen as a possibility. Emphasis upon the social and economic desirability of birth control is a characteristic of the 19th century and hardly ante-dates it. Objection to birth control was argued chiefly on religious and political grounds--that it constituted an interference with the laws of God and nature. Until the 1870s, the idea that constant childbearing might be a burden for women did not seem to be a grounds on which birth control was argued.

Francis Place (1771-1854), the founder of the birth control movement, was the first to attempt education of the masses in the need for birth control. In 1822 he published a book, Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, the first treatise in English to propose contraceptive measures as a substitute for Malthus's "moral restraint." Perhaps more important, Place distributed handbills on contraception among the working classes, titled, "To the Married of Both Sexes," "To the Married of Both Sexes in Genteel Life," and "To the Married of Both Sexes of the Working People." These advocated the use of a small sponge; only one mentoned coitus interruptus as an inferior alternative.

In 1825 Richard Carlisle, a follower of Place, published What Is Love?, reprinted in 1826 as Every Woman's Book; or What Is Love? Though Carlisle spent several years in prison for free speech offences on charges of blasphemy, he was never prosecuted for his birth control activities. His book was very blunt; it advocated partial withdrawal or the use of a sponge. Next the works of two birth control advocates, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. Charles Knowlton, were reprinted in England in the 1830s. Owen's Moral Physiology (1830, NY) advocated coitus interruptus, and stated that the sponge method of birth control was of doubtful efficacy and disagreeable and the use of a condom was "inconvenient" but not unhealthy.

More influential, though, was Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy (1832), reprinted in London in 1834, which advocated douching [the rubber pessary was not developed until after the introduction of the vulvcanization of rubbber in the 1840s]. Solutions of alum and astringent vegetables were recommended. Place and Knowlton were among the first to stress the desirability of placing birth control in the hands of the wives. About 42,000 copies of Knowlton's book were circulated in England between 1834 and 1876, when it became the subject of the Bradlaugh prosecution. In his Autobiography John Stuart Mill described his activities as a proponent of birth control during his twenties.

The government's 1877 prosecution of the radical and free-thinker Charles Bradlaugh and fellow birth-control reformer Annie Besant for the distribution of literature advocating contraception backfired, however, for the account of the trial carried in the newspapers provided mass circulation for the information birth control reformers wished to disseminate. Indeed, a decline in the birth rate occurred from the 1870s onward, and by the 1890s birth prevention measures seem to have spread to the working-classes. As a result of the trial Mrs. Besant, declared an unfit mother, lost custody of her daughter; Bradlaugh continued to represent radical and individualist causes, later becoming a member of Parliament.

Another influential writer on contraception was Dr. George Drysdale, who in 1854 published a radical treatise on sex education, Elements of Social Science, which warmly advocated Malthusianism and political economy. It mentioned five birth control techniques, of which it approved of two, the use of a sponge and douche in pure water. However it suggested the ancestor of the "rhythm method," the use of a sterile period from 2 or 3 days before menstruation to 8 days after. Unfortunately Drysdale's biology was wrong, for the latter is in fact a period of high fertility. The Elements achieved 35 English editions, until the last one in 1904, and was translated into at least ten European languages.

The rhythm method in its modern form was developed in the second third of the 19th century, and thus was not available to most Victorians and Edwardians.

Reproduction and Childbirth:

In the 1860s the average family had more than 6 children, and of course many infants died before or during birth (the literature of the period is filled with accounts of the deaths of children, especially poetry by women; Dickens's scenes of the deaths of children were very popular, e. g., in The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend). Hospitals became more common during the century, and in these, ironically, the birth mortality rate was much higher (12-26 per cent infant death), chiefly from puerperal disease, until the introduction of antiseptics.

The medical profession was slow in accepting American and foreign medical prescriptions for the prevention of puerperal disease by the washing the hands in disinfectant before delivery, and thus home delivery, where a doctor was less likely to have come straight from another delivery, was much safer. In 1846 Ignaz Semmelweis, a Viennese physician, discovered evidence that the infection was transmitted by doctors who had failed to sterilize their hands before delivery, but even so, doctors widely resisted the new practices until the 1860s. Florence Nightingale's investigations revealed the dangers of using hospitals; the larger the hospital, she found, the greater the danger. She advocated that no pregnant woman enter a general hospital.

Midwives were often ignorant and untrained, as reflected in the comic figure of Dickens' Mrs. Sarah Gamp, and because of the sterotypes associated with the occupation, Florence Nightingale had difficulty in recruiting midwives. Cesarian sections had been performed for centuries, but with low success; between 1800 and 1850 there was a 75% chance of maternal death due to infection, bleeding and other ruptures.

The notion that childbirth should not be interferred with died hard. The use of ether was introduced slowly, as some opposed it on supposed religious grounds. When Queen Victoria used chloroform for childbirth in 1853, however, it became popular among the middle-classes, and gradually its use extended to working-class women by the 1920s. A host of illnesses and disabilities attendant on childbirth infections also slowly disappeared.

The purpose and nature of menstruation was also not well understood during the nineteenth century; women were believed to be subject to shocks during this period, and primitive and Biblical taboos about the effects of contact with a menstruating woman persisted. Menstruation was seen a kind of invalidism, and its lengths and effects greatly overestimated. In an extreme case, the anthropologist Henry Maudsley claimed that women were incapacitated for activity from this cause for a quarter of their adult lives, during which time they were subject to fits of irrational and even criminal behavior.

Clearly Mr. Maudsley had never observed working-class women or servants, who took no vacations on the grounds of such "invalidism," nor had studied the reports of criminal behavior by gender; but whatever their reservations, his fellow scientists seem not to have ridiculed his claims. Such uncertainties had an effect on the debates about the kind of education suitable for women, however, and their fitness for intellectual training.

Neither was the function of the uterus fully understood until late in the century. An ancient Greek theory that the uterus could move around in the body--towards the throat, lungs or intestines-- remained respectable, and indeed the classical description of hysteria involved the movement of the uterus. It was partly to disprove this theory of hysteria, and the labelling of hysteria as primarily a women's disease, which motivated Freud's original experiments with hysteric patients. Nineteenth-century doctors could be moralistic--at one point the theory was advanced that coital excitement produced uterine cancer--and censure doubtless discouraged investigation.

In 1896, finally, appeared proof that the ovaries control the menses.

Venereal Disease and Prostitution:

No cure for venereal disease was available until sulfur drugs were discovered in the first decade of the 20th century.

As a result, all discussions of the "social evil" were overshadowed by recognition that promiscuity could have terrible physical effects, even on the unborn (as dramatized in Ibsen's Ghosts). Women complained that maidenly, enforced ignorance of prostitution and sex in general exposed women to hazards in the choice of a marriage partner, for they might choose their mate in complete innocence of a past which would expose them and their children to a possibly fatal affliction. (One biographer has even suggested that Oscar Wilde's wife was the victim of a venereal disease contracted from her husband.)

In a minority of cases of syphilis, general paralysis was the terminal stage, and appeared from three to thirty years after the first infection (though the average was ten years). Mental institutions contained many of these cases. At the time, though, the full results of syphilis were not understood, and it was assumed that disfigurement was the sole result of syphilis.

Throughout the century more partial cures were developed, until the advent of sulfa drugs in the early 20th century and penecillin in the early 1940s.


Prostitution was, among other things, an aspect of the "fallen woman" theme which forms a persistent motif in Victorian literature (e. g. the figure of Esther in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton). In the context of widespread poverty and limited employment opportunities for women, so-called prostitutes constituted a much larger proportion of the population than now. Though definitions of the term "prostitute" differ somewhat and estimates of their numbers vary, in mid-Victorian London from 20,000-100,000 prostitutes reportedly thronged Haymarket and the surrounding streets, some so poor that they had no dwelling.

Responses to this issue began with early reclamation efforts to rescue young women who had been the victims of seduction or entrapment; well-known Victorians who participated in such endeavors included Charles Dickens, William E. Gladstone, Maria and Christina Rossetti, and Josephine Butler.

An added impediment to reform was the hypocritical demand that the existence of prostitution not be mentioned to young women, whose innocence presumably would be contaminated by even the mention of vice (as described in D. G. Rossetti's poem "Jenny"). Moreover, the claim that depravity rather than poverty drove women to prostitution denied the dismal level of wages for women workers (see above) even when employment was possible.

The issue of prostitution was associated with a series of controversial laws known as the Contagious Diseases Acts (1869, later repealed) which were instituted in port towns in an attempt to control the incidence of venereal disease contracted by soldiers visiting the local prostitutes. The Acts provided that all women suspected by the police of prostitution be subjected to forcible examinations, and if found to be infected, should be confined for nine months in special hospitals for this purpose (called "Lock Hospitals").

Public opinion was divided on these acts; on the one hand, there was a movement to extend them to London and all the British Isles, on the model of similar acts operating in Brussels and Paris; and on the other, they evoked opposition on humanitarian, moral, egalitarian and civil libertarian grounds.

Josephine Butler (josephinebutler.htm) led a campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. She pointed out that the victims were invariably women, and that since the Acts provided no restrictions on men, one man could quickly infect twenty women, depriving them of their livelihood and ability to support their children. The "hospitals" were like prisons, and the existence of the Acts made it unsafe for poor and working-class women to walk the streets to work, for the police could round up all women in sight without the need of a permit or any evidence that they were prostitutes. Non-prostitutes arrested in this way lost their "reputations" and thus their ability to support themselves at anything except prostitution; indeed, to some degree the Acts arguably created prostitutes.

The repealers publicized the case of a widow who drowned herself after her daughter was apprehended; they had been walking together to work. Mrs. Butler charged that one of the purposes of the Acts was to provide "clean" prostitutes for wealthy men. Opposing any police interference in the private lives of women, including prostitutes, she tried to obtain jobs for these women, exposed illegal activities in brothels (such as child-rape), and fought the extension of the Acts and helped in gaining their repeal in 1886.

Child prostitution was an industry, with the procuration of children from their parents permitted and brothels devoted to the "deflowering" of young girls, in some cases causing mutilation.

Victorian Beliefs on Sexuality and Female Character:
Scientific Opinion

Early in the nineteenth-century the view that women's brains, as smaller, must also be inferior was inherited from earlier theories of phrenology; this assumption disappeared as it was discovered that intelligence was more likely correlated with the ratio of brain size to body weight, in which women in fact scored somewhat higher. Even so, it was not until the advent of standardized intelligence tests that assumptions about gendered intellectual difference largely subsided.

Throughout the nineteenth-century a theory of the fixed nature of psychic energies prevailed, so that all reproductive acts were seen as potentially harmful. According to this theory, females expended more energy in reproduction than did males, and as a result, they ceased mental development at an earlier age and had fewer reserves for such additional activities as education or work outside the home.

William Acton's Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (1857) advanced the view that sexual desire was a trait of prostitutes but not respectable women. Those who did admit to feeling desire, then, had de-classed themselves. Once women were degraded by this feeling, their original purity could not be regained ("purity" was thus equated with ignorance). A middle-class wife should be expected to engage in sex no more than once a week; and since semen was a limited quantity, men too should confine the dissipation of their "vital energies" to once or twice weekly or even less. Men whose partners expected more interest might well feel a sense of inadequacy, or a fear of "overdemanding" women.

Rather inconsistently, Action felt that women would not feel desire during pregnancy (one wonders how they could feel less of what they were supposed not to have felt at all), and in response their husbands would not feel desire for their wives during pregnancy and would gradually become less interested. Instead, a gradual eroding of sexual feeling even within marriage was desirable, and such sublimation would prompt more affection and social feeling.

Furthermore, according to Acton, the practice of masturbation could cause self-destruction and even early death; the promotion of such views caused boys in extreme cases to mutilate themselves to avoid temptation. The theory that consumptives might be dying of "secret vice" (rather than unhgenic conditions) provided a means of blaming the morality of a victim of a mysterious disease rather than seeking a physical cause.

It is hard not to see such attitudes, whether couched in scientific or religious language (as, respectively, prudence or the need to avoid "sin"), as a form of defense mechanism, as moralism and a sense of individual control (or an anxiety about the lack thereof) enabled people living in increasingly urbanized environment to confront the daily sight of their fellows living in miserable conditions and subject to disease with less identification or sense of vulnerability. In extreme cases, they may have avoided a sense of contamination by obsessive and self-punitive religiosity.

Since desires seemed to seep into the dreaming process, in some cases an elaborate attempt was made to control the content of dreams or even the process of dreaming itself, which could be seen as abnormal or unhealthy.

One can see these preoccupations and attitudes as an anticipation of some aspects of later Freudian doctrine, including the association of women's sexuality with abnormality or hysteria; a strict sense of psycho-sexual differences; fear of the dissipation of energies; and a concern with the subversive nature of dreams and the unconscious.

According to the evolutionary thought of the time, also, character could be inherited, as could other acquired traits. Thus any psychic or intellectual differences in women could be ascribed to their inherent inferiority, rather than social conditioning, circumstances, or lack of education. It seemed futile to try to change disabilities or flaws derived from centuries of inherited weaknesses.

Obviously not everyone believed these theories, or the many efforts to educate and care for women throughout the century would not have been undertaken. But the promotion of such views by men of science added credibility to the resistence to granting women civil and educational equality.

Evolutionary theory and women:

Since biological evolution was the dominant scientific theory of the nineteenth-century, it influenced other emerging disciplines and affected the perception of women's nature and possible roles.

There were several strands of evolutionary theory, however, as expressed in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, Lamarck's postulate of the evolution of acquired traits, the meliorist progressivism of Chambers' Vestiges of Creation, Herbert Spencer's libertarian-inflected philosophical meliorism, and Charles Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest. The theories of the non-Darwinian evolutionists were more amenable to religious and ethical theory, since man or God could participate in the process of human evolution. For example, Tennyson's "In Memoriam," influenced by the evolutionary ideas of Chamber's Vestiges of Creation, among other works, embodies the hopeful belief that man will evolve in moral character.

The philosopher of science and evolution, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) held mixed and shifting views of the desirability and possibility of women's equality. In his Social Statics (1851) and Synthetic Philosophy (1862-93), he argued that the higher the civilization, the greater the equality of its women. Thus, presumably, to maintain its alleged status as an advanced nation, Britain should continue to improve the liberties of its women by granting them freedom, which for Spencer meant freedom from the constraints of work. Moreover the less military a culture, the greater the equality of its citizens, including its women. Spencer was also something of a non-hereditarian.

At his most libertarian, Spencer resembled Mill in some of his arguments; and his early writings even support women's suffrage on libertarian grounds, though he later reversed his opinion. Spencer also shared with his fellow Victorians an assumption that Victorian civilization was an inevitable and advanced product of evolution, and a failure to recognize female labor and economic contributions in his account of social development.

Until now, at least some evolutionary theories had included the possibility of transmitting acquired moral traits, a form of voluntarism and moral imperative which gave a sense of the control of human evolution; but with Weisman's theory of germ plasm, advanced in 1882, this belief was no longer possible, and deterministic hereditarian theories became more fashionable.

The most influential evolutionist was Charles Darwin (1809-82); no educated Victorian could have been unaware of his views. In his Origin of Species (1859) and The Ascent of Man: Natural Selection According to Sex (1872) Darwin postulated that evolution occurred through mutations, the natural selection of traits which promoted adaptation, and competition in the struggle for survival. Popular versions of his views justified marketplace rapacity and laissez-faire capitalism as a kind of secular Calvinism, and were used as rationales for attacking various forms of social welfare provision or appeals to co-operative sentiment.

Darwin himself was more cautious about possible political implications of his scientific views, but in The Ascent of Man (1872), published three years after J. S. Mill's The Subjection of Women, gave some support to social extrapolations of his findings. This argued that evolution supported notions of the superiority of European man, and that the need for survival through reproduction required sexual attraction based on sexual differentiation, and thus precluded much further advance in women's moral and intellectual development. According to Darwin, man has reached his high position on the evolutionary ladder through an increased differentiation of the sexes (as seen through women's weakness, blushing, etc.), a process which cannot be reversed. In the political realm, Darwin supported British imperialism and the encouragement of population growth to aid in colonial expansion.

Late Victorian anthropology, influenced by the evolutionary and hereditarian emphases of the time, was in general a conservatively-inflected inquiry which attempted to categorize the basic traits or types of races and cultures. It traced their relationships of ancestry or decline, in updated versions of stereotypes such as those of the eighteenth-century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus. To a lesser degree parallel debates on the qualities of women were conducted, with debates over whether these were higher or lower in the evolutionary sequence than were men, based on strength, brain size, their alleged resemblance to primitive peoples, and the presence and significance of menstruation (not yet fully understood), with Henry Maundsley the best-known exponent of consistently misogynistic views.

In addition, debates about the nature of primitive family structure--whether matrilineal, matriarchal, or patriarchal--and whether the contemporary Victorian family represented a progression or regression from this original form, or some mixture of the two, informed Victorian histories of the origins and political significance of the modern family. Among these were histories of the alleged stages of the family by J. J. Bachofen, Lewis Morgan, Henry Maine, and Fredrich Engels, and others.

Since before 1900 there was no knowledge of the mechanism of heredity, it was possible to assume virtually anything was inheritable. Generally hereditarian theories worked in favor of conservative views of social stratification and class inequality. During this period Francis Galton was beginning his work on inherited intelligence; assuming that all achievement was based on innate traits and ignoring such obvious factors as education, background, connections and wealth. Galton noticed that intelligence seemed to run in families. Class and cultural stratification thus seemed based in biological fact, and eugenics--the limitation of reproduction to suppress certain traits--became a popular solution advocated for the curtailment of the poor.

In the 1880s Patrick Geddes developed an elaborate theory of so-called male and female cells. According to The Evolution of Sex (1889), "the hungry, active cell becomes flagellate sperm, while the quiescent, well-fed one becomes ovum." Male and female sex roles were thus decided in the lowest forms of life and could not be changed, whatever the desires of suffragists or other nineteenth-century supporters of reforms on behalf of women: "what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by act of parliament." Men were by inheritance more intelligent, more courageous, more independent, and more able to sustain bursts of physical and intellectual activity.

Even so, Geddes was a moderate reformist who (like some feminist theorists of the time) wished more respect granted to female, nurturant social roles. However he felt these contributions would be arrested if women aspired to more active positions in society. Since men were naturally more intelligent, and since work had a bad effect on women's reproductive powers, talk of equal pay and opportunities was beside the point: women should be granted leisure instead. Like Spencer before him, Geddes believed that a society's "respect for women" was measured by the leisure it afforded to its females.

Thus psychological assumptions about the sexes were used to extrapolate an entire gendered explanation of physiology and culture; and in reverse, such assumptions were used to create biological and psychological explanations of reality.

In 1893 Havelock Ellis's Men and Women argued that the sexes were essentially of equal value, though his account still postulated differences which resembled earlier distinctions in a moderated form. His studies of human sexuality, however, made a significant contribution to the understanding and acceptance of female sexuality.

Some clarity was provided by further scientific discoveries; in 1900 Mendel elaborated the principles of genetics, giving rise to the discovery of sex chomosomes and the linkage of secondary sex traits to these chormosomes (only). In 1903 the presence of sex hormones was discovered, though their existence could be used as an explanation for supposed differences in female psychology.

A more ominous viewpoint was expressed in Otto Weiniger's Sex and Character (1903), which directed considerable hostility toward both women and Jews. Nor did the introduction of modern psychoanalysis provide unmitigated benefits for women. As the Ernest Jones and James Strachey translations revealed, Freud's influential views included some assumptions similar to those of Darwin--that the nature of civilization required a certain amount of repression, pain and competition which made reformist efforts misguided, and that women, in particular, suffered from a necessarily incomplete development associated with sexual differentiation--though in this case these claims were transferred from the directly biological to the psychological and emotional realm.

Throughout the early and mid-Victorian period, severe childhood regimens based on physical punishment and beatings, including the toleration of beatings and homosexual rape in the public schools, encouraged an interest in flagellation and sado-masochistic emotions. This was shown, for example, in the suppressed manuscript poems of the otherwise respectable A. C. Swinburne, who for a period frequented flagellation establishments, and much more discreetly, in the writings of G. M. Hopkins.

Laws on and attitudes about Homosexuality:

Until 1828 "pedication" (sodomy) was punishable by death. The Penal Act of 1861 set a minimum sentence of ten years, with a maximum of life-imprisonment. In 1885 the homosexual soliciting of a minor was made punishable by two years hard labor.

Victorian attitudes toward male homosexuality seem to have been somewhat inconsistent, because beating and homosexual rape were tolerated, even common, in the boys' schools attended by members of the upper-middle and upper classes. But perhaps this was seen as a youthful practice, unattended by a lifestyle of same-sex choice.

No laws precluded female homosexuality, however; reportedly no one dared broach the topic to Queen Victoria, and it thus remained beneath the pale of legislation.