Women's Health

What the Victorian woman learned about sex, she usually learned on her wedding night and oftentimes the experience was an unhappy one. What she also learned is that this union between her and her husband could result in pregnancy.

Even as early as 1870, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, a zero-population advocate, stated that children were not at all necessary for a successful marriage. However, the "bride's" upbringing taught her that motherhood was one of a woman's most fulfilling experiences. While the Victorian woman wants children, she is also extremely frightened by the prospect as death during or shortly after childbirth is the most common cause of death among women. Statistics currently (1876) still show maternal mortality rates at 4.9 to every 1000 births.

Contraceptive devices were available as early as the 1700s but were and still are quite expensive. In 1800, the average number of children in a family was 7, dropping to approximately 5.42 now. During the first year of marriage, the young bride and her husband attempt to come to an understanding of how many children they want and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In the middle of the century, early symptoms of pregnancy were not fully known and that a woman wouldn't know for certain that she was pregnant until her fifth month and that the "condition" should be hidden for as long as possible. Terms such as "confinement", "lying in", "feeling delicate", "that way" or "in the family way" became synonymous for "pregnancy". And unfortunately, the manuals and magazines which did discuss the subject lacked in substance. By 1860 scientific techniques were founded to allow doctors to diagnose pregnancy.

By the 1840s, the notion that corsets needed to be worn throughout the pregnancy was beginning to disappear. They were replaced with expandable lacings over the bosom and the steel stays replaced by whalebone. And upon giving birth, a flannel petticoat or bed gown was the proper dress.

The Victorian woman gives birth at home and for those who can afford it, hire a monthly nurse who not only assist with the delivery, but also stay on for a period of three months until the new mother adjusts. However, we are also turning to trained physicians and hospitals especially in those instances where the birth is a difficult one. Chloroform is sometimes used to help deaden the pain of childbirth, but religious fanatics called this practice, anesthesia during childbirth, as sacrilegious because they believed that birth was a curse upon women and that suffering was necessary to produce and develop maternal love.

By the 1880s, it will be determined that the fever and sometimes death of a new mother was the result of germs found on the doctor's hands and on unsterile instruments.

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