HUMN 303 Women’s Reproductive Solutions in the 19th Century & Interpret Their Historical & Contemporary Impact

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Women’s reproductive solutions in the 19th century, influenced by the Voluntary Motherhood Advocates, had a transformative effect on women and society. These advocates prioritized women’s healthcare, addressing their physical, physiological, sexual, and spiritual needs, which reshaped women’s perception of their role in society. The Civil War played a crucial role in advancing women’s rights, with movements like The Real Womanhood and the End of True Womanhood leading to increased respect and acceptance of women in mainstream society. However, the reproductive solutions available to women during this time were often harmful and limited, resulting in infections, high infant mortality rates, permanent infertility, and even death. The transition from legal to illegal abortions further restricted options for women, emphasizing the advantages of midwives who provided compassionate and natural care during pregnancies, childbirth, and postpartum periods.

Birth-Control Available to Women in the 19th Century

Birth control methods available to women in the 19th century were primitive and unreliable, as highlighted by Chopin. The rhythm method, commonly used, was based on inaccurate animal reproduction practices, leading to ineffective contraception. Potions and pills posed significant risks to women’s health, including fatal complications. Condoms were made from animal bladders or intestines, and alternative methods like rubber diaphragms and lemon peel diaphragms were attempted. Illegal abortions were carried out using home remedies, herbal concoctions, or physical abuse to induce miscarriage. Access to safe abortions varied depending on social class and race, with wealthier white women having more options compared to marginalized women who relied on herbal or mechanical means.

HUMN 303 Women’s Reproductive Solutions in the 19th Century & Interpret Their Historical & Contemporary Impact


Midwives played a significant role in women’s healthcare and childbirth, providing a more compassionate and natural approach than male doctors. As Brodsky notes, the rise of obstetrics led to competition between physicians and midwives. While physicians focused on medical interventions and techniques, midwives, often experienced mothers themselves, offered support, comfort, and personalized care during childbirth. They used natural methods and provided nourishment, emotional support, and spiritual guidance to ensure a safe delivery for both the mother and baby (Brodsky, 2008).

Complications during pregnancies and births were prevalent due to various factors such as poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition, and limited access to medical care. In urban areas, where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions prevailed, women faced health issues like rickets and deformities in the pelvis, leading to childbirth complications. Midwives, often the primary caregivers, could only do so much and sometimes had to call barber-surgeons for assistance, even though the procedures were gruesome and carried significant risks. Pain relief options were limited, with opium being rarely used, and there was a lack of understanding of antisepsis, increasing the risk of infections. Women, on average, had multiple children, and the lack of proper postnatal care and support meant they had to resume their daily responsibilities shortly after giving birth, further strained their health and well-being (Brodsky, 2008).

Gynecological Practices

Gynecological practices in the 19th century involved various controversial methods and treatments. Hysteria, a diagnosis attributed to women, was believed to be caused by excessive mental activity. Treatment for hysteria included strict bed rest, isolation from family and friends, and restrictions on reading and writing. In extreme cases, electric chairs were used as a form of stimulation to address sexual repression. If these methods failed, women were often confined to insane asylums. Surgical procedures such as removing ovaries or uterus were performed, particularly on black women and slaves, without their consent. Dr. J. Marion Sims considered the “father of modern gynecology,” conducted experiments on his slaves without anesthesia, claiming their consent despite the inherent power dynamics and lack of accurate agency in such circumstances (Brodsky, 2008).

HUMN 303 Women’s Reproductive Solutions in the 19th Century & Interpret Their Historical & Contemporary Impact

Women’s Rights in the Early 19th Century

In the early 19th century, feminist activists emerged, opposing abortion and advocating for women’s rights. They saw abortion as a means for men to avoid responsibility for pregnancies and viewed it as degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pioneer activist, strongly opposed abortion, considering it dangerous for women. Concurrently, different birth-control movements emerged in America. The Population Control campaign aimed to decrease the population through sterilization, the Eugenics campaign sought to limit childbirth among the lower class, and the Voluntary Motherhood campaign focused on women’s rights. While the population and eugenics campaigns supported the legalization of contraception, the voluntary motherhood campaign opposed it (Kohn & Holmes, 2000; Gordon).

Contraception in the 19th Century

The campaign against contraception led by physicians and supported by religious institutions resulted in the outlawing of contraception, including abortion. The American Medical Association played a significant role in making contraception a political issue and worked to eliminate midwives. The Comstock Law of 1873 classified birth control materials as obscene, making their distribution a federal crime. By 1899, contraceptives and abortion were illegal throughout the United States. Despite opposition, the use of birth control continued to increase (Gordon, p. 42-44).

HUMN 303 Women’s Reproductive Solutions in the 19th Century & Interpret Their Historical & Contemporary Impact

Feminist Movement in the 19th Century

The 19th-century feminist movement gave rise to the Voluntary Motherhood campaign, advocating for women’s rights and emphasizing the importance of willing mothers. With limited access to regulated and safe birth control, abstinence was promoted as a means of family planning. Before this movement, women had little control over their bodies and were considered property within marriage. The feminist movement aimed to improve women’s status in society and redefine the ideal woman as moral and robust.

Effects of the Civil War’s

During the Civil War and the era of industrialization and urbanization, women’s roles underwent significant changes. The demands of wartime and the need for women to support their families led to a shift away from the ideals of “True Womanhood.” Women entered the workforce, pursued higher education, and advocated for their rights. The emergence of the “Real Womanhood” movement encouraged women to be physically strong, independent, and equal to men. Women became more involved in public life, engaging in sports, changing fashion, and expressing political views. This transformation marked the rise of “Public Womanhood” and eventually led to the emergence of the “New Womanhood” in the 20th century.


The feminist movement in the 19th century brought about significant changes in women’s reproductive choices and rights. Voluntary Motherhood Advocates promoted smaller and controlled family sizes, advocating birth control and abstinence while rejecting harmful abortion methods. Midwives provided safer deliveries compared to barbaric practices that caused harm and complications. The Civil War also played a role in advancing women’s rights. Overall, the feminist movement in the 19th century laid the foundation for the progress and equality women enjoy today.


Brodsky, P. L. (2008). Where Have All the Midwives Gone? The Journal of Perinatal Education,17(4), 48-51.

Chopin, K. (). Childbirth and Birth Control in the 19th Century. Retrieved from Cruea, S. M. (2005). Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement. General Studies Writing Faculty Publication, 187-204. Retrieved from

Gordon, L. (). Why Nineteenth-Century Feminists Did Not Support ” Birth Control” and Twentieth-Century Feminists Do: Feminism, Reproduction, and the Family., 40-52. Kohn, L. M., & Holmes, C. (2000). The Rise and Fall of Women’s Rights: Have Sexuality and Reproductive Freedom Forfeited Victory? Williams & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, 6(2), 381-421. Retrieved from