Women's Reproductive Rights in Early Twentieth Century Great Britain


The Freewoman was a periodical published weekly from 1911-1912, which served as a forum for the discussion of feminist- and gender-related issues in early twentieth-century Britain. About half of the periodical's contents from issue to issue was comprised of correspondence from readers who wished to voice their opinions on topics that included marriage and motherhood, and some of the periodical's contributors were male medical doctors. In the first two issues of The Freewoman, published in late November of 1911, the amount of content that advocates for the protection of unmarried women with children is surprising, specifically as it concerns marriage reform. Some of the contributions to these first two issues seem to be part of the early debate about the reproductive rights of both single and married women, and I would be interested in examining later issues of The Freewoman to see how the debate develops and to determine whether the rhetoric of contributors on the topic becomes less subtle.


The first item, "A Definition of Marriage," is the first contribution to the first issue of The Freewoman, published in November of 1911. Authored by Edmund B. D'auvergne, "A Definition of Marriage" defines marriage as not a legal right sanctified by a certificate of marriage, but rather by the union of two individuals joined together in parenthood (5). D'auvergne's authorship of "A Definition of Marriage" is interesting, first, because the D'auvergne is a male, and it is the first contribution to The Freewoman, following only the "Notes of the Week" section and the editors' explanation of what it means to be a freewoman versus a bondwoman. Second, D'auvergne advocates for the rights of mothers and children, but he maintains that a marriage without children is the equivalent of owning a gun license but no gun, likening the childless marriage to a sort of slave relationship between husband and wife (5). D'auvergne remarks that "[t]here are plenty of unmarried hussies who have children, and we do not rightly speak of them as fallen creatures and, with a fine disregard of biological fact, of their children as the children of nobody" (5). In other words, for D'auvergne, it is acceptable to have children without marriage, but it is not acceptable to have marriage without children. D'auvergne's argument against childless marriages seems to be an implicit argument for women's reproductive rights, as he also shames Great Britain's treatment of unwed mothers and of women who aim to have children outside of their marriages, due to their husbands' inabilities to reproduce (6).


D'auvergne's argument against marriages without children -- and, I think, for women's reproductive rights-- is directly followed by a contribution from Bessie Drysdale, entitled "Der Bund für Mutterschutz: A German League for the Protection of Mothers." Drysdale comments on Germany's "movement for [the] protection [of unmarried mothers]," comparing both the treatment of women and the "proportion of illegitimacy" between Britain and Germany; women are of a lower "position" in Germany, and the number of illegitimate children born to unwed German mothers exceeds the number of illegitimate children born to English mothers (6). The juxtaposition of Drysdale's contribution with D'auvergne's seems unlikely to be accidental. Drysdale comments on the political goals of the League, one of which is to lobby for marriage reform that might change the economic, political, and social wellbeing of unmarried mothers (6). Drysdale does not directly advocate for the founding of such a group in Great Britain, but she subtly suggests that a similar service be implemented, as she mentions how the League has spread to other countries, including Austria, Italy, and Sweden (5-6). She concludes the contribution by stating that "[t]he promoters [of the League for the Protection of Mothers] are most anxious to see a similar organisation in Great Britain" (6). Drysdale's contribution is structured like a report on Germany's League for the Protection of Mothers, but her rhetoric, at times, offers that she is of the opinion that a similar organization should be founded in Great Britain.


In the second issue of The Freewoman, published one week after the first, Dr. Thomas Allinson provides a brief preview of the chapters of his book, "A Book for Married Women." The book covers topics that extend from reproductive development to "the best ages for marriage" (39). Allinson seems to occupy a similar point-of-view to D'auvergne in terms of marriage, at least in that he links marriage to biology. His second chapter on marriage is stated to provide "useful information that one can ordinarily get only from an intelligent doctor," and his third chapter "condemns" marriages between blood relations (39). Since most of the book is concerned with educating women about their reproductive health, it seems to be an attempt at helping married women to obtain more control over their reproductive decisions, especially given that the preview of the book claims that the content of the book "ought to be known by every married woman" (39). Furthermore, although the book's title suggests an audience of strictly married women, Allinson's review notes that "it will not harm the unmarried to read" (39). Like D'auvergne and Drysdale, Allinson is an apparent proponent for the reproductive rights of both married and unmarried women. 


Thank you for drawing our attention to these pieces, Erin. I've always found the anxiety over the "safety" of the information for various audiences to be an amusing aspect of early Twentieth-Century sexology. The New Freewoman, The Egoist (two subsequent Dora Marsden magazines), and The Little Review are replete with similar ads and content items. For an interesting contrast, check out Scribner's, McCall's, and Cosmopolitan (some of these are in The 1910 Collection).

Since one of the common issues we face in periodical studies is dealing with content that does not conform to our own idea of how a given audience might have thought back then, or that might even seem self-contradictory, I'm curious to know what you make of D'auvergne's seemingly strange contention that unmarried women with children are somehow prefereble to married women who remain childless. Does it have something to do with a widespread belief, even among women's advocates at the time, that sex was for procreation and not mere enjoyment? Could it be something else, perhaps from other clues you noticed in that issue?

Gaining a grip on the contours of this debate could be an interesting subject to pursue.