Anatomical diagram of a human fetus, drawn and engraved by J. Wandelaar and published by J. et H. Verbeek (1751).
Digital Public Library of America
book review / family

In the 19th Century, Miscarriage Could Be a Happy Relief

A new book shows the remarkable contrast between 19th-century women’s views of miscarriage and the loss-focused rhetoric of today.
Looking for women’s stories of 19th-century miscarriage, historian Shannon Withycombe expected to find grief. Instead, she encountered startling admissions of joy at the knowledge of pregnancy loss, with women writing sentences like: “I am happy again”; “O Bliss, O Rapture unforeseen!” To a 21st-century reader only recently accustomed to reading writing by women who have broken a general cultural silence on the topic in order to discuss their experiences with miscarriage—experiences characterized by sadness and mourning—reading evidence of this kind of happiness feels strange and a little uncomfortable. That foreign feeling persisted as I made my way through Withycombe’s intriguing book, Lost: Miscarriage in Nineteenth-Century America.

There were many reasons why 19th-century women might have welcomed a miscarriage. The women whose thoughts Withycombe can partially access, by dint of diary and letter, lived with limited access to contraception and experienced adult life as a series of unending pregnancies. (Withycombe describes the condition of 19th-century womanhood as “twenty or thirty years of constant pregnancy, birthing, and nursing.”) Women especially expressed thankfulness at the ends of pregnancies when their families were in perilous financial circumstances, or when they were living in frontier conditions.

One of the women in the book, Alice Grierson, physically separated from her husband in 1871 when their seventh child died at 3 months old. In a letter to him, she left a description of her relationship to reproduction that makes it clear how exhausting many women found the endless births:
Charlie’s existence I accepted as a matter of course, without either joy or sorrow. Kirkie’s with regret, for so soon succeeding him. Robert came nearer being welcomed with joy, than any other. Edie was gladly welcomed so soon as I knew her sex … Henry succeeded her too soon to give me as much rest as I would have liked … and told you before he was a year old, that I would rather die, than have another child, yet no sooner was he weaned, than Georgie came into life … I firmly believe it injured me, as soon as I weaned him, and was again immediately pregnant, my nerves became so irritable to such a degree, that life has ever since, been nearer a burden to me.
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