Pregnancy in the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Confinement - a Maternity Corset

Confinement – a Maternity Corset

The biggest ‘problem’ with being pregnant in the Victorian era was the obvious implication that the woman had engaged in sex. So being pregnant wasn’t something you announced, and certainly wasn’t something discussed in mixed company. This was the era of the euphemism, so that a pregnant woman was ‘in an interesting condition’, ‘in a delicate condition’, ‘expecting’, ‘with child’,  ‘in the family way’, and ‘in the pudding club’ (considered crude). How different to today, when a pregnant woman often dresses to celebrate her impeding motherhood. I know I did!

At a certain point in a pregnancy, usually once the baby started showing, the mother-to-be went into ‘confinement’ and didn’t go out in public until after the child was born. To me, the word ‘confinement’ has overtones of imprisonment against one’s will; such as a soldier will be confined to quarters for a misdemeanour. And there is secondary meaning to Victorian-era ‘confinement’ … there was a whole range of corsets to ‘disguise’ the pregnancy for as long as could be managed. Imagine trying to cope with morning sickness AND a corset.

This was also the era when midwives were phased out and male doctors took over the delivery of children; giving the male doctors more income. Now, this may sound like a good thing, that formal education was triumphing over the ignorant, but it wasn’t. Midwives were knowledgeable, experienced women and certainly most knew about the importance of cleanliness during childbirth (boiling water and clean sheets). Male doctors turned pregnancy into an ‘illness’, made women in labour lie on their backs so they could oversee the birth (most women prefer to walk around or squat for the early stages of labour, and most certainly do NOT want to lie on their backs) and used unclean hands that directly led to an increase in the number of women dying from post-partum fevers. As part of the prudery of the era, the woman’s modesty was preserved by maintaining eye contact so the male doctor wasn’t looking at her genitals and the doctor worked by touch alone; I wonder how many women and children suffered and died because the doctor was too polite to actually see what was going on. Medicine wasn’t so much a science as an art in the early part of the Victorian era.

There was a great deal of controversy about the introduction of anaesthetic as a pain relief for women in labour, because childbirth was woman’s punishment for Eve giving Adam the apple. Thank goodness, Queen Victoria was a fan of anaesthetic, and used it for birth of Prince Leopold. She was so thrilled that she gave James Simpson a baronetcy. From a personal point of view, the man should have a sainthood.

Maternity dress

When writing in the Steampunk literary genre, there is no need to be as prudish as the Victorians. Pregnancy can be used as a metaphor or analogy, particularly in relation to the creative process or the construction of an invention. Pregnancy had a negative connation in the Victorian era, but it need not be in a Steampunk narrative. In fact, I would encourage fellow writers to see it as a positive and natural process, to be celebrated and not ‘confined’.



Filed under Analogy, Historical Personage, History, Metaphors, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist

7 responses to “Pregnancy in the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. mcholly1

    I’ve been enjoying your blogs. 🙂

  2. An excellent post! So much of the day to day life of the people of the Victorian era has been left out of the history books. Pregnancy is an interesting topic, because even into the mid 20th century, it was a bit taboo.
    Think about a television series like I Love Lucy, where they danced around the subject, never even using the word pregnant. It’s hard to believe that it has really only been in the last 50 years or so where pregnancy has become something for families to proudly celebrate, rather than hide away until the baby arrives.

    • Well, we tend to forget how backward the 20th century really was. I know for a fact that women were still expected to give up work when they married as late as the 1960s & 1970s, because looking after their husband was now their ‘job’.
      The social perception of pregnancy changed as feminism normalized the role of women in society from being the ‘Other’. Alas, the process still has a way to go.

  3. Deirdre

    Queen Victoria’s victory over her doctors should also be celebrated. When told by them that’ the cries of a woman in childbirth were pleasing to the Lord’ she retorted ‘WE are having the baby, we will have chloroform.’ Notice the Royal plural. Exit two doctors.

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