Choosing to Birth a Nation

Birth control became a prominent issue to American society in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.  Many groups, such as the free love communities, concerned themselves with advancing these practices, while maintaining an image of maternal integrity that empowered women of the era.  While many of these communities discouraged chemical abortions for being unnatural, the practice continued among women of all classes and across races.

Views on appropriate contraception caused trouble for those defining them.  An increasingly secularized America birthed movements like free love.  The free lovers harbored “a passionate resentment of the Christian established churches” (Gordon, 94).  They were unsatisfied with the Church’s influence and garnered ideas of sex on a more biological level.  “They saw reproduction…in the context of women’s emancipation” (Gordon, 95) and formal political power became a way to strengthen the nuclear family.  A strong nuclear family gave women a degree of power as the perceived cornerstone of morality.  Society branded chemical birth control as unnatural and corrupting.  The common belief stated that a promiscuous woman could dissolve a family by wooing the husband.  The idea of contraception accompanied the thought that women desired sex.  This “tended to weaken the theory of the maternal instinct” (Gordon, 97), which empowered women as models of virtue.  A damaged maternal instinct could lessen a woman’s influence on those she counseled because her opinion would no longer be valued as virtuous and honorable.  Her counsel bolstered her place in the private sphere as she influenced her husband and children’s views.  Another concept generated during this time was whether a lack of sexual intimacy could stunt the sexual health of a couple.  Periodic celibacy through the rhythm method both alleviated the sexual needs of the couple while also avoiding pregnancy, because sexual intimacy happened only during the time doctors thought a woman was least fertile.  Another accepted method of birth control involved the “avoidance of ejaculation” (Gordon, 99).  Celibacy and male continence resolved the issue of unnatural practices and acted as a sexual outlet, when a pregnancy was undesirable.  As Rachel Dilles stated in “Let Them Be Free” that “A woman’s control over her own body is just as important as any man’s”.  Free lovers of the time heralded this sentiment as there was an assumption that male and female bodies were self-regulating in sexual desire.  The body would desire as much sex as was needed for a healthy disposition.

While many American communities reproached abortion, the practice happened frequently in the period between mid-19th and early 20th centuries.  The Native American communities deviated in practice as the “number of abortions, among the Crows, is said to equal the number of births.” (Peiss, 309)  The separation between the Native American culture and the increasingly-industrialized American culture generated many differences.  A greater tie to nature among the Native Americans could have lessened the stigma of herbal abortive drugs as an unnatural solution to family planning.  In dealing with the mainstream American culture of the time, the working class strained from less options related to controlling family size.  “[Margaret Sanger’s] mother died from overwork and strain of too frequent child bearing.” (Peiss, 312)  The lower class struggled with less means of birth control.  This contributed to larger families, which would cause great financial strain.  Abortions provided the lower class an option to not raise a child that could not be provided care.

The mid-19th and early 20th centuries saw changes in the level control a couple had in planning a family.  Birth control provided couples sexual release, when they were unfit or unwilling to be parents.  After conception, abortions provided a safety net from further economic hardship to families that were struggling before the pregnancy.  The landscape of this era in American history liberalized from a more Christian, conservative view of its preceding era.


Gordon, Linda. Voluntary Motherhood. Penguin Books.


Peiss, Kathy. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston: Cengage

Learning. 2002.

Race, Marriage, and Prostitution in Old California

Today, Americans have firm ideas about the American west during the mid to late 1800s. These ideas are highly influenced by decades of print and media culture. For some, the American west may resemble the television series Gunsmoke, for others it is akin to a Louis L’amour novel, or perhaps some think of movies like Tombstone. Usually, these ideas about the American west do not jive with historical reality. This disconnection with historical reality can chiefly be seen when it comes to perceptions of race and women on the western frontier; in this case old California. Modern perceptions of frontier women overwhelmingly revolve around white women, and there is little ethnic diversity other than “savage” and threatening natives. Other than white wives, the other type of frontier woman present in modern perceptions is the prostitute. These prostitutes are not only white, but like Gunsmoke’s Miss. Kitty Russell, these prostitutes were respectable and their business was romance. The opposite of both of these perceptions is true. Old California was a kaleidoscope of race: Hispanic, Indian, White, Black, Polynesian, Hawaiian, and Asian; and race was often the determining factor for a woman’s future. Race influenced marriagability, and in turn one’s race and lack of marriagablity determined occupation; leading many women to turn to prostitution. Across the United States, people viewed the world through race, and these racial attitudes were more than present in the American west.

In old California, race was a determining factor for men in the selection of spouses, and interracial marriage was an uncommon occurrence. In the early years of settlement some white men took Indian wives in order to gain economic connections with particular tribes. These marriages were “alliances of convince,” and were necessary to survive life on a frontier where native tribes were more numerous and powerful than the European presence in California (Hurtado, 42). As native populations declined and California became more “civilized” white men increasingly abandoned their Indian wives, realizing that having an Indian family could actually hinder their social advancement. Thus, these Indian wives were left to fend for themselves as the power dynamics in California changed and white men viewed their relationships with these women as having little value other than for sexual gratification.  Clearly, the ideals about race from the east persisted in the west. One clear continuity is that, like in the eastern United States, settlers in California strongly opposed marriage or sex between blacks and whites; especially if the intercourse was between a white woman and black man. These strictures for whites against interracial marriage also extended to most other races present in California. Interestingly, intermarriage between California Hispanics and whites were common. Chiefly because both ethnic groups were European, and European-ness was thought to make one more civilized, and thus suitable for marriage.

In old California there was also a startling connection between race and prostitution. Far from the prostitute Miss. Kitty Russell, portrayed in Gunsmoke, there is little romance involved in gold rush prostitution. California Indians were among some of the first prostitutes in old California, and due to their race they were viewed by men as little other than objects of sexual gratification (Hurtado, 86-87). The gold rush also brought other ethnic groups from around the world, especially immigrants from the Pacific islands and China. Around 1849 or 1850, Warren Sadler reordered a brief sketch of a normal Sunday morning in a typical California mining town: “You can imagine what else there is – a house just below where there are several Kanackers or Sandwich Island girls – there ‘aint much of a crowd down there” (Hurtado, 90). The house Sadler was referring to was a brothel, and the “Kanackers” he so derisively called were female Hawaiian prostitutes. Chinese prostitutes, like Ah Toy, were much more prevalent. So prevalent that by 1860 there were apparently 681 Chinese women in San Francisco, 583 of whom were prostitutes (Hurtado, 91). These prostitutes had little to no power or agency, and were essentially sex slaves that were not allowed to keep the little money they made. Prostitution in California was subversively justified on the basis of race. The lack of European ancestry made a woman less respectable and less desirable as a wife; for male miners this left women to only fulfill their role of sexual gratification.

This California census record from 1880 records the names of multiple Chinese prostitutes in Calaveras County (see lines: 18, 20, 21, and 24).

This California census record from 1880 records the names of multiple Chinese prostitutes in Calaveras County (see lines: 18, 20, 21, and 24).

It is clear that the popular perception of the American west does not match with historical reality, and that reality for women was often determined by race. Old California was not only ethnically diverse, but it also had an extremely small percentage of women. Low numbers of women in California resulted in stiff competition amongst white men for respectable wives. Women, who did not posses European ancestry, were not considered appropriate wives for white men. There was also a startling correlation between race and prostitution; like in the east, one’s race essentially determined one’s future. Many women, Indians, recent Asian immigrants, and Pacific islanders, turned to prostitution as an occupation. Unlike romanticized visions of the west, prostitution did not involve romance and was essentially race based sexual slavery. Because these women were not “civilized” and white, they were viewed as little more than sexual objects. The American west portrayed in media culture today is certainty wild; wild due to the liberties taken with historical accuracy. If the historical reality of the American west was better portrayed, perhaps what contemporary viewers would find most wild is just how different the lives of women, particularly ethnic women, were from the lives of women today.

Is it really “For better or for worse”?

Upon reading this week’s assignments, I found a tremendous amount of correlation between the social constructionist point of view on sexuality and the Native American pieces in our Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality book.  I discovered there to be many informal and formal regulations that developed sexuality and the way it was displayed in the Native American culture.  Probably one of the biggest avenues in which I saw this, and could then relate it back to our society today, was with the issue of divorce.

From our reading on Tuesday, we read Jeffrey Weeks’ social constructionist point of view regarding sexuality, and specifically the role that social regulation plays into its creation.  He mentions that formal methods of regulation pertaining to “sexual life vary from time to time depending on the significance of religion, the changing role of the state, the existence or not of a moral consensus which regulate marriage patterns, divorce rates and incidence of sexual unorthodoxy” (Weeks, 8).  I immediately thought of this form of regulation when I came across the different passages pertaining to how the Native Americans viewed marriage and ultimately the process of divorce.  Baron Lahontan described their view of marriage as “a source of Trouble and Uneasiness” and that they looked “upon it as a monstrous thing to be tied one to another without any hopes of being able to unite or break the Knot” (Lahontan, 29).  They looked upon the Europeans as essentially crazy for valuing marriage in the way that they did and I believe it is this shift in value that developed the casualness of divorce in their society.  Unlike our society today, where divorce is a complicated matter and one that many don’t want to go through, the Native Americans had developed a very smooth divorce process, “’Tis allowable both for the Man and the Woman to part when they please.  Commonly they give one another eight Days of Warning…You must observe that this Separation is accomplish’d without any Dispute or Quarrel” (Lahontan, 30).  I think if divorce was approached in this way and taken this lightly in our society, it would happen much more frequently and wouldn’t be viewed in such a negative light by those going through the process.

In our society today, there are established formal regulations in place for marriage that tell us it is a binding commitment, this is particularly true in the churches.  This is developed from the idea that marriage is a sacred union, created by God, and it is not this contractual item that says that we must remain married unless our spouse does __________ (fill in the blank) and then it is okay to divorce.  Take a look at our marriage vows, “For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live,” I don’t think those vows allow for any wiggle room or escape clause.  In drastic times, divorce has been sought in our society and is not generally frowned upon, but when sought for no particular reason, just simply because things got boring or hard, is not something that is praised in our society today.  The Native Americans saw marriage “by the means of a Contract, or rather a Lease of Thirty Years” (Lahontan, 29).  Their whole belief and mindset of marriage is completely skewed from ours and they exhibit “this ability to change spouses ‘when it seems good to them’” (Spear, 62).

I unfortunately though, believe that our society is beginning to revert to these Native American practices and beliefs, pushing aside our formal regulations for marriage and desiring that of the Native American culture.  For many, marriage is something they don’t even want to consider because of the possibility of never being able to get out of it, very similar to the Native Americans’ point of view.  The whole process of divorce and the stigma that can come along with being divorced, keeps people from getting married in the first place and thus leads to more “one night stands” or long-term relationships of just living together but never making it official.  Those vows we say are sacred and binding and that scares many people.  Marriage’s true meaning is thus overlooked and everyone just becomes concerned about themselves and how they best can serve themselves – religion has lost its importance in our society, thus marriage’s lifelong commitment has been cast aside.  If they begin to have some hard times in a marriage, they just want out, rather than trying to fix the problem with the person they’ve pledged their life too.  Our divorce rate is still high, 3.4 percent per 1,000 people, which puts us into the top ten countries with the highest divorce rates, we are number 5 (“Highest Divorce Rates in the World”, Reich).  This lends me to believe that these Native ways our perhaps invading our society.  Steve Martin, a family demographer commented that the number of divorces has declined but this is mostly because the number of marriages has declined as well (“Census: Divorces Decline in the United States”, Yen).  The formal regulation that was once established with divorce, and even the informal, is slowly beginning to dissipate, because many are choosing not to marry.  The view on divorce is changing and thus the view of marriage is changing.  The one thing still holding people back from marriage is the fear of forever and the process of getting out of that commitment.

Articles: – “Census: Divorces Decline in the United States” – “Highest Divorce Rates in the World”



Native Women, Feminine Sexuality, and the Cross-Cultural Experience in the “New World”

Thirtie young women came naked out of the woods, only covered behind and before with a few green leaves, their bodies all painted.”- John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia (1624)

John Smith was not the only European to document the “nakedness” of Native women; in fact he is simply one of the many Europeans in the “New World” to do so. Decades before, Christopher Columbus remarked that Native women, like Native men, went “naked as the day they were born” (Perdue, 39). As if nakedness was not already enough to challenge European senses, settlers were further shocked to discover that Native women also possessed a great deal of liberty in expressing and asserting their sexuality. Perhaps more astounding was that Native women not only held significant sexual power, but that they also held varying degrees of familial and political power. European reactions to the nakedness, sexual liberty, and power of Native women were shaped by their own culture, and their understanding of indigenous peoples was colored by thick Western lenses. Regardless, these accounts of cross-cultural contact offer a surprising wealth of information about European and Native cultures, particularly when it comes to the role of women and female sexuality.

Nakedness is a prominent theme in early records of cross-cultural contact between Europeans and Natives. As Theda Perdue plainly asserts, nudity insured that nakedness was a common theme in records of contact (Predue, 40). To Europeans, nudity, at least public nudity, was unacceptable, uncivilized, and bestial. To them nudity and sexuality were intrinsically linked, an assumption that persists to this day. More importantly, Europeans saw clothing as a mark of civilization. Later records of cross-cultural contact indicate that northern tribes were considered more civilized than southern tribes due to the pervasiveness of clothing in the north due to colder climates. These initial contacts were foretelling. Nude native women were viewed by Europeans in blatantly sexual ways, often Native women were viewed only in sexual ways.

Wife of a chief of Pomeiooc, John White, c. 1585
A “nude” Native woman with daughter

European accounts of cross-cultural contact also reveal shock at the freedom Native women had to express, exert, and explore their own sexuality. In 1704 the Baron de Lahontan wrote that among the Huron people a woman “is Master of her own Body, and by her Natural Right of Liberty is free to do what she pleases (Lahontan, 28).” Further south, a trader James Adair observed that the Cherokees allowed “their women full liberty to plant their brows with horns as oft as they please, without fear of punishment (Perdue, 42).” Another English trader, John Lawson, revealed similar circumstances among the indigenous peoples of North Carolina, remarking that the Natives never gave their daughters “in Marriage without their own consent (Lawson, 33).” Both Lahontan and Lawson also recorded an acceptance of premarital sex among native peoples and the power women had to control these premarital sexual encounters. Lahontan and Lawson further write that, unlike European societies, those who engaged in premarital sex were not scorned. Contrary to Native culture, mainstream European thought maintained that women should be the passive recipients of male sexual desire, and that sexual intercourse must occur in ways that allowed the man fill the dominate role (i.e. the missionary position).

These cross-cultural accounts also show Native women in positions of power and European reactions to that power. When John Smith and a delegation from Jamestown visited the Powhatan people, they were received by Chief Powhatan’s daughter and a group of women due to the chief’s absence (Perdue, 40). Presumably this group of women held power and respect within the tribe. Such an important delegation would certainty not have been received by normal Powhatans, but by respected tribal members and elders. In this case, the task of receiving this delegation fell to Powhatan women, who were acting on behalf of their people as diplomatic agents. Similar accounts of Native women with power can be seen in Lahontan’s discussion of Huron marriage ceremonies, in which the bride was the primary focus of the ceremony. In fact, it was the bride’s family, particularly her female relatives that were the most active in the marriage ceremony. John Lawson’s account even suggests that North Carolina Natives were matriarchal, particularly in his discussion of the division of children during a divorce: “Children always fall to the Woman’s Lot (Lawson, 32).” Writing further about divorce Lawson indicates that divorce was relatively easy and that both men and women had the “Liberty to leave the other (Lawson, 33).” In Europe divorce was particularly hard to attain and legitimate reasons for divorce were few. More importantly, requests for divorces almost always came from men and legitimate children produced by the marriage remained with the father.

In conclusion, cross-cultural accounts between Europeans and Natives in the “New World” reveal a surprising wealth of information about both European and Native culture. This is particularly true when examining perceptions of women’s roles and female sexuality. It is clear that indigenous female sexuality not only challenged European worldviews, but also ran counter to European ideas that men were the natural arbiters of power. Europeans also believed that women were sexual objects of men and that women must fulfill male sexual desire as a right of marriage- willing or not. This was not the case for many Native peoples; men and women expressed their sexuality with relative freedom in the confines of what was sacredly permitted. Unfortunately, Europeans did not come to the “New World” peacefully and Natives, by-in-large, stood in the way of European goals. The stereotype of the sexually promiscuous powerful native woman reinforced European opinions that Natives were uncivilized; and those stereotypes helped them to legitimize conquest, rape, and genocide.