Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mother Is a Verb

An Unconventional History

Sarah Knott

Sarah Crichton Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

Mothering by Numbers



Back to the beginning, before there is any child on hand, just as research is under way. Mothering is only an abstract prospect.1

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late-summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I’m not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least I think we both know—that surveys suggest that men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women.

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

How did people in the past act about how many children to have, and what did they assume about family size? What might a person have seen, of mothering and numbers, in their own time and place?

The Miami and the Potawatomi people who once moved across the hilly Midwestern landscape beyond the window, traveling between large summer agricultural settlements and smaller winter villages, cared little for singletons. The women who processed furs and cultivated corn, pumpkin, and kidney beans had multiple children apiece and cared for them communally. Children were cautiously spaced three to four years apart by the use of local abortifacient herbs, sexual abstinence, and late weaning. This was a kin-based world, in which family cooperation was crucial to survival. In Pennsylvania or in Ohio, observers routinely noted that Indian families averaged four to six children.2

Farther east in these seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the settlers edging onto the vast North American continent had more children than the Native peoples they sought to displace and the Old Worlders they had left behind. The settler women who inhabited former Iroquois or Algonquian lands typically married in their late teens or early twenties and gave birth every eighteen months to two years. This more frequent birthrate was the approved rhythm of reproduction, so usual as to seem natural and God-given, as well as a sign of prosperity. Large families were especially typical among the gentry, in urban Jewish communities, and among German inhabitants, all of whom married young. In the old European societies from which the colonists had migrated, meanwhile, where economic life was often less certain, women married later, if they ever did wed, and gave birth every two to three years. Many never had the material security to marry at all.

Most societies are not interested in keeping collective numerical accounts. I learn about these birthrates mainly thanks to modern demographers working backward.

* * *

For a childless person, the numbers can seem terribly cold and out of reach, even off-putting. Modern demographers who count and graph show that the numbers have shifted further over time, from an average of eight or seven children in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, or five or four in Britain, to 2.2 or lower in both places by the later twentieth century. They culled and amassed the numbers mainly from Western sources: local censuses, family histories, wills, church records, and then, since the nineteenth century, from national surveys. I pause, take in a breath over the first North American number: an average, nearly, of broad-hipped, thick-shaped 8.3

Can the numbers be brought forward into the warm hubbub of daily routine, I wonder? The fertility transition, as the demographers crisply term it, is surely the major shift that has shaped maternity since the seventeenth century. If there is an overarching narrative about mothering, the change in likelihood from larger to smaller families is as close as we might get.

The average numbers—from eight or five to 2.2—suggest three broad changes in lived expectations, a trilogy of shifts in what a person might anticipate in their future:

From childbearing … to childrearing. Or, less succinctly put, a “before” of bearing many babies and inhabiting a body marked by multiple pregnancies and births, and an “after” of bearing just a few. A “before” of mothering an assemblage of children, maternal attention distracted and divided, and an “after” of the intensive mothering of one child, or half a handful … not that I can quite imagine either.

From accepting the fertility mainly handed out by fate … to an emphasis on family planning. That shift was driven less by new forms of contraception and more by knowledge and by the arrival of a strong orientation to the future—indeed, of counting more precisely. Plan your children, ran the later logic, consider their spacing, assess what you can afford, act accordingly.

And from the prospect of continual maternity, layered over with grandmothering, to just a handful of years caring for infants. Once, the numbers suggest, mothering lent a permanent and defining adult status. Later, and today, mothering babies became more like a short moment in a life cycle.

“Do not you, my friend,” Susanna Hopkins wrote in a letter, “think the person very contracted in his notions”—small-minded—“who would have us [women] to be nothing more than domesticated animals?” The young Marylander was writing at the beginning of these changes, in the late-eighteenth-century United States. She recoiled from older ways that she thought treated women like breeding livestock. The fertility transition began in exactly her generation, around the American Revolution, when some women had the opportunity to apply the radical message of liberty and independence to their personal lives. Sarah Logan Fisher, a Quaker merchant’s wife, remarked on a contemporary’s “6th child before she is 29”: too many, too early, and too fast. The rejection of older ways, the sense of enacting new possibilities, seems as radical and profound as throwing off monarchy.4

Frenchwomen’s demographic history followed a similarly revolutionary path. Britain followed suit in reducing family size by the later nineteenth century, a change most often associated with industrialization.

Whenever and wherever the transition in family size, women gained in health and in control over their bodies and their time. They came to peg ideal family size to precise and particular numbers. Esther Atlee, an elite Pennsylvanian, might have assessed the shift as an improved lot. In the 1780s she noted her poor mood on being pregnant yet again: “I cannot account for a glooming which too frequently comes over me,” she wrote, immediately adding, “if I had some relief in my family affairs … I should be much easier.” (This pregnancy would nudge the number of her children into two figures.) Looking back from 1855 at the rural life of her grandmother, who had a dozen children, Martha Bowen of Williamsport noted that “having the care of a large family … her sphere of operation was limited.” The intervening generation had four children. Martha, a minister’s wife, had only one.5

The altered prospects were typically experienced piecemeal and in local circumstances. Visitors to the small American city of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s noted that the obligatory fruitfulness inherited from the 1890s had been “relaxed.” Families of six to fourteen children were no longer seen “as ‘nice’ as families of two, three or four.” In 1930s London, a young woman like the sewing machinist Doris Hanslow could associate having fewer children with such other recent domestic improvements as hot running water or electric lighting or municipal housing. Her mother had eight children in turn-of-the-century Bermondsey. Like other working-class London women of her generation, Doris would have fewer, just two. My London grandmother, who scrubbed steps for extra cash, was behind the curve; she had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood. Asked about ideal family size, a woman on the city’s streets, just after the Second World War, might answer “one’s enough,” or maybe two or three. One, because “You’ve got to bring them up decent, haven’t you.” Three, because “I’d like to give them all I possibly could and I don’t think I could afford more.”6

In particular communities, the numbers sometimes went the other way. Nineteenth-century Cree women, living on the North American prairies, usually had four children. But the numbers rose in the 1860s, perhaps because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles as the buffalo-hunt years came to an end. Numbers found their way into Cree stories: “‘Long ago’ we never had more children than we could grab and run with if there was a battle.” Ojibwe people living on reservations in 1930s Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota might have agreed that it was better to have fewer children as in the old days. An informant told the Catholic nun and anthropologist Inez Hilger that it was “a disgrace to have children like steps and stairs.”7

The demands of fruitfulness, the threat of “glooming,” the limits placed on a woman’s “sphere of operation,” emerge rugged and intimidating from times of large families.

The possible pleasures taken in what has been lost are more intangible. Quiet pride in a stout, teeming body, perhaps. Or the pleasing generosity of gathering up a parcel of children. Or the reappearance in a newborn of the looks of a now-grown child. Or the carved documentation on a gravestone of dozens of living descendants. Somewhere between the fecund past and the parsimonious present, mothering as dilemma replaced mothering as destiny.

* * *

When I was growing up, it seemed unlikely that I would have children. I wanted an interesting life. I wanted to be independent and to have an equal relationship—aspirations that befitted an English grammar schoolgirl and a beneficiary of second-wave feminism. Motherhood looked boring, constrained, domestic, and drained of adult conversation. I loved my mum with all the complacency of the well-loved child, but I disliked her deference to my dad, with whom I also closely identified. He did not like small children; nor did I; only in my twenties did I realize that some people were not simply being polite when they cooed over a baby.

When I was in my early thirties, an older friend I greatly admire observed that her life’s regret was not having children. I met some independent-minded types who unabashedly adored and enjoyed their kids. Suddenly the matter seemed entirely different. This kind of revelation is not uncommon in the twenty-first century, when, it seems, a person is not having a child, until they are. Deciding for or against is the latest version of mothering by numbers, a very contemporary twist: not just how many children to have, but rather, whether to have a child at all.

Many considerations and many different heritages can shape such a revelation. “Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence” reads the subtitle of a memoir by Rebecca Walker, daughter of the black feminist icon Alice Walker. To the Edinburgh writer Chitra Ramaswamy, pregnancy appears as a sudden temptation and a complex riddle: how to cast aside the sentimentality, sanitization, and science; the prescription, self-help, and emotionally manipulative doggerel; the lies, misconceptions, and unwanted advice; the politicking; the never-ending slew of new stories?8

The issue of children is already settled for my colleague. His partner radiates competence. When K and I go hiking with them in the local woods, she sends their two small children ahead looking for an oversize mushroom here, or a letter-shaped stick there, spurring them past fatigue. The same competence clings to my colleague and, I notice, to K, who lifts the smaller one onto his shoulders. You choose to have one first.

* * *

The demographic graph stays with me, peoples my imagination about former, lost worlds. In most societies before the twentieth century, there must have been crowds and crowds of little children. Infants were visible to all: quite the contrast with our present day, where those who are not mothering are typically sequestered from those who are. My ignorance about babies, the sharp sense of a divide, is a modern invention.9

Those little children of former times ran in crowds, despite higher infant mortality. By the middle of the twentieth century, few parents lost a baby, but in all previous centuries infant death was an experience that parents would have been lucky to avoid. Demographers cannot entirely explain the declining mortality rates, though they point to improved standards of living.

My less haunting subject, I determine, will be among those who stayed alive and together: the living mothering of a living child, rather than maternal mortality, infant loss, or forced relinquishment. In the raw unknown of whether a child is in my future, only that mothering is fully bearable to contemplate.

The more ghostly histories I leave to others. The living mothering of a living child, those twinned becomings, takes imagination and research enough.

* * *

“How I shall get along when I have got ½ dozen or 10 Children I can’t devise,” fretted the New Jersey colonist Esther Edwards Burr after her child’s birth in 1755. Narcissa Whitman, a pioneer in Oregon a century later, might have recognized these concerns, knowing firsthand the immediate consequences of mothering a large brood. “My Dear Parents,” she wrote in a rare but warmly affectionate missive back to New York in 1845, “I have now a family of eleven children. This makes me feel as if I could not write a letter.”10

I come upon more and more letters or firsthand accounts that contain such chance references, such unintended and on-the-ground dispatches from different points along the fertility transition. The vast majority were penned by the most literate and the more leisured. Here, in these beginnings of research, it proves easiest to turn mothering by numbers into people, to imagine how the changing fertility numbers felt real, for the literate classes of Britain and North America.

It is much harder to bring mothering alive for, say, enslaved women, or for Native peoples, or for the working classes of my own past. Literacy was harshly prohibited among enslaved people, meaning that we have few documents left behind in their own handwriting. North American Native groups of all kinds conveyed their cultures orally rather than in written words that were deposited in archives. The working classes of every race and ethnicity spent most of their waking hours simply getting by. But I can persist. Without them, the view is misleading, truncated, wrong.

* * *

My colleague’s small children keep growing, and he is sticking with a pair.

Nought, one, or two? None or some?



2

Generation



Conceiving takes moments. Repeating moments, perhaps, but moments nonetheless. After so many years of safe sex, a whole adult life of carefully unreproductive and alternate intimacies, there was a certain glimmer of novelty about the whole business. There is surely a history to such moments of coital sex, to the acts associated with what one late-eighteenth-century diarist termed “jumbling up” a child.1

Recent generations are heirs to the sexual revolution and to the story of sex it tells about the past. Famously, as the poet Philip Larkin quipped, sex did not begin until 1963. For the first time, or so it seemed, the Pill separated sex from reproduction, and a racy new world of sexuality was born. Earlier generations were pitied as repressed, unfulfilled, and weighed down with shame and moral anxiety. Women of former times were imagined to have silently lain back and thought about something else. Now the Pill was commonly seen as a blessing. Modern sensuality meant sexual openness, sex as pleasure, sex for its own sake. Anything else, or anything earlier, was bad or indifferent.2

The glimmering novelty I feel, the sheer peculiarity of adding reproduction to sex, procreative hopes to sexual desire, surely makes me an inheritor of this modern story, its fortunate beneficiary. I am the beneficiary, too, of an even newer world, in which sex appears loosed from heterosexuality. Coming of age can routinely mean coming out. “Choice” now concerns both whom you sleep with and whether or not you want to conceive a child, even as such forces as poverty, male rapacity, or die-hard conservatism work to deny that. I may be hoping to conceive, with a man, the old-fashioned way, but I am getting to be choosy, doing so of my own volition.

What of the Dark Ages of sex implied by these recent stories of sexual revolution and of comings out? Was there really only an unrelenting, unchanging, silent world of coital sex before 1963? That seems like a caricature, or perhaps a myth, sex rarely being simply pleasure or simply procreation.

Of course, the history of past sexual activities is almost uniquely hard to know. But we can ask the question. If “mother” is a verb, then procreating is a usual, original activity, babies of any kind—adoptive, surrogate, your “own”—not coming from storks.

* * *

Was sex only dreary and silent before the sexual revolution? Occasionally that question has been asked directly of those who knew best. Members of the generations just prior—those who came of age and married in the 1930s and 1940s—are mainly gone now. But before the century’s end, some from the English industrial heartlands of Lancashire and the more affluent Home Counties sat down with a pair of researchers. Phyllis, a lower-middle-class woman born in Blackburn in 1921, who ran a small grocery business with her husband, was among them. She remembered the topic of sex as decidedly off-limits. “It wasn’t discussed at school; it wasn’t discussed at home” with her parents. She hadn’t liked boys who were “pushy.” Most young women, wanting to preserve their respectability, were encouraged to steer clear of any discussion of sex, even in confiding relationships with a mother or friends. They grew up carefully trained to be private and hygienic with their bodies, discreetly covering themselves from view on family wash night, and avoiding wandering hands on the way home from a dance hall.3

Doreen, a churchgoer and builder’s wife, awkwardly recalled her wedding night. The pair lay there, one on each side of the bed, “thick as two planks.” Asked what sort of kisses she had, she answered, “Not sloppy ones.” “I wouldn’t tolerate that.” “I’ve had plenty of kisses but they’ve had to be proper ones.” These women voiced concerns about passing on germs, and hinted at strong taboos against experimentation. Surely this made for unsatisfactory or dreary sex? Doreen, for one, never really liked that marital obligation. At first glance, drear and silence seem exactly right. Dreary ignorance, dreary duty.

Yet not entirely so. Some of these same ways showed themselves, perhaps surprisingly, as a foundation for meaningful sex. That same privacy, or the prizing of cleanliness, could be hallmarks of loving sex, dimensions of sexiness. Phyllis and her husband did find it impossible to undress in front of each other. “I mean we’d never get in bed naked or get undressed, you know, in front of people”—that is, each other. But did she enjoy sex? “Yes, I suppose so, yes.” Her husband would deliberately “hold back” for her pleasure. Dora, a dressmaker who married a car mechanic in 1945, remarked with implicit relish, “He built me a gorgeous bathroom. It was as big as that … it took two years to build. He was a devil really, honestly.” Penny “didn’t ever undress” for sex, but she saw “it” as natural, enjoyable, and easy. On courting with her “country boy” and later husband, they’d go walking and “sort of lay down and have a kiss and a cuddle.” She added, “I think it just goes on from there … it just led up to that and then you know it automatically … it automatically came to you that something was going to happen.”

Perhaps most striking, these women did not link sexual duty in marriage to sexual misery. For them, dutiful sex might also be pleasurable. Phyllis’s tentative affirmation that she liked sex—“Yes, I suppose so, yes”—came with an explanation: “It’s a, to me it was just a way of saying ‘I love you,’ you, er, showing your” (coughs) “showing your affection for each other really.” What did Eleanor, a former weaver, actually enjoy about it? “Well the actual thing, you know” (pause) “yeah the actual thing … it’s nice for a woman to enjoy sex because a man likes you to enjoy it, doesn’t he?” The remark teetered between her pleasure and his, between marital expectation and her enjoyment.

In the wake of the sexual revolution, engaging in sex as a form of obligation is seen as unpleasurable almost by definition, as clear evidence that a relationship is in crisis. These women recalled good sex, and bad sex, rather differently. If they guessed, correctly, that later generations thought their ethos of privacy “silly” or “stupid”—all that never seeing each other “in the nuddie” and the scrupulous bath taking—they also thought their younger, modern critics did not take proper care of themselves.

Most touching, looking back from now, is the absence of fretting about the curve of a thigh or the depth of a cleavage. Shining hair, a clean complexion, and trim clothes seem to have mattered to sexual attractiveness, but not much else. Most strange and distancing, retrospectively, and most confirming of later assumptions, is the absence of words, the lack of language to accompany the gestures and touch and feelings between two people.

The women spoke to their interviewers in fumbling, unrehearsed stories, as if sexual intimacy was being described aloud for the first time, as if marital sex was a silent, interior experience. The women did not merely “sit back and then settle back,” as one middle-class woman wryly put it, but sex was certainly shrouded in silence, left largely undiscussed, undescribed, unspoken. The signs of a husband being interested might simply be “the usual, two arms around me instead of one.” Or a wife might cue, “Go and have a bath upstairs.”

* * *

Obligation hovers, sometimes duels with spontaneity. I count out the fertile days, lightly, discreetly. I tell K about the bathrooms, the silences.

* * *

If not always dreary and indifferent, was silence invariably a feature of coital moments before the revolution of 1963? The silence of the 1930s and 1940s generation seems confirmed by the mainstream dictionaries of the twentieth century, where words for sex appeared only with the advent of the sexual revolution. Nor do sex words appear in the lexicographical tomes of the nineteenth century, their absence fitting the general stereotype that procreative sex among British and American Victorians was short, prudish, and unhappy. Nor, to keep going backward, can sex words be found in Samuel Johnson’s famous mid-eighteenth-century Dictionary of the English Language. A lexicographical investigation seems to end in a quiet cul-de-sac.4

Yet head back considerably further, and the arrival of sex words in the 1960s turns out to be merely a reappearance. They are there in the English dictionaries of the seventeenth century and even earlier. Of what do they speak?5

Sitting on a dictionary page, seventeenth-century sex words look earthy, vigorous, often big on metaphor or on body parts, and sometimes baffling. Yielding. Sporting. Tumbling. Clipping. Clapping. There’s a way to reread such words now that can slip between shame and prurience, and reveal something of past sexual moments, even at great distance. (No oral interviewers were on hand in the seventeenth century, and no direct traces of sexual moments were left behind in a woman’s own handwriting.) We can think of the dictionary words as offstage actions turned into vibrant, lively language—a glimpse of acts at one remove. If so, having sex in that century made for the following verbs and phrases for sex in general: lusting; being lewd or lascivious, or wanton or bawdy; having carnal knowledge or congress; enacting the rite of love. Some of these terms sound passionate or wild, others exploratory or possessive, others loving.

Coital sex between men and women, my particular concern, suggested such verbs as fornicating, copulating, consummating, lying with, and swiving—rhymes with jiving. (Below the radar, seventeenth-century pornography portrayed procreative sex as especially sexy.) The moving body parts during such acts forged a massive array of nouns, of one thing fitting into another thing. Arranged in pairings of female and male, the reproductive parts were bit and bit, box and bauble, cony and pintle, fig and pizzle, purse and yard. Some of the accompanying acts and gestures, meanwhile, invoked wooing, chin chucking (a facial caress), patting fondly, fondling, and firking like a flounder (a way of arousing someone, though quite how is elusive).

The tumble of words sounds faintly Shakespearean, like attending a play and waiting for your ear to attune to a different vocabulary. That’s an appropriate scene to reimagine. The audience at one early modern theatrical performance heard a character remark, playing the line for laughs: talk about sex straight out and stop tiptoeing about with “your ‘rope in the ring,’ your ‘obelisk in the Coliseum,’ your ‘leek in the garden,’ your ‘key in the lock,’ your ‘bolt in the door’ … not to mention … your ‘little monkey,’ your ‘this,’ your ‘that,’ your ‘him’ and your ‘her.’” The character, a courtesan, had metaphors aplenty: pestle in the mortar, sword in the scabbard.

I don’t know if those seventeenth-century Englishwomen who consulted dictionaries or attended plays experienced these acts and words as belonging fully to them as well as to men. Certainly there were women of all kinds in the audiences of seventeenth-century theaters. Workingwomen, gentry, aristocrats, prostitutes, and mistresses jostled shoulders.6 Some surely expected to get a funny line by a courtesan about a rope in the ring or an obelisk in a garden. Others surely carefully adjusted their faces. The metaphors for coital sex usually assumed that men took charge of the action—picking a lock, pounding an anvil, piercing a bodkin, jousting with a lance, stealing the treasure, laying siege—but women may have preferred to think of a “bit” fitting with a “bit” over being pierced or besieged, over gardens and obelisks, locks and keys, sheaths and scabbards.

Not being able to describe sex was typically seen as virtuous. But in seventeenth-century England, women were generally seen as the lustier sex, their passions readily able to overwhelm.

So moments of coital sex in seventeenth-century England, by this evidence, were unlikely to have been as silent as versions in 1930s and 1940s Lancashire. That particular society, from among those of the Dark Ages of sex, could be relatively unskittish about sex talk. In the world of the lexicographers and the theatergoers, the bawdy wordiness lasted at least until the later part of the century, when a rising puritan propriety tamped down sex talk. The evidence suggests a kind of sexual revolution in reverse, as brisk as the changes of the 1960s. The lexicographers and playwrights heard people stop talking publicly about chin chucking or firking like flounders, and we no longer have such phrases in our stock.

* * *

Conceiving does indeed take repeating moments, and weeks turn into months. The clarity of wanting to get pregnant wears away.

Things won’t change between us, will they? I ask of K. There’ll just be an addition, something new in our lives, but not something altered between you and me?

I locate a recording of Philip Larkin reading his poem about the sexual revolution. His tone is offhand and deadpan, his voice faintly proper. In 1967, the year the poem was composed, the Family Planning Act was making oral contraception easily accessible to unmarried as well as to married British women. Similar changes occurred in France in 1967, and the United States in 1972. It must have seemed as if the whole world, whether unmarried, married, or never married, was changing overnight. I’m not surprised that the story that emerged was so confident about a singularly bad past.7

“Until then,” Larkin reads with flat disdain, “there’d only been” the tussle between men and women over sex and marriage. Bargaining. The threat of shame. A “wrangle” over a wedding ring. British women of his youth had a whole, worried vocabulary for premarital sex: “losing one’s head,” “giving in,” “giving way.” Sheila Walker was among the unlucky bargainers. At age nineteen she had fallen for the father of her child “hook, line and sinker”: “I saw marriage on the horizon with him so I thought that it was probably okay. I was quite safe, and he would take good care of me if anything happened…” But he “just went completely cold on me. He changed and that was it, that was the end.” She ended up in a Mother and Baby Home.8

If the singular drear and silence of the Dark Ages of sex is overstated, Larkin’s “there’d only been” is understatement, too. I think of the bald fact of male privilege, and the coercive forms it could take. In rural Essex, some three hundred years before I was raised there, notions of sexual property posed a dilemma for ordinary young women. Most worked as farm servants: tending cows, pulling weeds, caring for chickens. But such women had long been seen as the sexual property of their masters. A majority of illegitimate births were among farm servants, more than half of whom had become pregnant by the men who hired them. That a master of a family “had to do with me” was a baleful and frequent remark in the church courts. City life was no better. As Robert Parker told Alice Ashmore in 1606 London, “Thou art my servant and I may do with thee what I please.” Such humiliating phrases got recorded in courts set up to enforce marital morality.9

Being treated as sexual property was the dilemma, too, of enslaved women in North America. During the centuries of American slavery, the rapacity of overseers and slaveholders revealed itself through children perceived to have a distinctive hue, or through the existence of entire “shadow” families. In the 1930s, a formerly enslaved man recalled the tactics of a South Carolinian master before the Civil War. He would instruct a young woman to “go shell corn in the crib”: the granary. “He’s the master so she had to go. Then he sent the others to work some other place.” The story continued: “Then he went to the crib. He did this to my very aunt and she had a mulatto boy.”10

In a rare and famous firsthand account, the abolitionist Harriet Jacobs explained these ordinary facts of life. Her North Carolina slave master was already the father of eleven slaves. James Norcom “told me,” she recounted in 1861, that “I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.” He whispered and threatened and harassed. He was violent. Such stories were news neither to Southern slaves nor to white slave mistresses, who routinely loathed their husbands’ “concubines” and “fancy maids.” Under a pseudonym, Harriet Jacobs explained to the white women readers of the free North her calculation: to form a relationship with an unmarried white man who might better protect the resulting children. Her involvement with a town lawyer was, as she cast it, “a perilous passage.” Perhaps James Norcom would back off, perhaps the Edenton lawyer might purchase and free the two children she eventually bore.11

* * *

Still not pregnant. What’s missing in the story that the sexual revolution of the sixties wanted to tell, I now notice—and there’s no reason it should have wanted otherwise—is the desire for a begotten child, the fleshy history of hopes to conceive. In 1776, the wife of a Scottish linen draper was impregnated with the aid of a warm syringe, a rare and daring—and successful—early attempt at artificial insemination. (The advising physician dared to publish his notes only many years later.) For the first century thereafter, in medical fit to marital expectations, only a husband’s sperm was used.12

The giving and receiving of “seed,” where it got named aloud, was called ecstasy, epilepsy, cough, spilling, dousing, purging, or flowing forth. The longest-standing historical answer to how to conceive held that a woman, as well as a man, must experience something like this, something like what we now call orgasm. This understanding, popularly held among white American settlers and their descendants, and by English people, derived from a certain logic of sexual sameness. People were thought to have roughly the same sex organs, just differently located. To paraphrase one medical student, turn the scrotum, testicles, and penis inside out and you get a woman’s genitalia. An early bishop put the same idea more gently: “Women have the same genitals as men, except that theirs are inside the body and not outside it.”13

A seventeenth-century treatise on midwifery in the Lilly Library, five minutes from my office, displays an anatomical engraving that looks at first glance like a slightly unattractive, hairy penis with a thick-rimmed head. But the image is of internal female anatomy. The tiny crouched fetus-in-a-womb displayed at the organ’s top makes the point unmissable. The logic of sameness had the sometimes happy, sometimes terrible effect of suggesting that both a woman and a man had to “orgasm” for conception to occur. The “emissions” were mutual: a man emitted, a woman emitted and received.14

Intuitive ideas often take a long time to die. As late as the 1860s, one urban doctor sniffily complained that it was still “the vulgar opinion” that “to ensure conception, sexual intercourse should be performed with a certain degree of completeness, that would give an exhaustive satisfaction to both parties at the same moment.” A social scientist interviewing poor American farm women in the 1930s noted a “belief indirectly alluded to but only once expressly stated is that a woman conceives when she has an orgasm.”15

Licit and deliberately procreative sex has been encouraged in many different ways. Recommendations included eating and drinking moderately, being in a peaceful frame of mind, and enjoying foreplay and the “warming” of the woman’s parts. Margaret Godolphin, then a young bride, heard from a male mentor in 1676 that the avoidance of female orgasm during intercourse was “not only impossible, but a stupidity, and an impediment to the chief End.” (His explanation switched the usual seventeenth-century emphasis on male action: a husband might be “perpetually ravished with her Love.”) Take warming herbs, such as rocket, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon, or make a syrup from sea holly. Separate slowly and carefully afterward—and avoid coughing or sneezing. Have sex once a week (handed down from Plato), or perhaps three or four times a week (a physician named Willich)—but not too much, as too frequent intercourse is debilitating.16

* * *

What about the act of generation since 1963? Bonnie Pereira, who was a young lesbian in 1970s America, remarked that she “wanted to be a mother” and had sex with a man exclusively to do so. Her contemporary Michelle O’Neill, who spoke to the same researcher, explained that she had “always loved children, particularly babies” and had conceived her son through artificial insemination. Turkey-baster babies, they were initially called.17 It’s not just that sex can be separated from reproduction, it’s also that both have been released from heterosexual relations. The twenty-first century is a world of proliferating identities and forms of family-making. Across the street from my house, a lesbian couple has two children, one by each mother. Karen tells me about being the surrogate, too, for close straight friends—the legalities, the medical interviews to check her suitability.

I replay Larkin’s recording for a final time, drawn back to its particular datedness. The simple equation on which it is based sounds quaint and narrow: a straight man and a straight woman equals sexual attraction. This formulation was archetypal of the twentieth century in which Larkin was born, lived, and died. Being a heterosexual—having heterosexuality as a full-on identity, excluding all others, seeing coitus as “it”—properly came with stringent naming and normalization in the later nineteenth century. The word entered vernacular use via marriage guides and advice columns in the 1920s.18 Isn’t heterosexual identity fading in our twenty-first century?

This changing present calls forth changing histories. What if the ways that individual societies and particular people knitted together intimacy, desire, and identity—and baby-making—have differed quite considerably? Discrete moments of coital sex may have occurred alongside and around a range of experiences, that is, were experienced in relation to varieties of desire previously unacknowledged. The seventeenth-century dictionaries certainly suggest a great range of visceral acts and bedmates. Boy love, male-mingled love. Sodomitesse, fricatrice. Many of the English dictionary sex words had little to do with coition. A great many failed to presume that sex occurs between a man and a woman.19

And elsewhere? One historical alternative to heterosexuality existed among seventeenth-century Native Miami peoples. Here were men who dressed in women’s clothing and took on the ostensibly female roles of tending the fields, cooking, and making clothing, behavior that astonished early French observers. Another historical alternative occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when “female husbands” appeared in the English popular press on both sides of the Atlantic, a familiar if often mocking byword for same-sex unions. The Scottish-born Charles Hamilton, married to a Mary Price, was reckoned by a doctor in 1752 to be “a Woman in Men’s Clothes.” A hundred years later, an infant was born to a person who lived most of their life as Joseph Lobdell. The surviving records document Lobdell’s intent “to dress in men’s attire to seek labor,” being “used to men’s work,” and marriage to a Marie Louise Perry in 1862 Pennsylvania. Laws against cross-dressing were adopted only in the last few decades of the nineteenth century.20

Or warm sensuality between women may have characterized straight-married lives. In the nineteenth century, middle-class married women’s letters to their female friends could breathe with an erotic intimacy we would now relabel, and re-steer, as distinctly lesbian or queer. The New Yorker Jeannie Fisher ended a missive to her former boarding school friend Sarah Wister in 1861: “I will go to bed … [though] I could write all night—A thousand kisses—I love you with my whole soul—Your Angelina.” Age twenty-nine and married, she declared in another letter, “I shall be entirely alone [this coming week]. I can give you no idea how desperately I shall want you.” These female friends were not straining at convention. They saw themselves as entirely respectable, living at ease in a world that highly segregated women and men. Aside from sharing sensual love, the main activities of such middle-class matrons were confined to being domestic and attending church, visiting female friends and family, and having children.21

A thousand kisses, wrote Jeannie Fisher. Moments of coital sex happened in and around other intimacies. There have been many ways to be sensual or intimate or sexy: many life contexts for moments of procreation. Pluralize and specify, I think to myself. Take nothing bodily for granted, nothing visceral as self-evident. That’s exhilarating.

* * *

Past experiences of desire reach us only in the form of words, echoes, or little translations of feelings and sensations that often went unspoken and even unnamed.

Silent or not, moments of sex can be neither fully represented in words nor contained by myths. That’s true of then, and of now. “Letting your husband having it after you” (Mrs. E. E. Coley, 1918, Eckerty, Indiana). “We just sort of fiddled around till we found something … this is the way it was” (Sue Baxter, early-twentieth-century Lambeth, London). “I always say that when you chew tobacco, it don’t make so much mess if you spit it out the window” (1930s Appalachia). “Extraordinary delight,” a kind of yawning and stretching all over, some shivering and quaking, and eventually a chill between the shoulders (1612, of conception). A thousand kisses.22


Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Knott