Blue-stockinged heroines, Rosemary McLeod

Rocking the Cradle: Contraception, Sex and Politics in New Zealand
Helen Smyth
Steele Roberts, $29.95,
ISBN 1877228168


Women will recognise the subtext of Helen Smyth’s history as a record of their own families; not the families posing stiffly in photo albums, but the narratives told by women, and the folk wisdom handed down from one generation to the next like pieces of trousseau embroidery.

Thus I know about the great aunt who always ran from the bedroom after intercourse to douche herself with a vinegar solution; of another great-aunt’s regular abortions; of yet another who managed to get a tubal ligation after having a child a year for nearly a decade. This last was considered a miracle, a wondrous indulgence by a doctor. It could never be openly discussed because it was so scandalous. And I doubt whether any young girl fully recovers from the sight of her own mother’s diaphragm tucked away inside its box in a drawer she is never supposed to open. Its sheer ugliness seems to have an overlay of menace you can’t reconcile with love comics, or pictures of the young Paul McCartney. The stink of that orangey rubber for ever overlays the mystery – and probable horror – of sex. Within Smyth’s book are a number of photographs that recapture the bad old days of contraception, and make you wonder at the sheer desperation of the people driven to use it. As such, they are a tribute to the irrational power of the human sex drive. They make Catholics look as if they got off lightly.

With all true stories we need to know quickly who’s the hero, to work out where our loyalty must lie. With this story we are never in any doubt. It’s the Family Planning Association, whose history is its subject. The history of the FPA is also inevitably a record in miniature of wider social attitudes, and as such it’s a mixture of absurdity, smugness, self-interest (mostly male-driven) and idealism (the girl department). Thank goodness for the blue-stockinged heroines in capes who fly to the rescue: they seem to have been the only people blessed with common sense.

It’s significant that the FPA has always been run by women for women. They’ve been brave women, too, fighting against paternalism from the medical profession in particular, which makes you shudder. It’s hard to believe now how the pomposity of doctors was accepted and pandered to, and galling to think how many women suffered as a result. The difficulty was that doctors seem to have seen themselves as qualified moralists, a role which the women at the FPA had the good sense to avoid.

There’s a timely reminder here of the effects of eugenics, that spurious pseudo-science which was based on belief in the superiority of the white man. At their looniest, its supporters here advocated a “kind lethal chamber” where inferior specimens could be flung, with the door locked firmly behind them, to perish for the common good. The early proponents of contraception in this country were once seen, partly as a result of the popularity of eugenics, as enemies of the drive to populate it with superior genetic stock. They were also undermining the God-given role of women as house-cleaners and breeders.

The influential Dr Doris Gordon, who seems to have been no friend of the sisterhood, was an especially dogged advocate of the traditional role of women – perhaps even more so because she had so skilfully avoided it. “Until we bring women back to that old fundamental Eastern idea that motherhood is their mission, barrenness their disgrace … we can be prepared to write RIP over the short lived race at present known as New Zealanders,” she remarked in 1937, no doubt to ringing applause.

Despite the evidence of the lengths women would go to procure abortions, doctors baulked at making contraceptive advice freely available for the reason – familiar even now – that this would mean young people got to hear about it. Besides, they were worried about a falling birth rate. Maybe this was bad for business. Even those who were prepared to concede the need for contraception were likely to give shonky advice; they weren’t taught about it at medical school. Squeamishness among doctors lasted longer than you’d imagine: in 1960 doctors were still being advised that the “proper” avenues for discussing the distasteful matter were between: “1. Husband and wife, 2. Family doctors, 3. Clergyman of whatever denomination, 4. legal advisor.”

More recently, the struggle to have contraceptive advice freely and easily available became overshadowed by the abortion debate, in which familiar themes resurfaced, in new guises. That seems to have been as big a challenge for the FPA as it was for everyone else. Another challenge seems to have been getting the message across to Maori. When you read the eugenics strand of the story it seems pretty obvious why.

To offset the sheer awfulness of the historic pictures of contraceptive devices, readers should quickly turn to illustrations of the government sex education leaflets produced in the 50s. What wholesomeness is revealed in the posed pictures, so like knitting pattern illustrations, of healthy Europeans looking sage and clean and sexless.

Which brings one back to the subject of this book. The word “sex” is in the title, but the contents are curiously unsexy. It’s rather as if you’ve read about a banquet from the point of view of the suppliers of the cutlery, not those who ate the food.


Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington columnist.


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Posted in Gender, Health, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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