Layne Craig examines reproductive autonomy between the world wars.
by James Russell
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Topics: AddRan College of Liberal Arts, Research & Discovery
by James Russell
In Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy Lysistrata, the title character turns female bodies into political weapons by rallying women to withhold sex until warring nations sign a peace treaty to end the Peloponnesian War.
Layne Craig, instructor of English, is making historical sense of vague arguments about how and why women should halt reproduction, or go on “birth strikes.” Photo by Robert W. Hart
TCU English instructor Layne Craig said she sees parallels between Lysistrata’s tactic and her research on birth control rhetoric in early 20th-century England. Throughout history, “politics is about women’s bodies,” she said.
Craig’s current project examines exhortations to halt reproduction, or “birth strikes,” for a chapter in the forthcoming book Women, Periodicals, and Print Culture in Britain, 1890s-1920s: The Modernist Period (Edinburgh University Press, anticipated summer 2019). Her segment focuses on arguments from The Malthusian, a World War I periodical that encouraged the use of birth control, a controversial stance in an era when religion formed British customs.
The magazine’s publisher, the Malthusian League, was devoted to disseminating the theories of British economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who worried about diminishing resources due to overpopulation. To support its mission, the organization advocated for and provided access to contraceptives.
“This magazine is super important in the history of birth control,” Craig said. “I really was interested in what are the women who are subjects of this discourse thinking.”
Craig homed in on the arguments of female Malthusian contributors who were pro-birth control, including Bessie Drysdale, the wife of Malthusian League founder Charles Vickery Drysdale, and Stella Browne, a well-known feminist who advocated for not just contraception, but also abortion.
Drysdale questioned the effect of constant reproduction on women’s bodies. Browne’s suggestion that women have autonomy over their bodies, including the choice to opt for abortions, would have put her in line with contemporary progressive feminists, Craig said.
While Drysdale and Browne helped change the conversation about reproductive culture in early 1900s Britain, their advice was vague, Craig said.
“I was interested in how a birth strike is to be accomplished. I feel like no one gave any instructions. … You can say, ‘Let’s not have any children,’ but what does that mean? Physically, someone has to prevent a child from being conceived. Someone has to abstain from sex. Someone has to get an abortion.”
Illustration by Getty Images © ILEXX and CSA Images/Archive
Craig’s research has influenced the multidisciplinary field of sexuality studies. She wrote When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2013) to explain how reproduction became political in the early 20th century.
Aimee Wilson, an assistant professor of humanities at the University of Kansas who also studies literature and birth control, said the tome is “a thoughtful, detailed study of the ways in which literature reflects the changing norms of reproductive control.”
By examining published works about reproduction and contraception, Craig said she wants to further the conversation about how the natural processes of human bodies are described, or avoided, in literature. Authors “are writing about physical — not just historical — people. … That’s what interests me: the reality of bodily functions in stories.”
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