‘useless in society’: women, miscarriage, and gender

As readers of my blog know, despite my own interest in the role of gender in shaping attitudes and behaviours in the past, I sometimes feel that it has a limited appeal – or that I can’t convey gender history’s usefulness all that effectively (see this post). However, I’m glad to say that for once I feel a bit more optimistic. My short piece ‘Questions of Gender’ was published in the June issue of History Today and I’m delighted that the online viewing figures for June show that my ‘Signpost’ article was no. 3 in the articles most visited!

So, while under the heady influence of an unusually [for me] cheery outlook, I thought I’d write a short blog post close-reading one of the primary sources I’ve collected in which gender perceptions are particularly pronounced. And, wow, did I find one when I looked through my ‘femininity’ node on NVivo.

In June 1811 Jonathan Gray, a lawyer from York, wrote to his wife Mary who was staying with family at Ockbrook.

My Dear Mary
Tho’ I was not much surprised at what has happened to you, after the fall over the stile which you mentioned in a former letter, yet I am concerned to think that you should have had so serious an illness; & be reduced so weak. Upon former occasions of the same kind, I think you were scarcely at all confined to your bed; & were wholly recovered in the course of a week. I do not however know that by not going to Ockbrook this misadventure would have been avoided; because unless you had been more circumspect & careful then you generally are in not taking long walks &c, it might have come on. We will hope, however, that the lost embryo is some silly woman, who would have been next to useless in society, & not a Pitt a Wellington or a Horseley.

Now, there is lots to talk about here. First of all it is Jonathan’s breezy tone in writing to his wife about her miscarriage – never actually named, but clear enough. She’d fallen from a stile, reported in one letter, and then suffered a miscarriage, reported in her next letter and obviously it blamed on the fall. In all honesty, this apparently cheery style can’t be held against him as it was his general mode of communication in his letters. And he shows some concern that she is not recovered yet –it looks as if she’s been up and about on ‘former occasions of the same kind’. Perhaps, thus, he at least has become hardened to the physical and emotional demands, since this had happened more than once before.

Buried in his answer, however, is the impression that Mary was not quite so resilient. She was still physically weak and his letter hints at her distress. She must have voiced the worry that she might have kept the baby if she had not left home. He is also, in his own way, reassuring Mary. Jonathan tells her that the ‘misadventure’ might still have happened at home as she would probably still have gone for long walks.

L0016884 A group of physicians wrongly diagnosing the case of a pregnMoreover, this letter, like the engraving I’ve used to illustrate the blog, reveal pregnancy to be a time of uncertainty and ambivalence for men – even the medically trained as Cruickshank suggests here, never mind husbands.

But the real punch in the face comes with a callous comment powered by gendered notions which was intended to be humorous: he hopes that the ‘lost embryo is some silly woman’. Women, it seems, are more dispensable thanks to their lack of importance in society – a bit rich given the structural barriers to the sort of social value he describes: ‘a Pitt, a Wellington or a Horseley’. Two are from the roll call of top men in a period when England was at war with France. William Pitt, a former prime-minister (the youngest ever appointed) who had died in office, January 1806, during his second ministry. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, at that time a general leading the British forces in the Peninsular War. And I’m not sure who ‘Horseley’ was. Looking on the DNB there is a contemporary Bishop Samuel Horsley (but he didn’t like Methodists, so it is probably not him) and a William Horsley, composer. Anyway, whoever he was, he was better than a woman.

In some ways, this casual reference to the supposed worthlessness of women is so jarring precisely because Jonathan was a decent chap. He was born in a reasonably wealthy family, studied, traveled, worked hard as a lawyer, cared for his family – both in terms of affection and materially, was pious and involved in the philanthropic affairs of his city. He loved his wife and children. The couple had a small daughter and son at this time and Jonathan clearly could express profound grief as time would tell. Though far less pious in tone than his Methodist father William Gray, he was nonetheless devastated enough by his daughter Margaret’s death at 17 years old, in 1826, to write and publish ‘Some Account of the Personal Religion of Margaret Gray’ the same year.

The women in his own family also undercut his misogynistic joke in each generation. While somewhat limited by gender conventions, they served in many capacities: domestic, philanthropic, and religious. Indeed, when Jonathan died late in 1837 from a lung disease, his wife Mary surely proved as valuable as any PM, general, or bishop because thereafter she moved in to her father-in-law’s house where she looked after him and her grandchildren after her son’s first wife died in 1838; living there until her own death in 1849.

The letter also neatly points me forward to a new piece of research that I’ll be shortly be undertaking for my keynote at the Perceptions of Pregnancy conference in July where I will think about the language used to describe pregnancy. As this letter and the accompanying engraving show, it was often elusive, ambiguous, and profoundly charged with emotions – and, yes, gender!

York City Archives Department Acc 5,6,24,235 J/39
Mrs Edwin Gray, Papers and diaries of a York family 1764-1839, The Sheldon Press, London, 1927

Image: A group of physicians wrongly diagnosing the case of a pregnant woman. Coloured etching by I. Cruikshank, 1803. Credit: Wellcome Library, London


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