Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The Church at once protested on the grounds that to relieve the pains of childbirth was in defiance of religion, since the Bible had said that woman should bring forth her young in sorrow. Just as blatantly as in the Middle Ages, some pro-ponents resorted to lies and misrepresentation: thus one tract gave a highly coloured description of a birth taking place in the midst of an undignified orgy of chloroform intoxication and contrasted it with the “natural dignity” of a birth without anaesthetics. Simpson counterattacked on the Church’s own ground, pointing out that God had thrown Adam into a deep sleep when extracting Eve from his side, and was thus the first anaesthetist. He reminded people that the Church had opposed the introduction of winnowing machines on the grounds that

“winds were raised by God alone, and it was irreligious in man to attempt to raise wind . . . by efforts of his own”;

that it had opposed proposals to build a Panama canal on the grounds that man should not attempt to improve what the Creator had ordained — in this case a boundary between the Pacific and the Atlantic; and that it had objected to the use of forks, declaring it to be “an insult to Providence not to touch our meat with our fingers”. Such arguments, he pointed out, could be applied equally to anything which man had contrived — the wearing of hats, or the use of public transport.

Fortunately, England was at this time governed by a queen, not a king: Victoria, who had experienced the pains of six deliveries without anaesthetic, in 1853 decided to try chloroform, and this broke the back of the resistance.

It was also characteristic that the new movement of reform should lay stress on circumscribing the movements of women and on subordinating them to the male. As was soon made clear in such books as “The Duties of the Female Sex“(1805), women’s status was returned to medieval level: submission, modesty and hard work were her lot, with visiting the poor for relaxation. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women, appearing in the midst of such a trend, aroused a scandal: even so worldly a figure as Walpole referred to her as a “hyena in skirts”. The Ladies Magazine published a case-study of four girls who had, it asserted, been perverted by reading this work: one of them not only rode to hounds but even groomed her own horse, while another — oh, horror! — introduced into her conversation quotations from the classics.