Women of Yesteryear

The April issue of the British medical journal, Lancet, contains a study on the number of deaths worldwide since 1980 due to pregnancy and childbirth. The study has been the subject of reports in the mainstream media, such as the Washington Post, L.A. Times , and the New York Times. With joy, we receive the news that either the number of deaths in the recent past was not as high as previously thought or the number currently is much lower — or some combination of the two. In the 28 years between 1980 and 2008, the number of deaths has declined from about 525,000 (if the 1980 figures are correct) to about 350,000. More than half of these occurred in six countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (For a recent examination of the conditions in Afghanistan, profiling a midwife, see this New York Times report .)

Over the past year I have researched various aspects of life in 19th century New York City. Among other things, I have looked at a number of families of prominence and have seen the names, dates of birth and dates of death of women and their children — and have seen how many died young. No economic class was spared. Wealth and doctors and nurses could not prevent death. Moreover, I also observed that 19th century papers regularly reported vital statistics such as the ages of the deceased, their numbers, and the causes of their deaths. This experience prompted me to take a look at some of the statistics.

As to the rates of death of the mothers (the "maternal mortality ratio" or MMR): Before the 1950s, the rate of death for child-bearing women was 1 in 100. In the United States, it is now about 1 in 10,000.

As to the rates of death of young children: A 1991 book, Preston & Haines, Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth Century America, utilizing information from the then newly-available 1900 census, declared that 20% of all children under the age of five died. Also, UNICEF reported in 2007 that child mortality (under age five) had dropped worldwide from about 13 million in 1990 to 10 million.

Clearly, American women of the 19th century knew from personal experience — from their grandmothers, their mothers, their aunts, their cousins, their sisters — that there was a high risk of death in becoming pregnant. And…should they survive pregnancy and childbirth, there was a high risk that their children would die young. In hindsight we may say that such risk was a normal part of life. Indeed it was, yet the young women could have chosen to forego marriage or sex and saved themselves. Instead, they did not. Instead, they married and had children, choosing to have many children — thereby increasing the risk to themselves. They had physical courage.

In reflecting on their physical courage (a courage which men had, and have, no counterpart), I thought of the courage of pioneer women.

Soon after Senator McCain presented Governor Palin as his choice for a running mate, Steve Mosher ran a column about her. (Mosher is the head of Population Research Institute . Twenty years ago, he was a researcher in China and disclosed to the world the Chinese policy of one-child and forced abortion.) Mosher compared Palin to pioneer women. I brought this piece to the attention of a relative who had moved to Colorado 11 years earlier. During these years, she had become versed in the literature by and about pioneer women. She recommended several books which I subsequently purchased for my daughters. Let me share her recommendations with you: Joanna L. Stratton, Pioneer Women : Voices from the Kansas Frontier; Harriet Fish Backus, Tomboy Bride ; Margaret A. Frink, Covered Wagon Women : Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails; Conrad Richter's trilogy , The Trees, The Fields and The Town; Jane Jacobs, editor, A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska : The Story of Hannah Breece; Virginia Cornell, Doc Susie : The True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies; Carol Crawford McManus, Ida : Her Labor of Love; and Agnes Morley Cleaveland, No Life for a Lady (Women of the West).

The pioneer women could do it all. They could take care of themselves, take care of their husbands, take care of their children, take care of their neighbors, and take care of their elderly. They could farm and ranch, ride horses and shoot a rifle, slaughter and cook, change diapers and home-school, and on and on. I know of such women like this in my own family. One is Lucille Mulhall.

Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show had Annie Oakley, but Zach Mulhall's Wild West Show had his daughter Lucille. As a teenager, Lucille could work a lariat, rope a steer, and race a horse better than the young men. President Teddy Roosevelt saw her at Madison Square Garden and exclaimed over her skills. In 1905, the word "cowgirl" was invented to describe her. She is in the Rodeo Hall of Fame and has the titles "Queen of the Range," "Queen of the Saddle," "Queen of the Western Prairie" and "America's Greatest Horsewoman." (See Beth Day Romulo's America's First Cowgirl, Lucille Mulhall and Kathryn Stansbury's Lucille Mulhall: Wild West Cowgirl and Lucille Mulhall: Her Family, Her Life, Her Times).

Other women in my family include a great-great-grandmother, Jane Knill Pugin, who was widowed in 1852 at age 27. On her own, she raised her two children and the six children of her late husband's from his two previously deceased wives. (See Rosemary Hill's 2009 bestseller in the U.K., God's Architect : Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain). My family also includes a grandmother who raised seven children on her own, another grandmother who, while blind, raised five, and an aunt who raised 14 children on her own. Undoubtedly, you have such women in your family.

Forgive me for thinking that today's women — or at least the media-created stereotype of today's women — are decidedly different. W hat 19th century woman would not have loved to have been able to become pregnant — with only a remote chance of death for either herself of her child? Nineteenth-century women, indeed all women who lived before 1950, would truly envy today's women. But today's New Woman not only strives to prevent pregnancy but, should she become pregnant, will contemplate killing her child in the womb — for whatever reason she deems acceptable.

Certainly girls bear the brunt of their mothers' decisions. In many societies, including some groups within American society, women are under tremendous pressure from their families and their husbands to abort daughters. The Economist's cover for March 6-12 was "Gendercide — What Happened to 100 Million Baby Girls?" examined the worldwide abortion of female fetal human beings. The issue also contains a review of Xinran's book Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love.

The articles in the Economist appeared in the same time frame as the obituary for Italian widower Pietro Molla who died April 3 at the age of 97. His wife, Gianna, a pediatrician, had died in 1962 of an infection one week after she gave birth to their fourth child. She had refused to be treated for an uterine tumor that could have harmed the child. This child grew to adulthood and was present, with two siblings and her father, when Pope John Paul II canonized her mother in 2004.

Who are the better models for our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces and granddaughters? Pioneer women and Gianna Molla? Or the New Women?

James M. Thunder is a former general counsel of Americans United for Life. He practices law in Washington, DC.

Read the entire article on the American Spectator website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Date posted: April 25, 2010