Reproducing Gossip: Gender, Rumor, and Fertility Control
Coordinating Council for Women in History 2
Abortion and infanticide have often been shrouded in secrecy, only to enter the historical record when rumor or denunciation thrust the practices into the public sphere. The historical study of gossip and rumor has demonstrated that these methods of “furtive speech” define the values of any given society (Derby, 2014; White, 2000). Historians of gender have argued that women have practiced and will continue to practice fertility control no matter the legal or societal constraints (Gordon, 2007). But historical scholarship has yet to examine the impact of rumor on abortion and infanticide. This panel remedies this gap by demonstrating how rumor and denunciation influenced and, in turn, was influenced by women’s decisions to engage in fertility control. From colonial New England to nineteenth-century Brazil to twentieth-century France, rumors about abortion and infanticide took on gendered meanings that illuminated the “moral communities” in which women lived (Bailey, 1971).
Emily Romeo demonstrates that women practiced infanticide in Puritan New England in response to the potentially harmful effects denunciation could have on their family’s reputation. Infanticide, which defied various aspects of Puritan law, allowed women to avoid rumor’s negative effects and remain part of their communities. In striving to conceal their “wrongdoings,” however, women upheld the very system that defined those acts as transgressive in the first place. Cassia Roth, in her discussion of male-initiated abortion rumors in late-nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro, argues that men engaged in rumor mongering to shore up their individual patriarchal authority at a moment in which the Brazilian state began to usurp patriarchal power from male heads-of-households. Fathers and husbands defended their social honor by denouncing midwives who provided abortions to their wives and daughters and, in doing so, reasserted their control over their family in the public sphere. In the end, clandestine abortions represented female sexual independence, which threatened male power. Karen Huber examines the rumors that surrounded unwanted pregnancy in early-twentieth-century France, a period of newfound pro-natalist state policies that criminalized abortion and contraception. French women relied on the informal networks that sprung up in response to state repression to gain access to knowledge about contraception and abortion. Yet, these informal networks also served as conduits of rumor, and they left pregnant women susceptible to denunciation.
This panel explores the impact of rumor and denunciation on the practices of abortion and infanticide across the Western world. In doing so, these papers inform our understanding of the extra-legal role popular speech played in policing women’s reproductive behavior. On the one hand, the panel demonstrates that informal networks of speech shamed and controlled women’s sexuality. On the other hand, it reveals that women continued to engage in fertility control and assert their reproductive autonomy. These papers illustrate the complex historical relationship between sexuality, gender relations, and “idle chatter.” The impact of rumor on women’s reproduction was both specific to local realities and part of larger Western attitudes towards women and reproduction.