Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective

The CSMCH was delighted to support a recent conference on the history of fertility control. Cassia Roth, who was one of the organisers, sends this report on the fascinating discussions that took place during the conference.

On 23-24 May 2018, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh hosted an international conference titled “Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective”. The two-day event included speakers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the European Union, and Turkey, who discussed topics ranging from forced abortion in early twentieth-century China to child exposure in Ancient Rome.

Conference organizers Cassia Roth and Diana Paton conceived of the event as way of historicising women’s fertility control practices. Across the globe, women have always controlled their fertility through intimate efforts ultimately tied to larger political processes and gendered power dynamics. Women’s biological reproductive capabilities have been contested sites of power struggles, shaping the formation, rule, and dissolution of nation-states and political regimes throughout history.

From the concept of partus sequitur ventrum, in which slavery was passed on through the mother’s womb, to settler colonial projects that supported ‘desirable’ reproduction while restricting ‘undesirable’ migration in Australia and the United States, to abortion as the most common form of birth control in some communist regimes, the politics of the state have played out on the bodies of women. It is not surprising, then, that current debates over nationhood, globalization, and inequality continue to be mapped onto women’s bodies.

Yet the intersection of larger political, economic, and social processes with women’s intimate and embodied experience of fertility control remains understudied in the historical literature. This conference placed the intimate experience of fertility control at the heart of political and social approaches towards women’s bodies.

“Intimate Politics” explored these issues from the perspective of multiple time periods, geographic locations, actors, and methods. Some of those presenting at the conference explored how women’s individual or social practices of fertility control, including contraception, abortion, and infanticide, intersected with larger political, economic, and cultural trends. Others problematised the idea of “control” and “agency” in the history of reproduction.

What did it mean to “control one’s fertility” in different historical periods and geographical regions? How did historical actors understand, define, and practice what we now call fertility control? How can we expand conventional definitions of fertility control to interrogate ideas of infertility, menstruation, and heteronormativity?

The Q&A after Laura Briggs’s keynote

Contributors also highlighted how race, ethnicity, and class intersect with gender to shape if, and how, women and men approached fertility control.

The keynote speaker, Professor Laura Briggs (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) discussed her new book How all Politics are Reproductive Politics, which looks at the gendered and reproductive nature of issues as disparate as the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession to social service reform.

Cassia Roth (@drcassiaroth) is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin America with a focus on Brazil. In particular, she examines how gender, race, medicine, and the law intersected in the lives of Brazilian women in key moments of political and economic transition. She is a CSMCH affiliated staff member until August 2018, when she takes up a new position at the University of Georgia.