The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, network director Ciara Meehan looks at the dissemination of reproductive advice and information to women in 1960s Ireland.
Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting is the biggest selling book for expectant mothers. First published in 1984, over eighteen million copies have since been sold, contributing to the book being named in 2007 by USA Today as one of the most influential books of the past twenty-five years. This household title is part of a well-established publishing tradition catering for pregnant women. As part of my current project on the everyday lives of women in 1960s Ireland, I’ve been researching the sources of information available to pregnant women, looking in particular at magazines and other prescriptive literature.
Despite the clear success of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, pregnant women are increasingly turning to the internet for further information, and there is a growth in the number of pregnancy-related websites. Surveys of usage in America, Italy, Sweden and China published between 2006 and 2013 show that between 72% and 95% of correspondents used the internet as a source of information on their pregnancy. A separate survey conducted over a twelve-week period in 2010 of 613 users of British-based pregnancy sites found that the most frequent reasons women gave for searching the internet during their pregnancy was to find out information for themselves, to acquire supplemental information to that provided by healthcare professionals, to check specific symptoms, and to give themselves greater control over the decision-making process relating to their pregnancy. The survey also asked women about additional sources and almost one-third of the participants sought information from magazines or newspapers.
The importance of magazines was even greater in the 1960s. Along with newspapers, they served as pre-digital sources of further information. Pregnancy manuals from that decade include Cross and Roden’s Preparing for your Baby and Erna Wright’s The New Childbirth. However, the reasons why women turned to magazines are strikingly similar to the reasons why women have logged on to the internet in the digital age.
Similar to the way that sites like Mumsnet function, the letters pages allowed women to deepen their knowledge by asking questions that were specific to their own situation. The extent to which medical advice in magazines was used as an alternative to traditional doctor-patient relationships cannot be measured, but it is apparent from the letters that some readers not only turned to the columnists for further information, but also for reassurance or clarification.
“My baby was born one month premature; he is now one month old, and the doctor has told me to give him iron. I did not give my other children iron in the diet until they were about four months old.”
“Recently I went to the doctor about irregularity of my periods and he has prescribed the pill for me. Is this allowed by the Catholic Church? I have heard so much discussion that I am confused?”
“I had a miscarriage recently and one of the things that worry me is that several times in the hospital it was referred to as an abortion. This was the last thing I would have wanted, so why do they call it that when it was not my fault at all?”
While not all questions received could be answered, the information that was provided was tailored to the individual in a way that was not possible with published guides to pregnancy.
The information contained in the magazines benefited a whole range of expectant mothers. As the tradition for newly weds to live with in-laws began to fade, particularly in urban areas, new wives lost the instant access to knowledge that came with living with their mother-in-law. One pregnant woman admitted to Sheila Collins, advice columnist for Woman’s Choice, that she was frightened about the prospect of giving birth because she knew so little about it. She had relocated to Dublin with her husband, and she had not made any friends. ‘If I had friends I could ask their advice, and even relations would be of some help. My doctor, who is very nice, is also very busy, and so far I have hesitated to ask him about the things which trouble me’.
For those living in rural communities, access to information could be problematic – local libraries or bookshops were not always well stocked, but popular women’s magazines were more likely to be carried by the local shop. F.R. asked the Woman’s Choice editor for an article on what to do if a woman went into labour when she was on her own. As F.R. recalled, ‘Each time I was pregnant I was always scared in case the baby decided to come, when no-one was around’. (The tradition of community midwives disappeared in the 1950s as hospital births became more common). S.M. turned to Sheila Collins in March 1969 with three questions about care during pregnancy, one of which suggested that she had miscarried, explaining ‘I have been married for nearly a year, but there is no-one near me that I can talk to about it’.
Where support networks did not exist or in the case of questions that were particularly personal, perhaps considered too embarrassing to ask, or too sensitive to share, the magazines and their interactive format proved to be a useful resource. A single issue of a magazine did not provide a full body of information, making it necessary to accumulate multiple issues, perhaps clipping important or relevant articles to be stored away for future reference (as so many women did). But despite their fragmented nature, the magazines arguably served as important and up-to-date sources of information in a pre-digital age.
Dr Ciara Meehan is Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. She is also the co-director of the Perceptions of Pregnancy network. She is currently finishing a book provisionally titled, Publishing Values? Prescriptive Literature, Women’s Magazines and Everyday Life in 1960s Ireland.
 These studies are quoted in Fabrizio Bert, Maria Rosaria Gualano, Silvio Brusaferro, Elisabetta de Vito, Chiara de Waure, Giuseppe La Torre, Lamberto Manzoli, Gabriele Messina, Tullia Todros, Maria Valeria Torregrossa and Robert Siliquini, ‘Pregnancy e-health: a multicenter Italian cross-sectional study on internet use and decision making among pregnant women’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 67, 12 (December 2013), p. 1013. The specific findings were as follows: America, 2007, 75%; Italy, 2013, 95%; Sweden, 2009, 84%; and China, 2013, ‘similar to that in the western countries’.
 Briege M. Lagan, Marlene Sinclair and W. George Kernohan, ‘Internet Use in Pregnancy Informs Women’s Decision Making: a Web-Based Survey’, Birth, 37, 2 (June 2010), p. 110.
 Lagan et al, ‘Internet Use’, p. 110.
 Woman’s Way, 12 January 1968.
 Woman’s Way, 3 January 1969.
 Woman’s Way, 7 March 1969.
 Woman’s Choice, 22 April 1969.
 Woman’s Choice, 18 February 1969.
 Woman’s Choice, 25 March 1969.