Here’s an audio version
By definition, fiction writing is an exercise in imagination. When your characters lived nearly 500 years ago, yogic feats of imagination become necessary. Apart from the industrial revolution, the expansion of democracy and that whole germ theory thing, one of the most sweeping changes in western society has been the status of women. In writing my first novel Beltane, this change was one of the ideas that enthralled me most.
In the late 1500’s, both England and Scotland were ruled by women, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart respectively, and yet in both those countries, women were subordinate to fathers, husbands and brothers. Our life choices were limited to motherhood, spinsterhood, or the convent. Sometimes, if a woman was married to a professional whose work she could share, or widowed by a man whose business she could run, she might be able to make her own living and some of her own choices.
One thing over which such a woman had virtually no choice was childbirth. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the importance of access to reliable birth-control on women’s lives. Pregnancy outside marriage was a cause for shame and ostracism, and childbirth was an extremely dangerous activity: not to mention the detrimental effects on health and sanity of repeated pregnancies.
As a woman living in the 21st century, the link between sexuality and fertility is profound, but not inevitable. If I had lived in the 16th century, by now I’d be the mother of many children, or more likely I’d be dead from childbirth or overwork. Instead, I’ve had the luxury of roving experience and child-free nights.
If each and every sexual encounter with a man held the potential for conception, how would I come to frame such encounters? My own sexuality couldn’t possibly be the simple happy thing I take for granted. Would it be possible not to resent my partner, for whom the act would always be transient and without inherent peril? I grew up knowing that I can separate my sexuality from my fertility if I choose. Men have always had this choice, and I think that this is the most fundamental change that the last 100 years has brought to women. We can live longer, enjoy our sexuality more freely, pursue a career, have lives in the public sphere, and be parents by choice not by default.
If you’re a parent, or have had even the briefest conversation with a new mother, you’ll know how small the world gets. In my massage practice, I see women during pregnancy, then again post-partum. They’re a lot chattier then, because they crave “adult conversation.” Doing the most important job in the world is physically exhausting, but it also narrows the perspective in a way that not all women enjoy. In her book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that women have never organized en masse as the labour movement or nationalistic movements have, because of our constant tethering to childbirth and childcare. This has always been a persuasive argument to me. Even apart from the vast consequences of access to reliable birth-control for a woman’s sexual and personal freedom, it’s not possible to overstate its effects on women’s role in public life.