“My doctor warned me but does not tell me what to do.”
“I live in terror.”
“I would rather die.”
These words, written in letters by working class women to British birth control pioneer Dr. Marie Stopes, were the inspiration for Ottawa-born playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know, which is currently playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until February 4. Set in Ottawa in the 1920s, the play focuses on Sophie, a woman grappling with issues of sex, motherhood, and birth control at a time when speaking openly of such things was taboo.
The women who wrote those letters were trapped in ignorance and shame. They were desperate for answers. Many had already had several children, usually without the help of doctors or pain killers. They were often poor, overwhelmed, and after suffering multiple still-births and miscarriages, were terrified of having more children. Their only hope was to reach out to a stranger for advice. What A Young Wife Ought to Know offers a rare look at the challenges that couples – women in particular – faced in an era when poverty was rampant and knowledge was a scarce resource.
I spoke to Hannah about these women, and asked how she was able to take an issue that is so political and craft such a funny, frank, and often heartbreaking story.
“What made me so emotional was that these women desperately wanted to love their children and love their husbands but they were really up against these extreme circumstances and they felt alone,” she explained. “I wanted to write a story that was a love story, and to see how these questions complicated her life. That’s where the deep universal emotion lay for me.”
I asked Hannah if, in another hundred years, she thought we would still be talking about birth control as a political issue.
”I think there’s been such a feeling of progress and it’s been so rapid and birth control inventions have changed life for women so extremely, and I think that’s part of what attracted me to the letters — that it was an almost unimaginable reality. And yet it existed 80 years ago, so I feel like in a weird way I’m doing something similar to The Handmaids Tale, like ‘What if we lost all our rights all at once and we were plunged back in this world?’ ”
Fortunately, we live in an country where access to contraception, safe abortions, and information on family planning is a reality.
And yet, even here in Ottawa, reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose are still passionately debated.
Starting on February 1, Ottawa will enact a law that will create a 50-metre “bubble zone” around abortion clinics, which have long been targets of anti-abortion protests.
But how do we square a woman’s right to end a pregnancy with the protestor’s right to freely express themselves?
“People have the right to their views, but personally I don’t think that is an effective way at getting the change they would like to see which is less abortions,” says Hannah. “If you want to see women have less abortions, there’s a way to do that: you help them. Economically. Set up organizations that help women. That would be effective. But they don’t want to do that. They want to shame women.”
What A Young Wife Ought to Know is currently being performed at the GCTC until February 4.