By Jesse Olszynko-Gryn
Today, home pregnancy tests are cheap and ubiquitous. For countless women, these over-the-counter retail products mediate between the uncertainty of a missed period and the potentially life-changing decision either to prepare for motherhood or to seek an abortion. As artist Tracey Emin put it in her 2000 installation Feeling Pregnant, ‘I go to the bathroom, knowing that within three minutes my life might never be the same again’ (p.164). However, rapid and easy-to-use home tests have only existed since the 1980s. Before then, as now, many women first suspected they were pregnant when they recognized one of the more telltale signs: a missed period, morning sickness, sore breasts. Quickening the feeling of the first fetal movements in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, was typically interpreted as a sign that the fetus was alive and well, but most women would have already determined they were pregnant well before the baby started to kick. The earliest pregnancy tests involved injecting laboratory animals (mice, rabbits, toads) with a woman’s urine, and were first offered by doctors in the late 1920s. This exclusively medical service was not widely publicized and most women would not have known about pregnancy tests until after World War II, when the NHS and Family Planning Association expanded the range of pregnancy-testing services on offer. By the 1960s, commercial labs were marketing pregnancy tests directly to women.
That said, in the absence of a test, early pregnancy was, and still is, an ambiguous and uncertain time. It was nearly impossible to tell a late period from an early miscarriage and many women took ‘female pills’ or other measures to restore menstruation, or ‘bring it on.’ Many novels that dramatize pregnancy and abortion or motherhood, include fictionalized accounts of the experience of early pregnancy. Here, I have chosen to present one novel from the 1930s and one from the 1960s to suggest how the experience of early pregnancy changed, but also stayed the same, after laboratory pregnancy tests became increasingly accessible to women.
Olivia, the déclassée heroine of Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (1936), begins to worry as soon as her period is a few days late:
I was happy…till I got worried. Even after that of course; because, of course, there’s no need to worry. Six, seven days late…I’m worried. But it’s happened once before, the first year Ivor and I were married; over a week then, I was beginning to be sure—but it was a false alarm….That was in August too—so I expect it’s the time of year, I’m sure I’ve heard it does happen sometimes; or all that long cold bathing, lake water’s very cold, that might easily account for it…I’m worried. Falling for one, Mrs. Banks calls it. ‘When I fell for our Doris…’ I feel a bit sick. Train-sick, I expect. I’ve never been train-sick in my life. This morning when I got up, suddenly retching as I began to wash….Nerves. Lying down like this I feel fine. Be all right tomorrow. Sleep. Thank God for lying down, a sleeper to myself. Supposing I’m sick when I get up to-morrow….That would clinch it. No, it wouldn’t. A long journey like this often upsets people (pp. 228-9) (ellipses in original).
Olivia’s pregnancy wasn’t planned and her reaction to amenorrhea and nausea is profoundly ambivalent. She recognizes the telltale signs for what they are and at the same time rationalizes them away in terms of the weather and train sickness. Although she has no way of knowing for certain one way or another, she is clearly lying to herself about something she knows deep down to be true.
Thirty years on, a woman in Olivia’s position would probably have heard about a test for pregnancy and might also have the option of taking a urine specimen to a laboratory. Val, the trapped narrator of Andrea Newman’s The Cage (1965), remembers something she had read ‘in women’s magazines in the far-off days when the subject had been merely interesting’ and tells her boyfriend Malcolm, ‘I think you can have some kind of test with animals when you’re a fortnight late’ (p.20). A few days later she rings up for the test result, which is ‘positive’ just as she ‘had known it would be.’ Although the laboratory warns her that the result ‘was not absolutely conclusive, just almost’, she ‘knew anyway.’ So why did she bother getting tested in the first place? Val had been college-bound until the prospect of pregnancy threatened to tie her down to a man she didn’t love, so she ‘had really only had the test to stop Malcolm from making [wedding] plans for another week’ (p.28).
Olivia’s wishful denial and Val’s fatalistic acceptance of their unplanned and unwanted pregnancies provide before and after snapshots spanning three decades. By the 1960s, pregnancy testing had changed from being a highly unusual experience to a more commonplace one. The availability of tests certainly transformed how many women experienced a missed period and morning sickness, but it did not eliminate all the ambiguity and uncertainty of early pregnancy. On the contrary, it seems to have added further layers of ambiguity. Val’s test was not 100% reliable and, in any case, she was already resigned to her fate. Her decision to get tested had more to do with delaying the inevitable than finding out at the earliest possible moment, an option that is no longer offered by today’s three-minute home tests.
Emin, Tracey. Strangeland. London: Sceptre, 2005.
Lehmann, Rosamond. The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 1986. Originally published:London: Collins, 1936.
Newman, Andrea. The Cage. London: Penguin, 1978. Originally published: London: Blond, 1966.
Figures: Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie (right in figure 1 and centre in figure 2).
Jesse Olszynko-Gryn is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Wellcome Trust and a member of the ‘Generation to Reproduction’ team: http://www.reproduction.group.cam.ac.uk/index.html. He researches the history of pregnancy testing in twentieth-century Britain and collects novels like The Weather in the Streets and The Cage. Please send any suggestions of pregnancy novels, and memoirs, biographies, plays, or films, to firstname.lastname@example.org.