Lois Weber’s Where are My Children: Pro Choice in 1916?

I stumbled across this Lois Weber gem from 1916 recently, and it’s a doozy.

Written, directed and produced by Lois Weber (with husband Phillips Smalley, and based on a story by Lucy Payton), Where are my Children tackles birth control, abortion and rape. I wouldn’t say it’s straight up pro-choice – certainly not by 2016 standards – but it’s far from pro-forced birth either. It’s morally complex, thought provoking, at times troubling – and absolutely fascinating.

The basic concept is that there are a bunch of ‘unwanted’ souls all up in a sort of Heaven/halfway house place. We learn that it’s best these souls aren’t born, but it’s better to achieve this through birth control – because calling them forth then sending them back has a nasty habit of killing women.

We open in a courtroom, where some fairly miserable people have just been sentenced. The District Attorney (the main character) comments that, basically, if only the poor would stop breeding uncontrollably then there would be less crime. Bit harsh, but impressively predicting Freakonomics by the best part of a century. Our DA is sad because his own wife has no children, never dreaming that this is because she has regular abortions. Irony!

One of the first things that struck me was, given that the DA clearly anticipates his wife could be pregnant, it’s implicitly clear that they have a sex life. Bit different to those bizarre marriages of, say, 50s sitcoms, with twin beds and mysterious storks rocking up for no reason.

So, around then, a case is tried which is of “great interest” to the DA. A doctor is on trial for distributing ‘lewd’ material: pamphlets educating the poor on birth control. We learn that the DA is a supporter of Eugenics.  Later in the film, we’re supposed to judge his wife for selfishly ‘avoiding motherhood,’ (well kind of, I’ll get to that), but it’s somewhat tempered for me by the fact that I’m cool with a Eugenics proponent not raising kids.

Anyway, the good doctor describes the destitution and heartbreak that he sees in his work in the poor areas, and says that if only these people knew how to have less babies, their burden would be eased. Again, by 2016 standards, it’s all rather patriarchal and judgmental to have a load of upper class dudes sitting around all like, ‘if only they wouldn’t just shag with abandon!’ On the other hand, it’s pretty real about the reality of having millions of kids while poor (one mother kills herself after the baby they can’t afford to feed properly dies), and further, the judgement is curiously un-gendered. In 1916, it seems, we were aware that it takes two to tango.

Sadly all this is lost on the jury and the doctor is sent down. Interestingly, the title card specifies that a jury “of men” did not agree. At this time in California, women were not legally eligible to sit on juries (don’t forget, they couldn’t vote either), so it could go without saying that men rejected the doctor’s case. It strikes me as more than a little pointed that it doesn’t.

The DA’s wife helps her friend get an abortion – and it’s made pretty clear just why she knows what doctor to go to and what to say. Now, the film is definitely judgy about these society women who don’t want pregnancy to interrupt their cocktail parties, but it strikes me more as an attempt to explore the subject fully than really draw a moral line in the sand.

The DA’s wife’s brother then comes to stay, and rapes their neighbour. There’s no bones about it: he’s a predatory creep from the first instant we see him and the title cards refer to them as the “wolf and the lamb.” A scathing title card tells us “Practice teaches men of this class the bold methods that sweep inexperienced girls off their feet” – it’s quite clear that “swept off their feet” in this context means, “like a riptide would do.” The neighbour thus becomes pregnant, and the brother begs his sister to help. She’s furious that her brother is such a rapey arsehole, but takes the neighbour to her friend the doctor.

However, this time, the doctor screws up and the neighbour dies. I cringed a bit here, wondering if it would be suggested that her death was just desserts for not accepting the ‘blessing’ of the baby, but no. She is unequivocally a victim; all blame is laid squarely at the brother/rapist’s feet. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say the same today?

So whilst on trial for manslaughter/performing illegal abortions, the doctor blackmails the DA’s wife, threatening to expose her and all her friends if she doesn’t call her husband off. This fails and is sentenced to 15 years hard labour, but as a final act of revenge, he gives his patient book to the DA, who is heartbroken to see his wife’s name appear several times.

He condemns her and all her friends, but, to me it’s somewhat open to interpretation whether this is the film’s point of view, or whether it’s the comeuppance of a hypocrite who is happy for poor people to be “controlled” but horrified that his own wife doesn’t want to pop kids out like a Pez dispenser. Either way, the wife is now all sorry and prays for a baby, but to no avail. The two of them spend the rest of their lives sitting sadly in their living room while creepy ghosts of the babies they never had play around them.

One  the most striking aspects of this film is simply how thought provoking it is. Is rejecting motherhood ‘okay’ if the pregnancy or child would suffer or cause suffering? Do women have a right not to be mothers for any damn reason they please – or only if for socially approved reasons? Is abortion a bad thing because it is (at the time) illegal and dangerous – or is it intrinsically bad? Lois Weber’s Where are my Children poses these questions, and leaves us to puzzle out the answers.

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