Weeping of a Disappointed Womb

Themes in mythology about the female reproductive system

In 1968, eight years after the FDA approved the birth control pill and one year after it was legalized for unmarried women, the publishing house of the LDS church released Living, Loving, and Marrying, an instructional handbook for youth of the faith. In a chapter titled “What Every Young Girl Should Know,” Lindsay R. Curtis, M.D., an OB-GYN and Mormon missionary, illustrated an egg’s journey from the ovaries with a series of pen-and-ink cartoons. If the egg is fertilized, one cartoon shows, she will wear lipstick and a veil as she meets her sperm groom in the Fallopian tube.

(Living, Loving, and Marrying, 1968)

But no honeymoon in the uterus awaits the unfertilized egg. She will tumble from the body alone, her eyes wide with terror, reaching back with her small egg hands toward the chute that ejected her. A caption explains:

If the egg that is given off by the ovary is not fertilized, it merely passes on through the uterus, out the vagina, and is lost. The outer cells lining the uterus are then discarded for the month along with blood that is released as they tear themselves away from the wall. This is called “menstrual flow.” It is said that menstruation is the “weeping of a disappointed womb,” when pregnancy does not occur.

(Living, Loving, and Marrying, 1968)

Curtis, who co-authored the book with a family counselor named Wayne J. Anderson, knew something about wombs. He was the first OB/GYN resident at the University of Utah, and led the women’s surgical section at Walter Reed hospital; he would go on to produce a nationally syndicated medical-advice column, “For Women Only,” and popular titles including Sensible Sex and Pregnant and Lovin’ It. Wombs, he surely knew, have no tear ducts. But while at odds with the latest medical wisdom, the portrayal of menstruation as malfunction was well timed.

Living, Loving, and Marrying arrived in bookstores against the tides of social change. Divorce rates were rising as states started to loosen the legal grounds for dissolution, making way for the next decade’s crop of no-fault laws. Women were gaining access to contraception and opportunities in the workplace. Birth rates were dropping. Curtis and Anderson dedicated their book to those couples who “seriously set about this business of ‘making our marriage work.’” And if marriage was a business, the reproductive system was its factory floor.

Past fears of a changing social order had inspired similar messages about procreation. A century before Living, Loving, and Marrying, Brigham Young delivered a sermon in Tooele, Utah, comparing birth control to infanticide. He warned that “the attempts to destroy and dry up the fountains of life,” among other “unnatural” behaviors,are fast destroying the American element of the nation; it is passing away before the increase of the more healthy, robust, honest, and less sinful class of the people which are pouring into the country daily from the Old World.”

Young’s message was a call to industry, probing the fresh wounds and insecurities of a country in the early stages of Reconstruction. An empty womb was a failure of patriotism: If an egg is lost—destroyed, dried up, passed away—so too is the nation. Like Curtis and Anderson, Young talked about the missed opportunity of pregnancy in tones of violence, destruction, and disappointment.

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Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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