A 1920s birth control education in What A Young Wife Ought to Know

A young couple stands hugging while looking worried.

Merran Carr-Wiggin and Cole Humeny in What A Young Wife Ought To Know by Hannah Moscovitch. Photo Credit: Ryan Parker

In a world where women’s reproductive rights are threatened daily, it might not feel like we’ve progressed much in the past 100 years. But Hannah Moscovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought to Know reminds us where we’ve come from.

Inspired by letters sent to the British birth control advocate, Dr. Marie Stopes as published in “Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s” and another book of similar letters published in 1915, titled “Maternity: Letters From Working Women edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, What A Young Wife Ought to Know follows the recently married Sophie as she tries to navigate a world lacking information about safe and effective birth control in the 1920s. Wrapped in a beautiful and humorous love story, What A Young Wife Ought to Know is a reflection on the days when information about birth control was whispered between neighbours.

Kicking off Theatre Network’s 2018/2019 season, What A Young Wife Ought to Know plays November 15 – December 2 at The Roxy on Gateway and features Merran Carr-Wiggin as Sophie (the young wife from the title), Bobbi Goddard (Sophie’s sister Alma) and Cole Humeny (Jonny, Sophie’s husband).

Merran sets the stage for us, “It’s in the 1920s in a poor Irish Catholic neighbourhood in Ottawa where there are a lot of immigrants and a lot of poverty… This was a time when women’s sexuality was not really talked about – women weren’t seen as sexual beings. Here we have a couple who are so in love – Sophie is very attracted to her husband and she’s trying to navigate a world where that isn’t really acceptable. We see that a lack of information and a lack of birth control options ends up being a punishment for women’s sexuality. Ultimately, women are the ones that have the children and raise them if their partner leaves. Even now, that deters women from exploring their sexuality.”

Of her character Sophie, Merran says, “We get to watch the progression of her from a young 15-year-old girl into a woman who becomes a wife and a mother. She has to learn how to manage in a world where she doesn’t have a lot of agency or information available to her and we end up watching her navigate being caught between a world where she loves her husband and wants to be intimate with him but is afraid for her life whenever she is.”

Cole says his character Jonny is just as confused as his wife but is working on different information than she is.  “He’s alone in Canada so he’s trying to find a sense of community… He goes out to labour meetings and talks to like-minded people who are struggling as the lower class. They’re put down. Whatever information is given to Sophie about children or pregnancy, it always comes across to Johnny as information from the upper class who want to keep them down by trying to prevent more Irish babies from filling up the houses.”

Cole and Merran say the question of birth control in What A Young Wife Ought to Know is inextricably tied to the couple’s economic circumstances. Merran says, “the question of access to birth control becomes something that people struggle with even more if they don’t have money. Every question becomes can we afford it? Can we afford this child? Can we afford another mouth to feed? Can we even afford to have this child that I’m pregnant with because it means another mouth to feed? But preventing a child means buying a condom or birth control and that costs money they don’t have as well. They need the money they do have for rent and food for the children they already have.”

Merran adds, “throughout the show, Sophie is searching for answers about preventing another pregnancy. She’s asking the modern women in the audience what they do now.”

Cole says he hopes What A Young Wife Ought to Know leaves audiences with an appreciation of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. “Where we are now, we’re very lucky, but we’re not there completely. We’re still dealing today with issues that are brought up in the show about access to birth control and access to information… It’s incredible how we got here from where we are in the play.”

Merran adds, “I would like audiences to understand that this is an issue that still needs to be fought for every day and protected every day and upheld every day. I think the invention of birth control is one of the things that has revolutionized the way we live and the way the women can explore their own sexuality. I think that’s an amazing thing that deserves to be fought for every single day. ”

What A Young Wife Ought to Know plays at the Roxy on Gateway November 15 – December 2. Preview performances are November 13 and 14. Tickets are $27 – $30 through Theatre Network’s Box Office. Tickets are two-for-one on November 20 and 27.

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