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Hannah Moscovitch on what women ought to know about life before birth control

PlayME host Laura Mullin sits down with playwright Hannah Moscovitch to talk about the unusually frank book of letters that inspired her play, and why stories about historical women are so vital today.

Her play 'What A Young Wife Ought To Know' inspired by real letters

Hannah Moscovitch is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed playwright. (Alejandro Santiago)

The letters were originally addressed to Dr. Marie Stopes, a pioneering birth control advocate, and mailed in the 1920s.

A century later, playwright Hannah Moscovitch found them at a garage sale, compiled into a book called Dear Dr. Stopes. Each one was a unique plea, but on the whole they read like form letters. 

"They're incredibly similar," said the playwright. They would begin by numbering their children, stillbirths, miscarriages and reasons for not wanting any more pregnancies. It was like nothing she'd ever read. 

"Women's lives were dominated by the fact that they couldn't control how many children they had."

Inspired by these letters, Moscovitch's play-turned-podcast enters this same world. What A Young Wife Ought To Know introduces us to Sophie, a young woman in 1920s Ottawa facing much the same circumstances. It's a vivid and visceral portrayal, but one that's also funny and sensual at times. 

PlayME host Laura Mullin sat down with Moscovitch to talk about the unusually frank book of letters, the choice to write a charming husband character and why stories about historical women are so vital today. 

Here is part of their conversation.

I heard the play was inspired by a book that you found at a garage sale?

Yeah. So it's a book called "Dear [Dr.] Stopes", and it's a compilation of letters that were written to Dr. Marie Stopes, who was a pioneering birth control advocate in the 1920s in the U.K. And the letters are all people, mostly women, asking her for birth control information because at the time birth control was illegal and taboo.

The letters are sexual and they are frank and I never heard anything like it so they got my attention.

What, was sexual about them? Because that seems like a such a taboo thing, especially in the 20s.

A lot of the time women were talking about sex with their husbands and how it felt.

And that they liked it, or that it hurt, or the fact that they couldn't get their husband to not rape them. Or that they wanted to increase sexual pleasure. It shows you a world in which women are wholly ignorant about their bodies, about sexuality, about childbirth about miscarriage. They don't have any information and they're sort of calling out in the dark asking for someone to help them.

The letters also describe what it's like to miscarry in the 1920s. What childbirth is like in the 1920s. What botched abortions are like in the 1920s. They're really graphic letters. If you read any of the literature of the day, Virginia Woolf or TS Eliot, none of that registers in any of it.

How did it strike you as a woman and as a mom today to read those kinds of things?

Well, I think what struck me was that these women lived a hundred years ago and their lives are wholly alien and unrecognizable — like a foreign country. So it just felt like an untold part of women's history that existed. It felt important to me and also just shockingly original.

The play touches on women's desire. Why do you think that's important to include?

Well, I think it gets forgotten and wholly left aside in the physical sh-- that goes on with women's bodies. We forget that our bodies also involve, not just gross childbirth and gross miscarriages, but also desire. 

In fact, in the play Sophie wants sexy times with her husband. And she can't because the only solution to not having more children is abstinence. 

A recording session for What a Young Wife Ought to Know for the CBC Podcast PlayME. Chris Tolley (left) with playwright Hannah Moscovitch (middle) and Laura Mullin (right). (CBC/Evan Mitsui)

You make Sophie's husband Jonny very charming and desirable. Why?

Well, my joke was always if you're gonna put two abortions in a play you should probably have a charming man. But I think also there are a number of reasons. A lot of the time letters were written by husbands to Dr. Marie Stopes.

A lot of the time when we think about the pre-birth control era, the story tends to be: there's a young woman and she gets seduced by a rich older man. And he leaves her in the dust and she has to go to a back alley abortionist and he botches the abortion.

We know that story really well, but actually that story isn't in letters. The story is women who have had five to eleven children already and countless miscarriages and stillbirths and they want to stop having children because they feel that five to eleven children is enough.

They love their husbands, or they tolerate their husbands, but they're definitely married women. They're not young seducible things.

I read that when you started to present it in 2015, you had to convince people that this was a relevant piece of theatre. 

You know when I started working on it, its relevance didn't occur to me for some reason. People started to ask me, why is this relevant? We've won this battle. And I didn't have an answer. 

But then I think a bunch of things happened and there's been a sort of ground swell feminist movement. So in like a year people went from "I don't think this is relevant" to "this is so relevant!"

Mike Pence became the Vice President in the States. He doesn't think women should be allowed abortions even in cases of incest and rape. He's pretty close to controlling America. So I think people suddenly found the questions more relevant because our reproductive rights are under threat. I think that's part of it.

The world feels like it is both turning for women and against women in a polarized way right now. 

What A Young Wife Ought To Know reveals the bare truths of marriage before meaningful sex education. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

How consciously are you writing from a woman's perspective?

Oh man. It's a really good question. There's such a simple answer which is: for millennia men have told their stories because it's what came easiest to them, right? So we have an entire canon of stories about men and for men in which women come on just to be the love interest or be the mom.

Since I have now been, in the modern era, authorized to tell stories, I'm going to tell from my perspective just like men told the stories from their perspective for a ba-jillion years, all of recorded time. 

I think the other thing though is women's stories are original and originality is one of those components of storytelling that shouldn't be underestimated. It's up there with spectacle. I am sort of fascinated by womanhood non-stop. 

Q&A significantly condensed for length and clarity. Listen to full audio version here.