Women In Film has a challenge for you this year. Pledge to watch 52 films by women in a year, that’s only one a week. That’s much easier than my Goodreads challenge, so I’m in. Have you taken the pledge?
For my first film, I decided to go way back to Lois Weber. She was the first female director to start and run her own studio. She was one of the most prolific directors of the silent era, and catalyzed the careers of many starlets. She was well known for focusing her films on issues of social justice. She made somewhere between 200-400 films, but sadly only around twenty still survive today.
Where Are My Children? came out in 1916 (a hundred years ago!) and focuses on eugenics, birth control and abortion. It is now considered an anti-abortion film, but it does not make for a good rallying cry for the anti-choice movement. Weber was a fan of Margaret Sanger, who inspired the character of Dr. Homer. This was also not her only birth control film, it was followed in 1917 by Hand That Rocks The Cradle in which Weber herself stars as a birth control activist. Unfortunately, she was not happy with the end result of that film, blaming the censors and trying too hard to play it safe, and we cannot judge for ourselves because that is one of her many lost films. So, Where Are My Children? it is.
The issue of eugenics does make this an uncomfortable film to watch. The film opens with an explanation of how the souls of children wait in heaven to be born. Some souls are “chance” souls and go out at random, some are “unwanted” souls and are marked by the serpent, and some are “chosen” souls, sent out only on prayers and personally blessed by the Almighty. The class of the characters seems to dictate what kind of souls their unborn children will have. When wealthy socialite Mrs. Carlo has an abortion, she sends the soul back to heaven, where it is blackened and becomes one of the tainted souls. But when poor girl Lillian gets pregnant, her child is tainted with sin from the beginning.
The sympathetic Dr. Homer is not pro-abortion, he is pro-birth control, and DA Richard Wilson agrees with him. If only they could sterilize the poor, things would be so much better! Those unwanted, sinful souls would not come down in the first place, and the white race would be the better for it. YIKES. I am well aware that the eugenics movement was popular at the time, and it really was not until the Holocaust that many people realized what horrific conclusions eugenics lead to, but the effects of these arguments are still felt today. For example, 150 women that we know of were sterilized against their will in California prisons between 2006 and 2010. The idea that some women are naturally unfit mothers has not gone away. There were critics of eugenics then, and we need to keep criticizing it today.
Back to the film, Mrs. Wilson has a different opinion. She has had a few abortions, and chooses to remain motherless. Her husband, however, has no idea and wishes badly to be a parent. His sister had entered a eugenics based marriage and recently had a baby, and he looks forward to her visits. Mrs. Wilson aids Mrs. Carlo in obtaining an abortion from a Dr. Malfit, so they could enjoy a life of leisure together without children. Mrs. Wilson has apparently helped many of her friends with the very same thing. The whole thing blows up in her face when her brother comes to stay, at the same time their housekeeper’s daughter comes to stay with her. The daughter, Lillian, is a beautiful girl and Mrs. Wilson’s brother is smitten with her. He seduces her, and she becomes pregnant. The next month, he pleads with his sister to help him find an abortionist. She is horrified, but gives him Malfit’s name. Malfit botches the abortion, however, and Lillian dies, but not before telling her mother the truth. Richard Wilson is angered, attacks his brother in law and has Malfit arrested.
Malfit tries to blackmail Mrs. Wilson, who tries to defend him but she is unsuccessful. He is found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour. He tells Richard to look in his own household, and sure enough he finds the records of Mrs. Wilson’s three abortions in his books. He confronts her and her friends. She repents and wishes for a child, but either her abortions have rendered her infertile or she is too old now. The pair spend the rest of their days moping, their childless lives empty of meaning, and they are always wondering, where are my children?
Obviously, this is a morality heavy film characteristic of Weber’s style. The rich women in Mrs. Wilson’s social circle are painted as selfish, lazy women who deny their husbands children. Because they are prize breeders in the eyes of eugenics, they have a duty to give birth. Meanwhile, poor women are burdened with children they should never have. One might wonder why the Wilsons never adopt, but perhaps that would hurt the eugenics angle. Why would they raise a tainted soul? Only the best stock would do.
Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley did have a daughter, Phoebe in 1910, but she died in infancy. She had no other children. I wonder then if the scathing judgment of women like Mrs. Wilson was out of resentment and hurt over her loss. It is also important to note that Lillian’s fate was not rare a hundred years ago, back alley abortions were common and many women died as a result. Certainly Weber took the position that if birth control were available, then unhappy mothers could be spared.
Where Are My Children? is far from a perfect film, and certainly not the best Lois Weber had to offer, but it makes a good example of how far we have come in reproductive rights in the last hundred years, and yet, in some ways we haven’t come far at all.