Pregnancy Test: An Interview with Karen Weingarten
Karen Weingarten is a regular contributor to Nursing Clio and Associate Professor of English at Queens College, CUNY. She has just published a new book titled Pregnancy Test and is the author of Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880- 1940.
Lara: How did you get interested in researching the history and culture of the pregnancy test?
Karen: I’ve been writing about the cultural history of abortion and other reproductive technologies since graduate school, but it was only when my sister had a miscarriage when she was eleven weeks pregnant that was then followed by a chemical pregnancy that I started thinking about the technology of the pregnancy test. She was taking a lot of tests, and when she had the chemical pregnancy after the miscarriage she was understandably upset. We both started to do some research about whether chemical pregnancies were miscarriages. (I know your book discusses this, but this was before it came out!) I knew chemical pregnancies were common and that most people didn’t even know they had one unless they were testing regularly for pregnancy. Still, I realized I had a lot to learn about how the home pregnancy test changed how we defined pregnancy and miscarriage, which led to this essay for Nursing Clio. Writing that piece made me realize I wanted to know even more about pregnancy testing, and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series seemed like a good fit for this project.
Lara: I was really struck by the book’s design, which goes marvelously well with its content–it’s a compact, sleek volume that fits easily in my hands and feels to me like it references the kind of instruction manual that might come with a pregnancy test, or a booklet on menstruation for teens. And in your book, the design of the pregnancy test is a major topic. Did you go into your research thinking about the history of design, or did that emerge as you worked?
Karen: To be honest, the history of design wasn’t something I thought about at all when I started my research. However, I saw Meg Crane’s name referenced in a few histories about the home pregnancy test. Meg, as I discuss in the book, designed one of the first home pregnancy tests for the pharmaceutical company Organon. Reading these brief histories raised more questions for me, and after some digging, I realized that Meg must still live in New York City (as I do). I looked up her phone number and left her a voicemail. A few days later she called me back (to my delight!). We had a few brief phone conversations, and then she invited me to her apartment where we talked for over two hours. Her story is so reflective of an era where women’s talents and contributions were dismissed that I knew I had to begin the book with it. Plus, it was fun to learn that the design of the first home pregnancy test led to romance!
Talking with Meg also made me realize how the design of objects, and especially reproductive objects, has often been overlooked. Meg designed the home pregnancy test taking into account what it would be like to use one as a woman, but as she pointed out to me in our conversation, the designers Organon had considered hiring for the home pregnancy test were all men who thought women needed “feminine” decorations to be persuaded to purchase such an object. As I finished writing Pregnancy Test, Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick published their wonderful book Designing Motherhood; reading this book really emphasized to me how design, and especially the design of reproductive technologies, needs to be discussed more because the designs of these objects are political, and they shape how we live our reproductive lives.
Lara: Your interview with Meg Crane really is such a powerful source in your book. You drew upon an incredible variety of primary sources in your research, from interviews to TV and film to comment sections of pregnancy apps. If you had to pick one favorite source to share with Nursing Clio readers, what would it be? Are there any that you are particularly excited to use in your teaching?
Karen: This is such a great question! I felt lucky to be working on this topic at a time when EBSCO provides a full-text, full-color, searchable database for women’s magazines from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. It was fascinating and revealing to see how mainstream women’s magazines like Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Chatelaine featured advice columns, news articles, and advertisements about advances in pregnancy testing. Having access to this database (through the New York Public Library) completely changed my project because it gave me a textured sense of how home pregnancy testing was presented and received when it was first made available. Women’s magazines also depict how sexism and assumptions about women’s bodies shaped reproductive norms in ways that continue today, even if some advancements have been made. It was through reading women’s magazines that I also learned about innovations in pregnancy testing. Because so many of these innovations were commercial, there weren’t medical articles or even news stories about them. Often, they were just announced in advice columns in magazines or in advertisements.
I’ve started to use digital archives like these in my teaching, especially in courses that ask students to situate literature historically. Students love being able to find cool, surprising things in old magazines and newspapers, and I love seeing them discover how norms can change so quickly, even over just a few decades.
Lara: Your own and your sister’s personal stories, too, figure as sources in your book. I can relate, because my own miscarriage was what sparked me to research and write The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy. Here at Nursing Clio, and in the history of women’s health more generally, the personal is historical. Have you found that people share their own stories when they learn what you’ve been researching? Have any of those stories surprised you, or shaped your research direction?
Karen: Yes, I’ve definitely heard some interesting stories. My favorites have been from people who used home pregnancy tests in the 1970s and 80s and haven’t thought about them since. Then, while hearing about my research, they’ll all of a sudden remember their old-school pregnancy test, and they’ll tell me how odd it is to recall that they used this little chemistry set to learn that they were pregnant. People also loved to tell me about TV shows where pregnancy testing plays a role. I started collecting references from people because every time I talked about my book someone would say, “Oh, that reminds me of that episode in Friends or Roseanne.” Or “GLOW just had an episode with a pregnancy test from 1980.” I couldn’t include all the references in this book, but I’m writing another article about this now!
Lara: I’m looking forward to seeing what else you’ve found!
One last question: after the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, pregnancy testing seems like it could be a double-edged sword: potentially empowering, but also potentially coercive and menacing in certain circumstances. What does the history tell us we should be attending to with regard to the pregnancy test’s future?
Karen: Yes, absolutely. I discuss this in the afterword, which I wrote days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. While the home pregnancy test will always be a helpful and necessary tool for abortion access because it allows people to confirm whether they’re pregnant without consulting a doctor or anyone in a medical establishment, it can potentially be used coercively to identify whether someone is pregnant and trying to seek an illegal abortion. One thing I learned when doing research for this book is that pregnancy testing was used against women almost from its invention. You can collect urine from employees or people seeking welfare services under all kinds of premises, and they’ll never know whether their urine was tested for pregnancy. Employers have used that knowledge to deny women jobs, and it’s not hard to imagine some states using this knowledge in our post-Dobbs world to prosecute women if they suspect they sought an illegal abortion. As I discuss in the book, there have been science fictional representations of these kinds of scenarios, but these days, it’s not hard to imagine that fiction becoming reality. While the home pregnancy test has transformed our relationship to pregnancy diagnosis and led to more medical autonomy, I wish we lived in a world where no one had to worry about how a pregnancy diagnosis might be used against them.
Lara: I completely agree. Thank you for speaking with me about your book. I hope readers will find it an inspiration and resource for thinking about reproductive pasts and futures.
Karen Weingarten’s book comes out March 9, and is available for preorder.
Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at www.larafreidenfelds.com.