what i'm reading: madame restell (nonfiction version) (corrected and updated)

In March, I wrote about My Notorious Life, historical fiction by Kate Manning, based on the life Ann Trow Lohman, who was known as Madame Restell. I loved the book. 

Then, by beautiful coincidence, I stumbled on this book while in Powell's City of Books in Portland: Madame Restell: the Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Independent Abortionist, by Jennifer Wright.

Madame Restell was a larger-than-life figure, a fiercely independent woman who grew fabulously wealthy by performing abortions -- at a time when being an independent -- and independently wealthy -- woman was as socially unacceptable as being an abortionist. 

It was also a time when abortion services were in very high demand. Reliable contraception was practically nonexistent, and what did exist was illegal. Rape was only considered a crime under certain, very narrow circumstances; wealthy men considered themselves entitled to their servants in every way. When said servants became pregnant, they were dismissed. Work available to women was limited to a few other poorly-paid grinds and sex work. A huge number of women supported themselves and their children through sex work, which of course led to many pregnancies, and many orphans. Childbirth was -- and still is -- much more dangerous than termination. 

This was also a time when male "doctors" were actively pushing midwives and other women practicing folk medicine out of business, by spreading lies about them, having them arrested, and whatever other means they could devise. I write "doctors" in quotes because these were men with virtually no training. Anyone who could afford it could pay a fee, attend a course, and become a doctor, without ever having touched a patient.

Germ theory was in its infancy, and American "doctors" discredited it. Midwives had learned that fewer women died in childbirth if the attending midwife washed her hands before delivering the baby. Doctors would not practice such "superstition": they would work on a cadaver, then stick their unwashed hands into a pregnant woman. Women were infinitely safer in the hands of midwives than of doctors, and doctors were determined to squash the competition.

Add to this that great enemy of women and self-appointed guardian of purity Anthony Comstock, after whom the Comstock Laws are named. Comstock was Madame Restell's nemesis. He resorted to trickery and entrapment, playing on her desire to help, in order to have her arrested. Comstock's treachery wasn't the first time Madame Restell was arrested, but it was the last.

Madame Restell is an engaging portrait of a renegade, and Wright uses Restell's life as a lens through which to see late nineteenth century New York. It was a time of extreme income inequality, misogyny, anti-immigrant bigotry and ignorance. In other words, a time much like our own -- but so much worse. Wright makes the parallels and connections very explicit. 

Then, as now, I was infuriated by the rampant hypocrisy among Restell's haters and critics. She was constantly denounced and shamed by the public, yet became fabulously wealth supplying that same public with contraception and abortions. Wright calls Restell's Fifth Avenue mansion "a middle finger to the establishment that wanted to pretend her profession didn't exist".

A few were brave enough to defend her. Wright quotes a Reverend Charles McCarthy as publicly denouncing Comstock, noting that abortion was an accepted fact among the elite, and plenty of male doctors provided them. He was especially vocal about the subterfuge, fraud, and entrapment that led to Restell's arrest. [Reading The Story of Jane: the Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, by Laura Kaplan, I am again reminded of the key role that progressive clergy have played in the struggle for reproductive justice.]

Much of the country was tired of Comstock and his morality police, but that didn't deter him. This was a man who bragged about how many people had killed themselves after he launched campaigns against them.

As it happens, I've been reading a lot about this period of time in New York City, so the material was a little redundant for me -- but in no way is that a fault of the book. Wright writing style is breezy and chatty, sprinkled liberally with sarcasm, dark humour, and references to the present time: nonfiction for the internet age.  

I loved Wright's handling of the mystery surrounding Madame Restell's death. This also made me appreciate and love the final chapters of My Notorious Life even more.

In an epilogue, Wright summarizes the current climate for people experiencing unwanted pregnancies -- or wanted pregnancies that have become lethal time bombs -- in the United States today. I know this well, but reading it was still nauseating and horribying. She writes:
If this frightens you -- if it fills you with dread, as it does for me, that your daughters will grow up with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had, and that the use of their bodies will be dictated by legislators who have never met htem -- then, please remind them of history.

By and large, Americans don't like learning history. They like learning propaganda. They enjoy stories that are exclusively about how America is great and always has been. Do not let your children believe in a fictitious, rosy version so the past where every woman was happily a mother. Tell them the true hsitory of this country, where abortion has always been commonly practiced. 

And tell them your own history.

My greatest fear is not that abortion rights will be taken away in America. That is horrible. But that is already a reality for many people and has been for some time. It's that we will stop being angry about it. I am frightend that my daughter will grow up thinking her position as a second-class citizen, whose health and goals are less important to people in power than her capacity to breed, is normal and right. That she will think that this is just how things are. 

I have only one complaint about Madame Restell. It saddens me that a writer who supports full reproductive justice, including the human right to safe and legal abortion, felt the need to walve the flag of her own motherhood. It seems like Wright (or perhaps her publishers) felt that she needed to qualify her support for abortion rights by telling readers how much she loves her daughter. 

The two are in no way incompatible: the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, and another big chunk want to be mothers in the future (statsstatsstats). We should not have to -- we do not have to -- concede this ground to the lies and propaganda of the anti-abortion-rights/anti-woman/anti-human-rights fascists.

However, this is a political disagreement. Madame Restell: the Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Independent Abortionist is a very good and worthwhile read.

No comments: