I recently read a novel which made me curious about attitudes toward contraception and abortion in the Edwardian United States, in particularly in New York City.
posted by Phlogiston to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In the first decade of the twentieth century Ludwig Lewisohn married a woman two decades his senior. He very much regretted the consequences and, after fleeing to Europe some years later, wrote The Case of Mr. Crump, a thinly fictionalized account of the years he spent with his wife.
The bulk of the book is devoted to chronicling Crump/Lewisohn’s wife’s various personal failings and unpleasant habits. Several passages related to abortion and contraception struck me as surprising.
The first mention comes up in the context of a discussion of Crump’s wife’s prior marriage, and the financial infeasibility of bearing more children.
…Herbert used to be filled with a horror-stricken wonder at the fundamental facts in human life which no novelist revealed, which even physicians would not permit themselves to discuss. … It was impossible to let all the children be born. Yet there was no knowledge of even the simplest contraceptive methods and Anne was too slovenly and lazy even to get up to wash. Too happy-go-lucky, she had a gambler’s hardness and freedom from immediate care. Two glasses of beer and to bed. The rest would take care of itself. It didn’t, in fact. With the inevitable result of a long series of abortions, some brought about by surgical interference and politely called curettages, others effected by a plentiful use of quinine and gin.[sic]
(The situation described in the above passage would have begun in 1880s Chicago and continued into 1900s New York.)
Later in the narrative, Herbert begins an affair with Anne and she leaves her husband. Herbert plans a trip to his family’s home in South Carolina, promising to return but intending not to.
In the weeks prior:
[Anne] did her best to enmesh Herbert in soft, strong tentacles, to play upon the physical habit established between them, upon his compassion, upon his sense of honor. She let herself become pregnant, brought on a mild abortion at the end of eight weeks, and so, shortly before his departure appeared white, devoted, gallantly suffering for his sake.
(The above passage refers to events in 1900s New York.)
Later in the narrative, while Anne and Herbert are living with Herbert’s German immigrant parents in South Carolina, the following incident occurs:
That day, when Anne was drunk with gin, [Herbert’s] mother had expressed a mild surprise. Anne had tossed her head. “Well, upon my word, to hear you talk, one would think you’d never had an abortion. I’ve had twenty!” And Herbert had seen his mother who, after all, was six or seven years older than Anne and a born Viennese, blush like a girl.
Some years later, when Anne is past her childbearing years, Herbert implores her to divorce him citing, among other things, his desire to father a child. Anne observes that she had been pregnant by Herbert before and that he’d never shown any desire to see her carry the fetuses to term, which he concedes is true.
Lewisohn was the son of lower middle class German immigrants. He grew up in South Carolina and attended college in New York beginning in the early 1900s where he associated with sexually progressive avant-garde poets.
From the passages above it seems that he expected women to be able to reliably exercise control of their fertility.
He also seems to have had no ethical objection to abortion. The Crump character is his literary alter ego, and I believe that he didn't expect his readers to be scandalized by these views, though he concedes that novelists don’t generally speak openly of the subject.
He does, however, seem to have regarded it as distressingly gauche to discuss with the prior generation. He also seems to indicate that surgical abortion was reliably available during the Comstock Era and relatively affordable to the working class.
I’m familiar with a great deal of condemnation of contraception and, particularly, of abortion during the time periods in question, and I'm familiar with occasional defenses of contraception by, for example, Emma Goldman and E. B. Foote. I can’t, however, recall running across any similarly frank, period accounts acknowledging that the practices were widespread and acceptable to the writers. In particular, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a contemporary writer assume that women should be able to reliably prevent conception.
Can anyone point me at similar late nineteenth and early twentieth century memoirs, novels or letters that articulate similar views?