Edwardian New Yorkers views on contraception and abortion
December 28, 2008 3:11 PM   Subscribe

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.

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?
posted by Phlogiston to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
i seem to recall that in margaret atwood's surfacing she makes reference to abortion & catholics. i believe it says something about how everyone knew such things went on, and the catholics called it 'making angels.'

could be the wrong book. my memory is known to be faulty.
posted by msconduct at 4:06 PM on December 28, 2008

These aren't contemporary memoirs/novels, but more recent historical works that may point you in the right direction: Christine Stansell, City of Women; and Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros.
posted by googly at 4:10 PM on December 28, 2008

It's been some years since I read them, but the "erotic memoirs" of Frank Harris cover that time period and certainly have a very direct and frank discussion of sexuality.
posted by Forktine at 4:40 PM on December 28, 2008

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy deals with an unplanned pregnancy and touches upon abortion attitudes in early 1900's New York.
posted by applemeat at 6:09 PM on December 28, 2008

I recently came across a letter in an archive in which a woman told her friend that she'd had two abortions. (The phrase that she used was that she had been pregnant twice before but had "taken care of it." This came up in the context of her announcing a very much unplanned and unwanted pregnancy and explaining that she hadn't realized she was pregnant until it was too late to "take care of it.") The letter was written in 1920, the writer was in her late thirties at the time. I know a lot more about the recipient of the letter than about the writer: the recipient was a working-class woman who had become a prominent and fairly radical labor leader in New York. She was raised Catholic, although I'm not at all sure she was a practicing Catholic by 1920. The writer was a friend of hers, and she was very poor and in an unhappy marriage. She expressed a lot of shame about getting pregnant, because she thought her friend would judge her for having sex when she and her husband both knew they weren't in a position to have a baby. She didn't express any shame about having had abortions. I found the whole thing really surprising, but I realize that I haven't actually read a lot of personal correspondence between women, especially not working-class women.

I don't remember if I took a note of the exact location of the letter or not, but let me know if you need it and I'll look over my notes and see. It's in the Schlesinger library at Harvard.
posted by craichead at 8:00 PM on December 28, 2008

You might try this part of a Wikipedia article for some starting references on abortion.

There was an article in Slate (I think) recently about an antique contraceptive device (basically a douche, probably), but I can't find it now and it wasn't really a very good article. Like with abortion, ads for contraceptives used language that disguised the purpose; references to hygiene, cleanliness, and health show up frequently.

There's also a book, Devices and Desires, by Andrea Tone, and that's partially available through Google Books. There's an article about the bookd on MedicineNet, as well.
posted by dilettante at 8:09 PM on December 28, 2008

Thanks, all.

I read Devices and Desires some years back, but looking at it again, it corrected some misapprehensions I had about the availability of relatively inexpensive surgical abortion.

Craichead, if finding the information in your notes isn't too much trouble, I'm interested. My e-mail is in my profile.
posted by Phlogiston at 2:17 PM on December 29, 2008

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