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Chapter 1 An Open Secret
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Chapter 1
An Open Secret

Her period was late. She had two children, one sixteen years old, one six. She was thirty-four. Frances Collins knew she was pregnant. She told her husband she had "missed." This had happened before and she had taken care of it before. Mrs. Collins talked to a "lady friend" about her problem. Her friend suggested Dr. Warner: "Go over and see him," she said, "he might be able to fix you up." In the first days of April in 1920, Mrs. Collins went to Dr. Warner's office on the West side of Chicago to have "her womb opened up," something, she commented later, she had "done many times." After the doctor inserted an instrument into her womb, she returned to her home at 4-338 W. Congress. She called her husband away from his work as a master printer and told him, as he later recalled, "I am unwell." He asked her, "'Natural?' And she says no. That is all." Jerome Collins knew what she meant. When later asked at the inquest into his wife's death whether she told him any details about the abortion and where she had gone, Jerome answered, "No, she did not outright, she just said 'I had it done,' that is all." His wife lay down and rested. She seemed fine, but by the end of the month, she was "sick again"—the term commonly used for menstruation—"and she started to flow pretty hard." At that point, her husband called his mother-in-law to care for her. Finally, as things further declined and his wife was vomiting and getting chills, she told him to call the doctor who had performed the abortion. Dr. Warner visited her at home two or three times to care for her. At the end of April, Mrs. Collins's family doctor, Dr. Joseph T. Woof, saw her


and hospitalized her. Dr. Woof had attended her in childbirth and knew that she had "had several abortions, against [his] advice."[1]

This vignette of Frances Collins's abortion suggests that abortion was not an unusual feature of married life in the early twentieth century. Both Mr. and Mrs. Collins seemed to take a matter-of-fact attitude toward abortion. They did not talk about it at length, but Jerome Collins was not surprised when his wife told him in few words that she had "had it done." He understood her meaning because she had done the same before. The Collins couple tacitly agreed on abortion as the means to avoid adding another child to the family. Her doctor, who had cared for her family for ten years, knew that she had had "several abortions created," though, as he said, "against my advice." Nonetheless, Dr. Woof described Mrs. Collins as "a very grand woman, one of the grandest little women the Lord ever created." Her abortions did not detract from her doctor's high opinion of her.[2]

Despite the criminalization of abortion nationwide, abortion continued, and despite the efforts of Dr. Horatio Storer and his antiabortion allies, the thinking of ordinary Americans about early pregnancy had not been transformed. Abortion was widely tolerated. Many ordinary Americans at the turn of the century had not adopted the idea that there was a rigid dividing line between menstruation and conception, but continued to think of menstruation and early pregnancy as related. Abortion continued to be an important method of birth control, particularly for working-class, married women like Collins.[3] Early-twentieth-century women's use of abortion was part of a long tradition among women to control and limit their childbearing.

In the past twenty-five years feminists have often used the metaphor of "silence" to describe the subordination of women. Describing women as silent and silenced brought attention to the dominance of the masculine voice in politics, law, medicine, and the media and the near absence of women's words and perspectives in these public political forums. The powerful metaphor's provocative image of the silenced woman—unable to speak, ignored and unheard—reverberated with women's experiences and encouraged women to be bold and to speak of their lives. In the late 1960s, an important tactic of the movement to legalize abortion was getting women to tell of their abortions at "speak-outs" and thus discover their shared experiences and shared oppression.[4] However, the metaphor of silence has limitations, for it has at times obscured women's historical experiences by portraying women as more isolated, helpless, and victimized than they felt.[5]


Within the limitations imposed by a sexist society. in general and the laws forbidding reproductive control to women in particular, women found ways around the restrictions to obtain what they needed. Instead of visualizing women as gagged and silenced, it is more helpful to envision them talking about abortion as a "secret." It is notable that Frances Collins spoke of her abortion with others, including her husband, her "lady friend," and her doctor. Her friend understood her situation and helped her by naming a doctor who might perform an abortion. Although women could have abortions without anyone knowing about it at the turn of the century, many, like Mrs. Collins, talked about their abortions and relied upon friends, relatives, or partners to help them carry out their abortion plans. Thinking of abortion as cloaked in "secrecy" emphasizes the point that it was a topic of conversation while suggesting that those who spoke of abortion did so discreetly and selectively.

The metaphors of "silence" and "speaking" implicitly refer to women's ability to speak in specific forums from which women have been excluded. The speech that has been privileged is political speech in national and local civic institutions controlled by men. Emphasizing the "silence" surrounding abortion inaccurately represents the history of abortion and ignores what women did say in other arenas; women talked about abortion often. We need a more nuanced understanding of the ability of women to voice their concerns and of the limits on women's speech. They did not proclaim their abortions in open, political forums, but they did speak of their abortions among themselves and within smaller, more intimate spaces. Women talked about abortion in "private" spaces, at home, and in the semiprivate, semipublic spaces of medicine such as drug stores, doctors' and midwives' offices, hospitals, and birth control clinics. Discussion of abortion, like other female experiences of reproduction, was part of female life and conversation. These shared experiences, rooted in biology but socially created and culturally understood, helped forge the bonds of gender within social groups.[6] In some circumstances abortion might have been openly discussed with close friends; in other instances, it was, at most, whispered about.

The evidence shows that many American women and their friends and family accepted abortions. The widespread acceptance of abortion, expressed in word and deed during the era of its illegality, suggests the persistence of a popular ethic that differed from that of the law and the official views of medicine and religion. This popular acceptance of abor-


tion took into account women's sense of their own bodies, the particular situations in which women found themselves, and the material reality that made women and men need reproductive control. This finding suggests the need to refine our thinking about morality. Neither legal statutes nor the words of priests, ministers, or rabbis can be assumed to represent the moral thinking of the citizenry or congregations. Instead of assuming universal agreement on the immorality of abortion as expressed in the law and insisted upon by regular medical leaders, we might think of gradations in moral thinking or the existence of multiple moralities. The behavior and beliefs of ordinary people in daily life deserve serious attention. Abortion was part of life.

Frances Collins died following an attempted illegal abortion.[7] If she had been successful, a friend and her husband would have known about her abortion; perhaps a few relatives and other friends would also have learned her secret—but I would know nothing of Frances Collins and her abortion. I know of her strategy for getting rid of her pregnancy only because she died and because her death reached the attention of the Cook County coroner who conducted an inquest into it. At the inquest, witnesses described Collins's life, her pregnancy, her efforts to abort, and her death. A court reporter recorded their testimony. A transcript of these proceedings has been preserved as a public record in the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office in Chicago. The records generated by the coroner's office during inquests were produced for specific legal tasks, but because of the structure of an inquest, much more informal than a trial, they contain a great deal of information about individuals and, at the same time, permit the observation of patterns of abortion. Analysis of inquests into women's deaths resulting from illegal abortions are crucial for my analysis of abortion from the late nineteenth century through the 1930S. Many of the details of early-twentieth-century abortion practices and the most intimate stories of women and their relationships are drawn from these public records. These stories can be painful to read because the women died as a result of their illegal abortions, but their deaths allow us to learn about the lives of women, particularly immigrant and working women, who were most likely to appear in legal records. In studying these texts closely, this book honors the lives of these women who died trying to control their reproduction. Their deaths, however, were unusual. Most women survived their abortions and never had to tell anyone unless they chose to do so.


Mrs. Collins was one of hundreds of thousands of women who had abortions every year. Some late-nineteenth-century doctors believed there were two million abortions a year.[8] In 1904, Dr. C. S. Bacon estimated that "six to ten thousand abortions are induced in Chicago every year." As one physician remarked in 1911, "Those who apply for abortions are from every walk of life, from the factory girl to the millionaire's daughter; from the laborer's wife to that of the banker, no class, no sect seems to be above . . . the destruction of the fetus."[9] As early-twentieth-century reformers investigated abortion, they produced and preserved knowledge of the business. Their reports, themselves evidence of the growing scrutiny of female sexual and reproductive behavior, show that a significant segment of the female population had abortions. A study of ten thousand working-class clients of Margaret Sanger's birth control clinics in the late 1920s found that 20 percent of all pregnancies had been intentionally aborted. Surveys of educated, middle-class women in the 1920s showed that 10 to 23 percent had had abortions.[10] Anecdotal information, patient histories collected at maternity and birth control clinics, and mortality data show that women of every racial and religious group had abortions.[11] A more comprehensive survey conducted by Regine K. Stix of almost one thousand women who went to the birth control clinic in the Bronx in 1931 and 1932 found that 35 percent of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clients alike had had at least one illegal abortion.[12] By the 1930s, Dr. Frederick J. Taussig, a St. Louis obstetrician and nationally recognized authority on abortion, estimated that there were at least 681,000 abortions per year in the United States.[13]

Most of the women who had abortions at the turn of the century were married. Tracking changes in the demographic characteristics of those who had illegal abortions is difficult, but evidence shows that abortion continued to be a practice of mostly married women until after World War II.[14] Yet the image of the seduced and abandoned unmarried woman dominated turn-of-the-century newspapers and popular thinking. The image of the victimized single woman spoke to fears of the city and the changing roles of women in the same way that visions of married women aborting had expressed mid-nineteenth-century anxieties. Newspapers, physicians, and prosecutors highlighted the abortion-related deaths of unwed women.[15]

When women themselves spoke of abortions they usually did not use the medical word abortion. Their language gives insight into women's perspectives on pregnancy and its termination. The term abor -


tion was a foreign and formal word, part of the jargon used by professionals, not an ordinary word used by ordinary people. Discovering the vernacular for an illegal practice is difficult, but the phrases used by women and men appear occasionally in turn-of-the-century abortion reports. One woman told a New York doctor, "I have missed twice, but I am going to bring my courses on," and a Chicago doctor sold pills to one woman to "bring her around."[16] These phrases tell of the persistence of older notions that perceived early pregnancy as a menstrual problem. Mrs. Collins used few words to indicate that she had had an abortion; she "had it done." Other women declared that they wanted to be "fixed up," just as Mr. Collins reported that his wife's friend had named a doctor who might "fix" her.[17] One woman reported that she had gone to a doctor twice "to be put straight."[18] Once the period was back on schedule and the pregnancy ended, her crooked, out-of-kilter body had been put straight and realigned. The words these women used suggests they perceived their bodies as out of order. When women declared that they wanted to "get rid of" it, their language more frankly admitted the presence of a pregnancy.[19] Yet it also suggested that there was something foreign inside the woman's body, that perhaps she had been invaded and needed to "rid" herself of it. One man recalled his wife telling him of going to a midwife "to get rid of the child."[20] This phrase more explicitly equated pregnancy with a live human being and echoed the language of the physicians, officials, and reformers who argued that once conception occurred, the embryo was equal to a child. A dispensary nurse reported in 1918 that when she visited a pregnant patient who had never returned to the clinic, the patient smiled and said, "Thank the Lord, I have been relieved."[21]

I have used the term "abortion" throughout this book to refer to the purposeful ending of pregnancies at every stage. I am using the term promulgated by medicine and law since the mid-nineteenth century and one that Americans today take for granted, but it is somewhat of an anachronism for the early twentieth century. We have all adopted the medical term "abortion" to describe the efforts to get the period back on schedule and to end extremely early pregnancies, but in the early twentieth century the attempt to redraw the line at a different point in the reproductive process, at conception, was a point of cultural struggle. It is crucial to keep these changing and contested understandings of pregnancy and abortion in mind.

We know of some of the talk among women about abortion because doctors described women's conversations. Physicians were privy to


everyday female conversations about reproduction in general, which at times included the topic of abortion. Some medical men were surprised by what they heard of women's attitudes toward reproduction and remarked on it. For example, in response to newspaper exposure of doctors who did abortions in 1888, Dr. Truman W. Miller defended his profession by exposing female conversation and activity. "I am sure there is no comparison between the number of abortions committed by doctors and the number committed by women themselves," he charged. "They talk about such matters commonly and impart information unsparingly." Thirty years later, another physician observed a "matter of fact attitude" about abortions among "women of all ages and nationalities and . . . of every social status."[22]

At professional meetings and in medical texts, physicians told their colleagues of women's attitudes toward abortion and detailed the methods women used. The reports in some cases were no more than a sentence or two in an article about another issue or a remark made during the discussion of a paper presented at a meeting and later published. Physicians presented information about women's abortions as interesting anecdotes, as patient "history" and prelude to their own medical innovation, or as part of a medical discussion on abortion. As medical researchers learned statistical methods, they collected data on dozens or hundreds of cases in order to answer questions about maternal mortality and morbidity or to test and argue for particular treatments in abortion cases. Physicians who acted as reporters of abortion practices for other physicians and the public, whether shocked, sympathetic, or scientific, appear throughout this book. From these different types of medical reports, I glean medical perspectives and practices and read these sources against the grain to grasp the perspective of women having abortions.

To the dismay of medical leaders, the public still believed that quickening marked the beginning of life. The practice of abortion persisted nationwide. "Many otherwise good and exemplary women," Dr. Joseph Taber Johnson reported in 1895, thought "that prior to quickening it is no more harm to cause the evacuation of the contents of their wombs than it is that of their bladders or their bowels."[23]

Women's critics found it provoking that women did not appear to be ashamed about their illegal abortions, but freely discussed them, advised each other in the methods for inducing abortions, and referred their friends to abortionists. One physician observed in 1891 that leading ladies of the community. "not only . . . commit this crime, but talk


about it very unconcernedly, or engage in disseminating a knowledge of the work among friends as earnestly as they would work for a supper for the benefit of a hospital, kindergarten, or the far-distant heathen."[24] The scene sketched by this doctor implicated well-to-do, respected women active in voluntary and charitable activities in the crime of abortion and criticized them for treating the subject lightly. It may be fruitful to read the doctor's comparison literally: control over their own reproduction was as important to women as building a hospital or caring for the needy. Indeed, women's involvement in charitable and reform activities made the ability to control childbearing necessary, and that control made voluntary activities possible.

A Massachusetts doctor told his colleagues of a trick he played on a patient, which points to how women told each other of their abortions. A "young wife" had come to him seeking an abortion, and he had tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her. So, "thinking a little delay might bring about a better reasoning" on her part, the doctor finally gave her a placebo. The woman miscarried after a train accident but believed it was thanks to his help. "She showed her gratitude," the doctor recalled, "by sending to me one after another of her friends, I think seven in number, who insisted in having the same prescription that I had given Mrs. X." Another doctor remarked on abortion as a way to argue against making birth control information available to "laymen." Women who had illegal abortions, he remarked, were "not . . . secretive about the matter when it comes to passing this knowledge on to some sister who is also in trouble." In the same way, he warned, women would pass information about contraceptives. Physicians' recollections make clear that female dialogue included talking about abortions.[25]

Women shared with one another very specific knowledge about how to induce abortions. Female sharing of abortion techniques was both part of the routine exchange of knowledge about how to treat illnesses of all kinds and a continuation of earlier traditions when women traded recipes for abortifacients.[26] "The older ladies of the community are prolific in advice," one Chicago physician remarked in 1900. "Hot drinks, hot douches and hot baths are recommended. Violent exercise is suggested and jumping off a chair or rolling down stairs is a favorite procedure. Certain teas are given . . . and the different emmenagogue pills are too easily procurable."[27]

"Older ladies" shared the traditional techniques known to them; younger women shared more modern and scientific information. The information women gave each other changed over time along with


changes in medicine. When a turn-of-the-century physician warned a young married woman of septic infection, the woman answered, "'My friend told me to boil my catheter before using it.'"[28] Medical precautions against sepsis, this report suggests, had entered popular knowledge. Armed with medical wisdom and personal experience, these patients dismissed warnings and vexed their doctors. Barbara Brookes has found that early-twentieth-century English women "helped" each other induce abortions. American women did the same. In 1920 a nurse reported the story of a married, working-class woman, "Annie K," who had induced three abortions already and, if pregnant, planned to do so again. When warned of the dangers of abortion, "Annie laughed and said: 'Oh! it's easy.' And . . . added: 'I have told lots of women how to do it."'[29]

Women also aided each other in finding someone else to do an abortion. Female relatives often helped find and pay for abortions. Helping daughters, sisters, and nieces obtain abortions was, like attending deliveries and giving advice on child rearing, part of the maternal role and sibling relationship. The nature of familial relationships would determine to which relative, whether older or a peer, individuals turned. The willingness of female relatives to obtain abortions for their kin cut across class, from the wealthiest to the poorest families. A New York physician told of a patient, "the mother of many children, a lady of considerable wealth," who sought an abortion for her daughter-in-law.[30] In 1917, when Ellen Matson, a very poor, second-generation Swedish woman, had an abortion, her mother, sister, and aunt knew of it. Matson's mother and sister visited her at the doctor's home after the abortion; her aunt loaned her five dollars from her meager funds.[31] Twenty-one-year-old Mary Colbert did not ask her aunts to help her obtain an abortion, but the aunt who raised her wished she had. After her niece's death as a result of abortion, Annie Cullinan mournfully recalled having asked her, "Mamie, why did you not tell me, and I would get a good doctor."[32]

Parents, especially mothers, often played a crucial role in the effort to obtain an abortion when their daughter was unwed. Reflecting the sympathies and training of gender, daughters generally turned to mothers for help when faced with a pregnancy out of wedlock. In the late nineteenth century, Joan Jacobs Brumberg has argued, illegitimacy became a "traumatic event" for middle-class families, which threatened the reputations of both the unmarried women themselves and their families.[33] Many parents had a strong interest in protecting their daugh-


ters and themselves from the shame associated with single motherhood. In late-nineteenth-century New York, one woman approached a female doctor about an abortion for her daughter, whose fiancé had fled. "Death before dishonor," the mother reportedly declared, "my daughter is not going to be disgraced all her days, and the man to go scot-free."[34] The mother's words succinctly summarized the sexual double standard: she knew that bearing an illegitimate child would stigmatize her daughter for life while the boyfriend could experience sexual pleasures without hurting his honor. If fathers were apt to over-react to their obvious inability to control the sexuality of their daughters, daughters and their mothers might collude to keep the man of the house ignorant. In 1914, when Mrs. Julia Reed's eighteen-year-old daughter's period did not arrive, Mrs. Reed took her to two people to find out whether she was pregnant, bought pills to induce an abortion, and, when that did not work, took her daughter to another doctor, whom she paid for an abortion. Throughout the entire episode, neither mother nor daughter told the father of the family for fear he would kick the daughter out of the house. In contrast, both of Emma Alby's parents responded to their single daughter's supposed pregnancy as a family problem and tried to solve it by finding an abortionist.[35] However, not everyone could assume that their female relatives would help or sympathize with their need for abortions. One woman reminded her sister that abortion was a "sin." Some parents, outraged at discovering the pregnancy of an unmarried daughter, threw their daughters out of the familial home.[36]

To avoid the social disaster of single motherhood, turn-of-the-century physicians and women's charity groups urged unwed women to bear their children in maternity homes. Some homes arranged for adoption of the illegitimate infants; others insisted that the new mothers keep them. The Journal of the American Medical Association viewed these homes as a way "to combat the crime of induced abortion."[37] Yet many homes refused African American women. One African American physician established a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, in order to provide a place where unmarried African American women could deliver their babies and give them up for adoption instead of having abortions.[38] The policies of unwed mother's homes could be oppressive. Maternity homes expected mothers to repent and required them to stay long periods of time, perform domestic tasks, and participate in religious services. State agencies and private charities required the women, whether keeping or giving up their newborns, to breast-feed for several


months.[39] Some women surely concluded that an abortion, though illegal, could be a simpler solution to a pregnancy out of wedlock. Regina Kunzel has found that many women in maternity, homes had tried but failed to abort their pregnancies. One maternity home inmate gave her new friends at the home valuable information for the future: she described how to do their own abortions.[40]

The economic difficulty of rearing children as a single woman helped push the pregnant and unmarried to have abortions. Working women earned wages half those of men and inadequate for a woman by herself, let alone with dependent children. A 1908 study of Chicago's store and factory workers found that more than half of the women living alone earned less than a subsistence wage. Although real wages increased in the 1920s, the average female worker in manufacturing still earned below subsistence. African American women, who were segregated into domestic service jobs, were paid less than white coworkers.[41] Furthermore, single working mothers risked losing their children as a result of being charged with child neglect by reformers and officials.[42]

Female friendship at times included participating in abortions.[43] Female work companions could prove to be good friends indeed. When Mary Schwartz told Marie Hansen, a coworker at the Illinois Meat Company in Chicago, of her "condition" and asked for her help, Hansen immediately accepted this duty of friendship. "I will try and help you the best I [can]," Hansen recalled telling her friend. Mary Schwartz depended upon Hansen from beginning to end. Schwartz asked for help on a Monday and that day Hansen took her to Dr. Justin L. Mitchell's office at 79th and Halsted, south of Chicago's meatpacking district where they worked. Three years earlier, Hansen had gone to Mitchell for an abortion; now they told him that Schwartz "wants to get fixed up" and negotiated with him to drop his price from fifty dollars to thirty. Schwartz got a loan for twenty-five dollars, for which Hansen co-signed, and Hansen personally loaned her five dollars "in dimes" to pay for the abortion. The next morning Hansen brought her friend to Dr. Mitchell's again, waited outside the office while he operated, and took her to her own home to recuperate. When Schwartz fell ill that evening, Hansen called the doctor and "told him that she was bad sick." Hansen followed the doctor's orders and gave Schwartz castor oil and placed warm towels on her stomach to stop her pains, but her friend "kept on suffering." She took her to the doctor on Thursday evening and again on Friday morning for a second operation. Hansen reminded the doctor to perform the medical procedure properly:


"Don't forget to scrape her. . . . and do a good job." At 4 A.M. Saturday morning, a very worried Hansen called Schwartz's lover to come get Mary, "because she was real bad sick." Joe Hejna, who worked as a foreman at the Illinois Meat Company, drove over, picked up Mary, called in his own doctor, and rushed her to a hospital. Schwartz leaned on her friend every step of the way and her loyal friend was at her side throughout the entire abortion process. This is all we know about the quality of the women's friendship: when Mary Schwartz asked Marie Hansen for help, she helped. The grief that Hansen must have felt when she testified at her friend's inquest was muted. The only hint of her feelings is that she had to be told to "talk up a little louder."[44]

Women's daily lives could include all aspects of reproduction and its control—from delivering babies to ending a pregnancy. In 1928, while Catherine Beyer visited a friend who had just given birth, another friend, Catherine Mau, asked Beyer to accompany her to the office of a Chicago midwife for an abortion. Beyer later recalled that Mau had explained to the midwife that "she had three children and her husband was out of work and she could not support another one, and that her husband was sickly." The midwife took her patient into another room and inserted a catheter while Beyer waited outside in a rocking chair. The two friends left the midwife's office to return to their homes, children, husbands, and dinner duties.[45]

Women helped friends and relatives who had abortions by nursing them and by assuming their domestic duties. Beyer visited Mau two days after the abortion to help the midwife "wash her out" and put her to bed. Then Beyer fed Mau's children.[46] When Collins became feverish, her husband called in her mother to care for her. Another woman's friend nursed her at home and cooked special soups for her. Elsie Golcher arranged for a friend and a sister-in-law to watch her children while she was away from home during her abortion. When concern about Carolina Petrovitis's well-being reached a crisis point after her abortion, the women attending her intervened. Carolina's sister and female neighbors consulted and decided to call in a doctor whom they trusted, not the one called by her husband. The group telephoned a doctor who had successfully taken care of a lady across the street who had been "sick in the same condition."[47]

Caring for the sick, especially for women during pregnancy, was a social responsibility shared by neighboring women. Female friends and relatives determined when the situation had become an emergency, when to call in a doctor, and which doctor to call. Though cities en-


couraged anonymity, a sense of community persisted. These women lived in an immigrant neighborhood of one of the largest industrial cities in the world, but their sense of collective responsibility for women during pregnancy echoed the assumptions and actions of midwife Martha Ballard and the neighborhood women of rural eighteenth-century Hallowell, Maine.[48]

Many counted on female friends and relatives to see them through the entire process of abortion—from locating the abortionist, to raising money to pay for it, to accompanying them to the abortionist's office and observing the procedure, to nursing them during their recovery and taking over household duties for them. Expressing understanding and giving material assistance during abortions, as during childbirth and other female life events, was for many a part of the fabric of female friendship.[49] The expectations women had of their female friends and relatives at these times were only rarely preserved in print, but we have observed the ways in which women depended upon each other at crucial moments. Female friendship meant being able to rely upon each other in time of need.

Women also counted on men. Lovers often helped women obtain abortions. Men and women in unmarried couples shared assumptions about what should be done in the event of pregnancy: women had abortions; men paid for them. Male assumption of financial responsibility fit heterosexual dating norms, which required men to cover the costs of entertainment and often to pay for other living expenses as well. Records of early-twentieth-century Cook County coroner's inquests into women's abortion-related deaths reveal working-class boy-friends acting on this assumption and paying for their "sweethearts'" abortions. A survey of 1,300 college students found that elite couples had the same expectation in the event of an unwanted pregnancy.[50]

Some men were more actively involved in the abortion than simply paying for it. Boyfriends hunted for the names of abortionists and made the initial contact.[51] When Ellen Matson told Charley More-house that her period was late and taking quinine "did not bring it on," he arranged an appointment for her with a doctor. He went to the doctor with her and paid for the box of "brown pills," which she took every hour every day for over two weeks. When those failed, he got the name of another doctor and gave her the money for an abortion. Afterwards, he picked her up and took her home.[52] In some instances, men accompanied their lovers to the offices of abortionists.[53] John Harris, a waiter who had little money, agreed to pay the costs of a private hospi-


tal and a $100 operation to care for his sweetheart after her abortion. When the woman's physician ordered wine "to wet her lips," Harris ran out to purchase it.[54] After one woman's abortion, her male friend remained with her at the nurse's flat and talked with her all night trying to calm her fears.[55]

A remark made by one young man implies that he assumed that his lover would make her own decisions about her pregnancy. Edward Dettman related that when Mary Colbert told him she had missed her period, she asked him, "What can be done?" He responded, "I don't know, that was up to her." Colbert had indeed made up her mind. She refused his offer of marriage. She told her lover that she did not want to marry in "disgrace"; instead he took her to Dr. Emil Gleitsman for an abortion. Her boyfriend had offered to marry, Colbert told her aunt, but she chose a different path. "She did not want to get married then," her aunt recalled being told. "She did not want to marry anyone."[56]

It is useful to examine this particular episode further to interrogate assumptions about the motivations of unmarried men involved in illegal abortions and the desires of unmarried women. In the analysis of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century feminists, abortions occurred because of male sexual exploitation and pressure. Feminists believed that unmarried women had abortions because they had entered a sexual relationship on the understanding that sex was a prelude to marriage; if pregnancy resulted, women expected to marry. Ira woman had an abortion, it meant, to feminists and others, that she had been abandoned by her lover, who refused to marry. Feminist interpretation of abortion did not admit the possibility of female sexual independence, only female victimization. Other possible explanations for abortion—that the woman did not want to marry, or that both parties in the relationship viewed the potential child and the potential marriage as impossible, or that some women, like men, participated in sexual affairs that they had no intention of concluding in marriage—were not acknowledged. It was difficult for turn-of-the-century feminists to recognize alternative explanations for the situation of young, single women when only a few radicals and birth controllers were beginning to talk about female sexual pleasure. Nonetheless, Joanne Meyerowitz has found that by the 1920s some reformers realized that the young women were not all victims.[57]

As we reach the end of the twentieth century, it is problematic to employ nineteenth-century feminist assumptions that all unwed women who got pregnant were victims, that their boyfriends were villains, and


that abortions were evidence of victimization.[58] After all, the turn of the century was a time when heterosexual dating norms were changing and women increasingly experimented with (hetero)sexuality and challenged older sexual norms. In part, some feminists still emphasize female victimization because one segment of contemporary feminism views heterosexual relations as inherently oppressive.[59] That an unmarried woman had an abortion does not necessarily mean that her hopes of marriage had been dashed and she had been abandoned by an irresponsible young man. Nor does it necessarily mean she "chose" abortion because she chose freedom from marriage. We cannot make either of these assumptions about every case; the interpersonal relationships and their meanings are more complex and difficult to get at. In the Colbert case, she decided to get rid of the pregnancy, and he helped her. Exactly what prompted her actions, what her feelings were, we cannot know (we cannot even assume that she knew), but there are some hints. She told her lover she did not want to marry and have it known in her family that she had married in "disgrace." She told her aunt something a bit different; she did not want to marry anyone. Why did she have the abortion? The answer probably lies in both of the reasons she gave: she did not want to marry, and she did not want to marry in this situation, and, perhaps, she did not want to marry this particular man. The point is, her boyfriend did not refuse to marry, did not abandon her, never to be seen again, and did not coerce her into an abortion; he followed her wishes.

Furthermore, the independence achieved through earning wages gave some women the freedom to turn down undesirable marriages. One turn-of-the-century physician believed that "the emancipation of the modern woman" helped explain the ubiquity of abortion. He reported that one modern, wage-earning woman said that she "was not going to give up a hundred-dollar place for a fifty-dollar man."[60] The meaning of abortion for unmarried women at the turn of the century is not clear-cut, but ambiguous. We need nuanced, not facile, analysis of the intimacies of heterosexual relationships and the reasons for abortion.

In questioning the assumption that when single women had abortions they had been wronged by their lovers, I do not deny that some men treated their lovers badly. Some women were seduced and abandoned; some were raped. The stories of Milda Hoffmann and Edna Lamb in Chicago in 1916 and 1917 fit the dominant ideology, about abortion and female victimization. Seventeen-year-old Milda Hoffmann was the classic "woman adrift." She left the home of her mother


and stepfather in Milwaukee for Chicago, where she worked as a "chamber maid" and lived alone in one room. No one knew her seducer, and her mother knew little of her life.[61] Edna Lamb had several boyfriends, but her girlfriend believed that the one "responsible" for Lamb's pregnancy was a traveling man with whom, she had heard, Lamb had gone to a hotel. Lamb told her doctor she could not marry because the man was dead. Perhaps.[62]

Although it was unusual for husbands to be as involved as many boyfriends were in their sweethearts' abortions, some men supported their wives' plans to have abortions or helped them find abortionists. The boyfriends' active involvement grew out of the circumstances in which these pregnancies occurred—outside of marriage. Pregnancy made the lovers' illicit affair visible, and both unmarried men and women had an interest in covering up the affair. Though husbands might support abortions, their wives often took care of this matter themselves. Carolina and George Petrovitis, an immigrant couple with children, discussed and agreed that they did not want more children: "We both did not want it—we want to take a rest." She found a midwife to help her on her own, however.[63] The relative noninvolvement of husbands compared to boyfriends during abortions paralleled the role of husbands during childbirth. Childbirth was a female event, and husbands stayed out of the birthing room. Nonetheless, husbands had specific duties during deliveries: they ran to get the midwife or doctor and paid the bill. They generally did not pick up the domestic tasks that a new mother could not perform, such as cooking and watching the children; instead, a female relative or neighbor usually helped out with those chores.[64] In the same way, female relatives, neighbors, and friends were more important than husbands in assisting married women having abortions.

Although husbands tended to play a minor role when their wives had abortions, some tacitly agreed with the plan to avoid bearing a child. Husbands often became involved in abortions only late in the process, when they called in other women and doctors as their wives' health deteriorated. Jerome Collins called in two doctors and his mother-in-law to care for his wife when she took a turn for the worse. Frank Mau, another Chicago husband, knew his wife was pregnant in 1928 and that "she wanted it taken away." He knew nothing more about it until one February night at 2 A.M. when his wife told him to call the midwife and she miscarried at home. Like Collins, Frank Mau called in a physician about two weeks later when his wife was in great


pain. Both women died of peritonitis, infections following their abortions.[65] Though their deaths were shocking, neither husband appeared to be shocked by his wife's abortion.

Some husbands tried to control their wives either by forbidding abortions or by insisting on them. A native-born farmer's wife with one child told Dr. Anne Burnet in 1889 that "she would like to have a family but her husband objected," and so she had five or six abortions. She had first gone to a doctor for the operations, but after her husband acquired an instrument from the doctor, she induced the abortions herself because "it cost less."[66] Nineteenth-century feminists often blamed husbands for married women's use of abortion. Husbands, in feminists' analysis, abused their wives, first in bed and again when they forced them to undergo abortions.[67]

Q:      When was Mrs. Projahn first taken ill or consulted a Doctor . . .?

A:      On September 7. . . .

Q:      What induced you to go to him on this occasion, your family was growing too large?

A:      That's the way the wife figured it.

Q:      She didn't want any more children?

A:      No.

Earnest Projahn answered the questions put to him by the deputy coroner during the inquest into his wife's death.[68] On a Friday night in September of 1916, Projahn had taken his wife to a doctor for an abortion. During the inquest, Mrs. Emily Projahn's determination to limit the number of children in her family became evident. To a hospital intern she explained, "My husband and my self came to the conclusion that we had enough children and wanted something done so we would not have to support another." The Projahns had four living children; two others had died. She did not want another child and felt her husband's salary as a fireman could not support one. Her husband later claimed that he opposed the abortion and "spoke against it all the time." Though he may have made this statement in the hopes of avoiding further legal trouble for his role in the abortion, his remark, "That's the way the wife figured it," suggests that he followed her lead in this matter, however reluctantly. Mr. Projahn eventually came around to his wife's way of thinking and performed the male role of locating the abortionist and accompanying her to the doctor's office.[69]

Mrs. Projahn explained why she wanted to abort her pregnancy in the new language of the birth control movement. They could not "af-


ford" another child.[70] The birth control movement, supported by socialist movements, had been actively promoting the idea that the size of working-class families could be controlled and that childbearing could be linked to family finances. Birth controllers advocated the use of contraceptives as revolutionary and spoke to several concerns at once. The working class, they claimed, could use birth control in their fight against class oppression by refusing to produce wage workers and soldiers. It was a method, neo-Malthusians promised, by which the poor could rise above poverty. Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and feminists added to this radical working-class argument the idea that birth control would free women. It would free (married) women from the oppression of compulsory motherhood and allow them to enjoy sex. The rise of the early-twentieth-century birth control movement marked an important change in feminism as the birth controllers rejected the old strategy, of abstinence and declared the legitimacy of female sexual pleasure.[71]

Though working-class and immigrant couples like the Projahns in Chicago seemed to have readily adopted the language of the birth control movement to describe their desire to limit their number of children, the method they used to achieve family limitation—abortion—was condemned by the birth control movement. The birth control movement not only promoted the use of contraceptives and a new way of thinking about reproduction and the family, it also generated its own abortion discourse. The birth control movement struggled to teach people that, first, contraception and abortion were different and, second, that one was morally acceptable and the other not. The birth control movement's rejection of the attitude that treated discussion of reproduction, sex, and reproductive control as shameful, its acceptance of female sexual desire, and its claim that using contraceptives was moral were all radical steps. Yet the movement did not break with nineteenth-century feminist thought on abortion. Birth controllers contrasted the danger of abortion to the safety of contraceptives and argued strenuously against abortion.[72] Though some women adopted the birth controllers' negative opinion of abortion and used the medical term for it by the 1920s, they still had abortions. But they reported feeling "guilty" about their actions.[73]

Reeducating the public on abortion was not going to be an easy project. Birth controllers explained over and over again in their literature and in speaking with their clients at clinics that birth control did not mean abortion. Yet, despite their emphatic denials and careful definitions of birth control, women still came to birth control clinics


looking for abortions. In 1927, Chicago's clinics, which had been telling women for several years that they did "not approve of or perform abortions," turned away 201 patients, or 16 percent of their clientele, because of pregnancy.[74] The importance of abortion to poor women in the tenements, from Jews to Italian Catholics, can be seen in Kate Simon's memoirs of growing up in a post-World War I immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx. As an adult, Simon learned of her mother's thirteen abortions, which, her mother informed her, was "by no means the neighborhood record."[75]

The Birth Control Review became a forum in which this struggle between the movement and its followers was recorded. The movement used abortion to bolster its claims for the morality of contraception by differentiating between the two and claiming that contraception could combat abortion. As part of the campaign to legalize and legitimate birth control, Margaret Sanger and the Review reprinted verbatim heart-wrenching letters received from women around the country. Many wrote thinking that Sanger's advocacy of birth control meant she could help them prevent births by ending pregnancies. When the Review published these letters, however, it editorialized that this was not birth control. At the beginning of one collection of letters from women telling of their abortions the magazine commented, "There is no commoner misapprehension concerning Birth Control than that which identifies it with abortion."[76] The more well-off leaders and workers in the birth control movement never defended abortion or discussed their own need for it, but they did express sympathy for women who faced motherhood against their wishes. Birth controllers blamed not women, but the laws that banned contraceptives and the physicians who refused to provide them. Abortions, therapeutic and criminal both, could be avoided, they argued, through the use of contraception.[77]

Because of the friction over the meaning of "birth control" between the leaders of the birth control movement and the poor women they meant to serve, I use the Birth Control Review (BCR ) to gain insights into the thinking and lives of poor women who had abortions (or wanted them), a group given less attention in medical journals. Each woman's reasons for aborting were rooted in the particularities of her own life. The writers assumed that one had to know the details of daily life, typically regarded as mundane, in order to understand and see the necessity of abortion. As women beseeched a public figure who might be able to assist them but did not know them, they wrote of the intricacies and intimacies of their lives.

The power dynamics in heterosexual relationships influenced birth


control practices and effectiveness. If a woman's husband refused to use any method of birth control and regarded sex as his pleasure to be had at will, she had a harder time avoiding pregnancy. As one writer to Sanger remarked in 1918, "My husband says he wants no more babies but I have come to believe he cares more for his passion than he does for me for he won't do anything to keep me from getting pregnant." For these women, abortion was particularly important. Women in more companionate marriages avoided this abuse, but not the fear of pregnancy. Couples who wanted to limit their family size but knew nothing about how to prevent conception sometimes agreed to avoid sexual relations in order to protect women from the dangers of another pregnancy. Women with husbands who agreed to leave them alone were comparatively lucky, but the fear of pregnancy destroyed more than one loving relationship. Moreover, this was a difficult agreement to keep, and a woman could, after months of abstinence, still end up pregnant and searching for a way to end it.[78]

Just about every woman in a sexual relationship with a man had pregnancy on her mind. Married and unmarried women alike often worried about the results of sleeping with husbands or lovers. When their periods were late, they noticed and watched. "I have missed my monthly sickness once and I am afraid I am pregnant as I never miss unless I am," related Mrs. C. M. C. in 1918. Another mother wondered if she was "not regular" and feared she might be "caught again." Both hoped for help if it turned out they were pregnant.[79] As Ellen Ross noted about London's poorest women at the turn of the century, these women, who lived "in a culture that was not very conscious of time, . . . nonetheless kept close track of their menstrual periods."[80]

"They tore me, and I didn't heal back right," wrote one poor Kansas woman about her daughter's birth. "Walking through hundred[s] of miles of fire could not have been as bad as what I suffered for her. I am afraid now to give birth to another." She almost died giving birth and now regularly took drugs to avoid pregnancy.[81] The dangers of childbirth drove married women to use contraceptives and abortion. Judith Walzer Leavitt has found that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century middle-class women approached childbearing with foreboding. They remembered relatives and friends who had died during childbirth and knew of the debilitating injuries and illnesses women suffered due to childbearing.[82] Letters to Margaret Sanger in the 1910s and 1920s document the same fear of death during delivery among working-class and immigrant women. An immigrant mother of eleven children worried she was pregnant again. She hoped for a way out because, she said, "my


last baby almost cost my life."[83] Another reported that the hospital doubted she would survive the delivery of her first child and during the agony of her second she prayed to die. She had had two abortions since, but feared she was "slowly killing [her]self."[84]

For many women, the need for abortion grew out of their concern for the well-being of their existing children. Most of the women who had abortions in the early twentieth century were married and already mothers.[85] Today, having abortions and having children are often set against each other as though to do one is to oppose the other. This is a false opposition that gives us an incorrect picture of how abortion fits, then and now, into women's lives.[86] Mothers often explained their abortions in terms of the family's scarce resources: another sibling would take food away from the children they already had and loved. For poor families, more children might mean that an older daughter or son would have to leave school to work for the family.[87] In richer families, it would be harder to send children to college. Even unmarried and childless women who had abortions may have thought in terms of the potential child, as they do today.[88] Perhaps they did not want their child to be ridiculed as a bastard or knew they could not raise it. This is not to suggest that women did not seek abortions for reasons of their own or that women's personal needs were inappropriate reasons. For some with visions of good jobs or education, having an abortion could be an assertion of control over their own destiny. For the poorest, whose lives seemed controlled by fate, abortion was not associated with personal freedom, but with family needs.

Mothers worried about their children when they had abortions. One New York mother of six said of her most recent abortion, "I know I am running an awful risk and do not care to leave my brood motherless. But what can I do?"[89] Women spoke of their children on their death beds. When told she was near death, Mrs. Mau "said that would be terrible, 'What will my children do?'" Several weeks later Mrs. Mau's three children lost their mother.[90]

In the early twentieth century, many children became orphans when their mothers died during childbirth or during abortions. The Cook County coroner counted the number of orphans created as a result of abortions; in 1918 and 1919 "a total of 215 children [were] left motherless" in the county.[91] We know little about these children whose mothers died due to illegal abortions. Some have given painful accounts of losing their mothers, of never being told why their mothers died, of lives and families torn apart. As adults, these orphans still grieve for their mothers.[92]


Family finances played an enormous role in women's decisions to abort. One outlined her family's meager budget and her grocery list when she wrote to Margaret Sanger. She described their meals: "We never have meat or fresh fruit or vegetables . . . many times we go two days at a time on only bread and coffee." She and her husband were "lovers of children," but, she explained, she could not feed her existing baby, let alone another. She was "behind" on her periods and looking for help.[93] Another woman sought birth control for her three daughters, each of whom had two children and periodically had abortions in order to avoid more. She feared for their lives, but they told her, "They don't care for they will be better dead than to live in hell with a big family and nothing to raise them on" (emphasis in original).[94] When a mother of nine on New York's east side delivered her tenth child, she "groan[ed]," the attending nurse reported, "Oh God! another mouth to feed."[95] Others literally could not afford to bear a child. Margaret Winter's doctor was suing the Winters for fees owed him for delivering their baby nine months earlier. She went to a midwife for an abortion instead.[96]

Poor women sought abortions because they were already overburdened with household work and child care and each additional child meant more work. A baby had to be nursed, cuddled, and watched. A baby generated more laundry. Young children required the preparation of special foods. Mothers shouldered all of this additional work, though they expected older children to pick up some of it.[97] A new child represented new household expenses for food and clothing. In 1918, a twenty-two-year-old mother of three despaired when she suspected another pregnancy. Her husband had tuberculosis and could barely work. They had taken in his five orphaned brothers and sisters, and she now cared for a family of ten. She did "all the cooking, housework and sewing for all" and cared for her baby too. The thought of one more made her "crazy," and she took drugs to bring on her "monthly sickness."[98]

Most women who had abortions, like these and like Mrs. Projahn, tended to bear children in the early years of marriage and to abort later pregnancies. They were reaching the end of their reproductive life cycles and, in some cases, the end of their ropes. In contrast, some upper-class women and their husbands tended to avoid childbearing in the earlier years of marriage (while in college) and aborted first pregnancies rather than last ones. Upper-class couples were having babies and beginning families as working-class couples finished their childbearing and began aborting pregnancies.[99]

Class affected birth control use as well. Middle-class married couples had greater access to contraceptives than did the poor or unmarried.


They could afford douches and condoms and had family physicians who more readily provided middle-class women with diaphragms. The birth control movement regularly condemned doctors who refused to give poorer women information about how to avoid pregnancy. (Such refusals were not always a result of conscious hostility; many doctors were themselves ignorant about birth control).[100] Even if poor women obtained contraceptives, the conditions in which they lived made using those contraceptives difficult. For women living in crowded tenements that lacked the privacy they might want when inserting diaphragms and the running water they needed to clean the devices, using a diaphragm would have meant another chore that only the most determined could manage.[101] For the poor, withdrawal was certainly a cheaper and more accessible method, if the husband chose to use it.

Some women sought abortions because they were afraid of being beaten by husbands who reacted with rage when they learned that another child was on the way. "I am a poor married woman in great trouble," began one woman's letter begging Sanger to "take pity" on her and help her end a pregnancy. She had two children, a toddler and an infant, and wrote, "I[']m in the family way again and I[']m nearly crazy for when my husband finds out that I[']m going to have another baby he will beat the life out of me." Desperation permeated this woman's letter; she would "rather jump in the river" than have another baby. Whether she wanted a baby or not is unknowable; the wife beating made her "want" an abortion. She promised to pay for help received: "I [would] rather starve a couple weeks or months and get enough money . . . so I wouldn't have another baby."[102]

Like many women, this one quite logically thought that "birth control" and "family limitation" included preventing birth through abortion. The popular tradition of women did not make a distinction between contraception and abortion, but saw them as part of the same project—a way to avoid unwanted childbearing. An asterisked editorial note in BCR reminded readers of the birth control movement's definition of birth control and where it drew the line in responding to women's needs for reproductive control. "The tragedy of such cases," the editor commented, "is that the victims so often write in after it is too late for birth control to help them."[103]

Medical warnings to women about the danger of pregnancies prompted some to seek abortions. A Nebraska woman had two abortions during her sixteen-month marriage because her husband was "'diseased' and our doctor told us it was for the best not to have any [children]." On his advice, she had used a douche, but still conceived.


Then her doctor gave her medicines. Now, she said, "I use drugs every month to start my menstrual period and I know that I cannot live long, constantly taking these awful drugs." An Illinois woman who suffered from varicose veins had been told by her doctor after her first child not to have more or she might "never be able to walk again." Since then, she had been to a physician twice "to be 'put straight'" and feared "serious internal injury" if she went again. She sought birth control in order to avoid future abortions.[104]

Women's reasons for abortion were many and their need urgent. They found many ways to obtain abortions. A Chicago doctor presented a case that reveals some of the methods women used to induce their own abortions at home. Beginning in August of 1893, a married woman and mother of two realized her period was late. She "used steam and hot water, sitz baths, douches, much and various medication," Dr. Frank A. Stahl reported, "all without the hoped for result. Growing desperate, two weeks after [her] regular period a buttonhook was employed." Although she went to doctors for help, the woman's periods still did not return, and she resorted to another traditional method, "lift[ing] heavy chairs, boxes and weights." Not until December, five months after she had begun trying to get rid of her pregnancy, did her physician "empty the uterus."[105]

An abortion induced at home by the woman herself was the most invisible to observers at the time and remains so to the historian now. In cases where women successfully restored their menses at home, it is difficult for anyone to discern the difference between a regular period and one that was assisted. Most of the information we have about self-induced abortions is a result of unsuccessful cases coming to the attention of physicians who later reported them to their colleagues. As Dr. Stahl's report indicates, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century domestic tradition of inducing early abortions continued after the criminalization of abortion. It illustrates as well women's escalating attempts to abort. When one method failed, another was tried. This woman followed the same pattern followed by colonial women: she began with folk remedies and drugs, then turned to instrumental means, invading her own uterus with a readily available tool used at home. Because she finally went to a professor of obstetrics, her strategies are known to us.

In the early twentieth century, many women who aborted their pregnancies did so themselves at home. There is no way to track the number of self-induced abortions, but my sense is that this practice declined over time as people increasingly turned to doctors for all forms of health care. The practice was concentrated in the groups with the


least resources: the poor, African American, rural, and unmarried. Self-induced abortions were always dangerous, but the relative danger compared to childbirth was less in this period when maternal mortality rates were high than it was after the 1930s when maternal mortality finally fell. When domestic efforts to produce an abortion failed, pregnancies progressed and the danger of later instrumental abortions increased. Many women ended up in hospital emergency rooms. Some ended up in morgues. Dr. Maximillian Herzog, a professor of pathology at the Chicago Policlinic, asserted in 1900 that "by far the largest number of criminal abortions" were induced by women taking abortifacients, which caused hemorrhaging. Some women mixed their own home remedies. One Chicago woman told of applying a mustard plaster to her abdomen to induce an abortion. Women employed a wide array of instruments found within their own homes to induce miscarriages, including knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, and button hooks. One physician testified that patients at Cook County Hospital in Chicago used hairpins and cotton balls to irritate the cervix and induce abortions. A domestic servant resorted to using a bone stay out of her corset to induce a miscarriage. A farm woman used a chicken feather.[106] Dr. G. D. Royston, who interviewed patients at a St. Louis dispensary in 1917, reported that "introduction of catheters, crochet needles, etc., by the patients themselves are first in frequency."[107]

Some evidence suggests that black and white women may have relied upon different methods to induce their abortions. Royston suggested that black and white women in his 1917 St. Louis study used different techniques to induce abortion, though his analysis was based on interviews with only four black women, compared to forty-seven white women. The black women, he found, "pinned their faith on drugs. Two attributed their successes to the ingestion of blueing and starch or gunpowder and whiskey." These items could all be found in homes. In contrast, almost half of the white women's abortions were induced by a physician or midwife and very few by drugs. A Cook County Hospital physician remarked of slippery elm that, "the colored folks used that a great deal."[108] If African American women were more likely than white women to self-induce their abortions, it had less to do with cultural differences than with lack of access to doctors and midwives, for reasons of poverty and discrimination.

Further evidence of early-twentieth-century women's self-reliance in performing abortions is recorded in business transactions. While some women creatively used whatever could be found around the house to induce abortions, others purchased abortifacients or other implements


at a commercial institution located in their own neighborhoods and throughout the city—the drugstore. By 1889, there were over one thousand druggists in Chicago.[109] The pharmacist, not the doctor, was often the first health professional consulted by the sick or by women caring for ill family members. Pharmacists offered on-the-spot diagnoses and suggested remedies;[110] some advised their patrons on abortion methods. Druggists sold the rubber catheters, slippery elm, and orange sticks women used to induce their own miscarriages, as well as "Chichester's Diamond Brand Pills" and "Pennyroyal pills" to induce abortions.[111] One annoyed doctor wrote to the AMA after having been called late one evening to care for a woman who had a "severe attack of 'Cramps.'" He sent along a box of "Tansy and Pennyroyal Compound Pills" that a Detroit druggist had sold his patient; the druggist had "assured her that it would produce an abortion."[112]

Fairs and other mass public events that made up city life were places where women could learn of abortion remedies. At the 1922 Pageant of Progress in Chicago, Young Ling passed out printed business cards advertising medicine for "Ladies." The card listed in bold type, "Curing Ladies Stomach Sick and No Menses Every Month Medicine . . . I ounce for $25.00." One lady, who was not pleased to receive this bit of advertising, sent the card to the AMA.[113]

In addition to the pharmacists and others who sold devices and drugs that women used to induce abortions at home, numerous individuals offered abortions for a fee. Many women found midwives or physicians who performed needed abortions. This side of the abortion business is the focus of the next chapter.

The historical record clearly shows that generations of women desired and needed abortions, and neither law nor church nor taboo could stop them. In their conversations and behavior, women expressed their sense that abortion was morally acceptable, and through their actions they asserted a "right" to make moral decisions about reproduction and to use abortion. They did not use the language of civil rights to express their views, but simply assumed that the decision to avoid childbearing, through the use of contraceptives and abortion, was theirs to make. Their success in obtaining abortions, however, should not obscure the difficulties and dangers they faced or the degree to which they felt compelled to have abortions because of social mores, economic pressure, or male coercion. The risks and the illegality of abortion could not suppress the socially created and gendered need for abortion felt by women.


The involvement of a wide variety of people in abortion and their discussion of abortion at home, in the doctor's office, and in the arenas of family and friendship demonstrate a popular acceptance of abortion. The historical record offers, on a rare occasion, explicit statements that suggest not only that abortion was tolerated, but also that there was a persistent, implicit, popular belief that having an abortion was what we would now call a woman's "right." In 1929 one Chicago man, serving as a juror at a coroner's inquest into a woman's death due to abortion, expressed this popular ethic during a discussion of the legality of abortion. He asked with surprise, "But the fact that she does not want any more children does not make any difference?" The deputy coroner answered him, "No, not a bit." Then he and the physicians on the jury, stressed that abortions for any reason except to save the woman's life were illegal. The juror said no more. We do not know whether he learned that he was wrong to assume it a woman's right to control her reproduction or whether he learned to keep quiet when surrounded by authorities.[114]

The evidence of people's behavior—the persistent use of abortion by women of all social groups, and the sympathy of many men and women for their doing so—suggests the existence of an alternative popular morality in conflict with the law. The popular attitude toward abortion viewed it as an appropriate response to an unwanted pregnancy in specific situations. A large segment of the female population had one or more abortions at some point in their lives, and many of those women gained support—material and emotional—from their male partners, female friends, and relatives. The antiabortion views written into statutes nationwide and asserted by the leaders of medicine not only did not reflect reality, but were hostile to the attitudes and behavior of many Americans.

In 1920, one medical commentator asked rhetorically, did "public opinion in the United States sanction abortion?" and concluded that it did indeed. "The United States," he argued, "tolerates abortion done within the bounds of discreet secrecy." Abortion was widely practiced, openly discussed, and accepted by many people, but only within small groups—between couples, inside families, and among groups of female friends. Only a few people articulated this popular but proscribed view in print. Even the commentator who argued that the public accepted abortion said so anonymously. Instead of acknowledging the prevalence of abortion, the public overlooked it and treated it, said "A. B. C.," as "an open secret."[115]


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