History and Historiography

Before the Quickening

Sponsored by Reaktion Books

In the Review’s Sixtieth Anniversary Issue, Susan Faludi asks, “How can we learn to see accurately a woman who was not so much forgotten as buried in calumny?” In 1839 Ann Lohman, a midwife and former pharmacist’s assistant, began advertising her services, under the name Madame Restell, in New York City newspapers: “celebrated preventative powders for married ladies whose health prevents too rapid an increase of family.” At the time, writes Faludi, “abortion was largely uncontroversial, unregulated, and legal before ‘quickening.’” The success of Madame Restell’s practice enabled her to build a mansion across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral (“outbidding the archbishop, an archenemy,” Faludi notes), but it also drew the opprobrium of a growing movement that by 1872 made abortion a felony in the state of New York.

Below, alongside Faludi’s essay, we have collected from our archives a selection of articles about the long history of abortion and contraception.

Susan Faludi
‘Hag of Misery’

The midwife and abortionist Madame Restell is central to the story of how American women’s reproductive freedom was dismantled in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Susan Tallman
What the Little Woman Was Up To

“Centuries of books on midwifery are complemented by Margaret Sanger’s 1914 pamphlet Family Limitation, an antique contraceptive sponge in a kind of knitted snood, and a delicately worded trade card from around 1785 through which Mrs. Phillips offers ‘machines, commonly called implements of safety’ or, more commonly still, condoms.”

David Brion Davis
The Other Revolution

“Even the aristocratic Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America in 1831, was shocked by the immobility and restrictions placed on an American married woman, whose independence was ‘irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony,’ who ‘lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister,’ and who was forbidden to step beyond ‘the narrow circle of domestic interests.’”

W. V. Harris
Old Wives’ Tales

“The oral contraceptives and abortifacients known to the Greeks and Romans were both effective and also safer than one might have expected. ([A] preface, however, warns the reader not to try any of the recipes he describes; it may be the first time such a warning has been thought necessary in a book about ancient medicine.)”

Diane Johnson
Darn that Darning

“Despite our view of them as repressed and exploited, we know that nineteenth-century women had contraceptive practices, orgasms, used nursing bottles and abortifacients;…in Michigan at one period, one-third of pregnancies were terminated by abortion, though abortion then as now was inveighed against by ‘purity’ factions, who, because their literature is today more accessible than any records of something so private as abortion, can seem to have been expressing the majority view.”

Elizabeth Hardwick
A Solution to the Abortion War: The Celibacy Amendment

“It would be honorable for the Republican platform to consider the following plank—a heavy piece of wood indeed. In their frequent suggestions for constitutional amendments, as if they were a corner stoplight, they might propose, on behalf of the contested unborn, a command that young men remain celibate until marriage. The Celibacy Amendment deserves the floor.”


Leave a Reply