Thursday, February 29, 2024

Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright

Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright
Read by Mara Wilson
14 hours, 1 minute
Published February 2023 by Hachette Books

Publisher's Summary: 
An industrious immigrant who built her business from the ground up, Madame Restell was a self-taught surgeon on the cutting edge of healthcare in pre-Gilded Age New York, and her bustling “boarding house” provided birth control, abortions, and medical assistance to thousands of women—rich and poor alike. As her practice expanded, her notoriety swelled, and Restell established her-self as a prime target for tabloids, threats, and lawsuits galore. But far from fading into the background, she defiantly flaunted her wealth, parading across the city in designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and bejeweled carriages, rubbing her success in the faces of the many politicians, publishers, fellow physicians, and religious figures determined to bring her down. 

Unfortunately for Madame Restell, her rise to the top of her field coincided with “the greatest scam you’ve never heard about”—the campaign to curtail women’s power by restricting their access to both healthcare and careers of their own. Powerful, secular men—threatened by women’s burgeoning independence—were eager to declare abortion sinful, a position endorsed by newly-minted male MDs who longed to edge out their feminine competition and turn medicine into a standardized, male-only practice. By unraveling the misogynistic and misleading lies that put women’s lives in jeopardy, Wright simultaneously restores Restell to her rightful place in history and obliterates the faulty reasoning underlying the very foundation of what has since been dubbed the “pro-life” movement.

My Thoughts: 
Thanks to my friend who shares The New York Times Book Review sections with me, which is where I first learned about this book. I had never heard of Madame Restell, a woman who rose from poverty to self-made millionaire, a woman who offered a service that polite society both frowned on but also found essential, a woman who frightened men by being unafraid of them and their rules. 

Madame Restell was born Ann Trow in 1811, becoming a maid-of-all-work, a job that instilled in Ann a sympathy for servants that resulted in her treating her own servants far better than the average servants of the age and in a desire to help those servants in trouble. Ann was married at 16 and moved to the United States with her husband and toddler when she was 20. After her husband's death, Ann was forced to find a way to support herself. With so many women skilled at sewing and unwilling to turn to prostitution, young Ann befriended a man who compounded prescriptions. He taught her how to mix medications that would end pregnancies and may also have been the one who taught her to perform surgical abortions. Ann moved on to her own business, helped by her brother and second husband, Charles Lehman. They created the character of Madame Restell. 

No one seemed to find it at all ironic that, while they scorned Madame Restell and the service she provided, they also made her a very rich woman. Riches she was all too happy to flaunt, which may have resulted in the suffragette movement not standing up in the defense of the services she provided. Restell was forced to battle not only the police and public opinion, but also others who provided the same services. She became a master at advertising and using the press to fight her enemies. But she also spent time in both jail and the penitentiary. In 1878, Restell was arrested for the last time by Anthony Comstock, a man who managed to force his own Puritanical views on an entire country. 

This one would be categorized as non-fiction, but it is by no means an unbiased work of non-fiction. To be far to Wright, it's hard not to side against male doctors who refused to adopt hand washing and fought against midwifery until they had all but wiped it out. It's hard not to side with woman being able to get a service they desperately need when they are raped by their employers, when they are impregnated by suiters who abandon them, when they simply cannot conceive of being pregnant for the eighth or ninth time. This in a day and age when "foundlings" weren't allowed in orphanages and were instead sent to almshouses where they were almost certain to die. Wright clearly admires her subject, and the work she did, while acknowledging her flaws. 

In Madame Restell, we not only learn about a forgotten woman, but we also learn a great deal about the times in which she lived - society norms, religion, medicine. As always, I was drawn in by the opportunity to dig deeper into a part of history I didn't know all that much about. Wright provides all the background and research needed without overwhelming readers and shows us that, once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sadly, not much has changed since Madame Restell's time, other than the fact that an abortion, when legal, is a much safer procedure than it was 200 years ago. 

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