Bookshelf: Women’s Studies

Bookshelf: Women’s Studies

Find out how your female ancestors might have coped with infertility, abortion, anorexia and other sensitive subjects.

1. Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie (Cornell University Press). You might be surprised to learn that abortion was a common — and legal — method of reproductive control in early America. Women looking to limit the size of their families used several forms of contraception, including pessaries, herbs intended as abortifacients, and remedies sold as “menstrual regulators” for late periods — all found in newspaper ads, self-help literature and mail-order catalogs. Brodie cites a variety of sources, perhaps the most interesting being the diaries of Mary Pierce Poor, who documented her menstruation and sexual activity from 1845 to 1868. You’ll also read about the criminalization of abortion during the late 1800s, sparked by lobbying from the American Medical Association.

2. The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present by Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner (Johns Hopkins University Press). Was it the will of God, work of the devil (as colonists believed) or a medical condition that prevented many couples from having children? American society has long expected couples to procreate, and those who couldn’t suffered the anguish of childlessness. Marsh and Ronner cover the history and causes of infertility — considered a woman’s problem until the 20th century — in great depth. Although we can safely say that none of your female ancestors was barren (otherwise you wouldn’t be here to read this!), some of your relatives may have had to deal with this common problem.

3. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Vintage Books). I bet you thought anorexia is a new disease — an eating disorder that strikes modern women striving to be thin. Not so. Sir William Withey Gull, an elite London physician, named and identified anorexia nervosa in 1873, but its history has deeper roots than that. Documented cases from as far back as the 1200s describe European women who refused to eat because they considered fasting to be the female model for holiness. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), for example, subsisted solely on a handful of herbs each day. But it wasn’t until the death of 32-year-old singer Karen Carpenter in 1983 that the disease came into the public eye. Fasting Girls is a fascinating history of anorexia and its treatments. For an interesting account of one young woman’s struggle with anorexia in the 1860s, read The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery by Michelle Stacey (Penguin Group, $13.95).

4. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (Vintage Books). Although history books often give us a stereotyped view of Victorian life, particularly when it comes to sexual mores, Horowitz’s research into court records, published sermons, and the popular literature of the day reveals another side to the story. She describes the conflicts between those who thought sexual knowledge should be out in the open and those who were determined to suppress it. Well-researched and well-documented, Rereading Sex offers unusual insight into the daily lives of our 19th-century ancestors.

From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine

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