December 3rd, 2007

Emma Goldman

Thanks to Marilyn Cole-Greene for sending the article “Immigrant Women and Family Planning: Historical Perspectives for Genealogical Research” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, DBRS, from which this excerpt was taken. It appeared in the June 1996 “National Genealogical Society Quarterly. “

Women uneducated in modern scientific methods of birth control had few alternatives. New mothers prolonged the lactation period. Abstinence. coitus interruptus, and delayed marriage were the common pre-pregnancy options for limiting family size. For husband and wife, “sleeping the American way” meant separate beds, if not separate bedrooms. If living quarters were cramped, as was often the case in urban, ethnic tenements, the girls might sleep with their mother and the boys with their father to further encourage an abstinent relationship. The dilemma for the immigrant woman was clear. As one historian concluded, “The way to keep your husband, then, was to avoid pregnancy, and the way to avoid pregnancy was to avoid your husband – which was also likely to drive him out.”

Historians also have concluded that abortion was simply a form of contraception for many, if not most, immigrant wives of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries . . . Margaret Sanger the pioneer of the birth control movement, recalled from the beginning of her career the formative impression she had as she “watched groups of 50 women [in New York's Lower East Side], shawls over their heads, line up outside the office of a $5.00 abortionist.” . . New York City coroner’s records for the early 1900s show an average of three deaths a month from abortion, while other officials estimated “about 100,000 abortions performed there every year.”

Emma Goldman described the desperation she observed among the female patients: “Most of them lived in continual dread of conception; the great mass of the married women submitted helplessly, and when they found themselves pregnant, their alarm and worry would result in the determination to get rid of their expected offspring. It was incredible what fantastic methods despair could invent: jumping off tables, rolling on the floor, massaging the stomach, drinking nauseating concoctions and using blunt instruments”