As she tells us in this essay, Jennifer S. Brown learned almost by chance about a great-grandmother’s abortion. That knowledge has inspired her debut novel: Modern Girls (New American Library). Through compelling characters—an immigrant mother and her promising daughter—Brown gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a Jewish woman in that time and place. Book club members take note: Modern Girls is an absorbing read with characters facing life-altering choices, an ideal catalyst for your discussion. A Readers' Guide is included in the book.
by Jennifer S. Brown
Growing up in South Florida in the 1970s, a few things were gospel: William could have a doll, Phyllis Schlafly was the enemy, and no one could tell me what I could or could not do with my body. When I was six, my mother started college to earn her bachelor’s (and eventually master’s) degree in art. She learned to weld, cast bronze sculptures twice her size, and to make her way not just as a woman in a world of men, but as a mother. My father cooked dinners for my sister and me, gave us baths, and tucked us in at night. Feminism wasn’t something I was taught; it was something our family lived day to day.
My family was always open about discussing sex, as well as the potential consequences. I knew without a doubt that if I came home pregnant my parents would support whatever decision I made. My views on reproductive rights were never a secret: I have been a vocal supporter of choice since Reagan took office while I was in junior high. “What if we became pregnant?” I asked my friends, never mind that we were all virginal pre-teens. “No one should be able to legislate our bodies.” In college I argued my pro-choice views in dorms and classrooms. As a young career woman in New York, I rented vans to drive to D.C. with my friends to march our support for choice. Protecting the rights of young women was essential, because, of course, abortion was a young woman’s issue. After all, who else would need one?
With my feminist credentials firmly in place, however, I learned something in 2003 that absolutely shocked me. At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and beginning the genetic testing recommended for Ashkenazi women. The list of medical questions was formidable. For help, I called my father to ask about medical issues in our family. “Any cancers I should be aware of?” I asked.
“My grandmother had uterine cancer,” he said. “My mother always said it was because of that botched abortion, but I’m pretty sure abortion doesn’t cause cancer.”
As my ten-year-old daughter would say: Mic drop.
“Wait,” I said, stunned. “My great-grandmother had an illegal abortion… and you know about it? How? Why?”
My father’s voice took on the tone I knew meant he was shrugging his shoulders. “I only know what my mother told me. It happened after my grandmother had my mother and my aunt. It was during the Depression. I assume they couldn’t afford to have more children.”
My whole world view shifted. In my mind, those who might want an abortion were young, single, on their way to careers or getting educations. Not yet ready to start a family.
But here was my great-grandmother—Rose was her name—a married woman with two children choosing to have an abortion. A back-alley abortion. In Newark, New Jersey, it was not something that she could do legally in the 1930s.
The questions began bubbling in my mind: What would cause a married woman to choose not to have a child? How might her issues be different from those of a younger woman? Would there be more or less of a stigma for an older woman than a younger? What were the consequences of pregnancy for an unmarried woman? How was an unplanned pregnancy back then regarded as compared to one in the 21st century?
These ideas percolated for years until I finally began to write the novel, Modern Girls. I chose to place my story in 1935, both to honor my family history and because the stakes then were higher for women. As I began to write, I thought the character, Dottie, 19, American-born and unmarried, would be the only one pregnant. But as the story unfolded, I became intrigued by how different her decisions might be from those of her mother, Rose, (named for my great-grandmother), a Yiddish-speaking immigrant, steeped in Jewish tradition, who had already birthed five children. Dottie had career aspirations—she’d been promoted to head bookkeeper—and wanted a traditional life, with marriage to her boyfriend and an eventual family. Rose longed to return to the political activism of her youth and was working desperately to help her brother who was trapped in Europe. I realized that by making both mother and daughter pregnant, I would be able to explore their disparate immigrant statuses, world views, friendships, and desires—and thus their responses to their situations, which would be different from one another.
As I did my research, I discovered how common abortion was in the 1930s. Abortion rates rose for both single and married women. Indeed the expense of a child was the main reason married women chose to terminate pregnancies. A new baby to feed meant less food for the children already in the family. In the tightest of situations, a new child meant older children could be forced to quit school to earn money to support the family. Abortion was a means for a mother to protect the lives of the children she already had.
For single women, the issue was more complicated: While many could have married, married women were discouraged from working; jobs were given to husbands who supported families. A single woman who wanted to keep her job had to stay single. Women also stayed single longer in order to help support their parents and siblings. Until a couple could afford to wed, abortions became a necessity to delay marriage. And of course the stigma for those not in relationships was tremendous; single motherhood was not an option if a woman wanted to remain in her community. Many single women who aborted their first pregnancies later went on to marry and have large families.
Abortion during the Great Depression wasn’t restricted by class; women from all strata turned to it. Women from upper classes, though, were able to afford the services of doctors willing to perform them, and with the advent of sulfa drugs, the procedure became much safer.
In the immigrant community many women turned to midwives who, while knowledgeable, didn’t have access to hospitals or the latest medicines. Even so, abortions performed by midwives were costly, and, for some, completely out of reach. These women would often attempt to self-induce abortions either by swallowing poisons or using implements such as knitting needles and scissors. If complications arose, immigrant women, fearing both the medical bills and the legal repercussions, were less likely to seek medical help in a timely manner, leading to dangerous and often deadly situations. Despite the advancements in medicine, between 5,000 and 15,000 women in the United States still died each year from illegal abortions. The biggest risk was infection, as penicillin wasn’t in use until 1942.
I will never know what exactly happened with my great-grandmother, Rose, and in what way her abortion was “botched.” But after researching and writing, I feel I’ve come to a greater understanding of the difficulty she must have faced in dealing with her situation. My respect for her has only grown.
My fervent wish is that I could now say, “Modern Girls is a peek into how things used to be in America.” Unfortunately the novel is extremely timely. While, happily, the stigma of single motherhood has significantly diminished, if not disappeared, in much of this country, the challenge of obtaining a safe, legal abortion has not. As laws become more restrictive and clinics close, safe ways to terminate a pregnancy are becoming prohibitively difficult to obtain for many women—younger and older, single and in a relationship. In Texas, a woman may be required by law to make up to four visits, which is a hardship for women who live a distance from a clinic. So women are again turning to illegal means—drugs sold on the Internet or unlicensed practitioners.
What was true of the 1930s remains true today: The reasons for having abortions are complicated. For some, it is the desire to avoid single motherhood. Many women wish to further careers before starting a family. For others, economic pressures are still a major reason. By choosing to have abortions, women are able to provide better care and greater opportunities to the children they already have, to pursue educations for themselves, and to hold jobs that will lead to a family’s economic stability. It’s no accident that after Roe v. Wade women began to rise in the professional world.
My son and daughter are growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the early 21st century. A few things for them are gospel: marriage is a right between all people, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg t-shirt is way cooler than one with Taylor Swift, and no one can tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. But they are a step ahead of where I was at their age: They know that the right to choose is a necessity for all women, not just the young and single. My prayer is that it remains a safe legal choice throughout their lifetimes and that they never hear the words “botched” and “abortion” in the same sentence again.