In My Notorious Life, Kate Manning’s Axie Muldoon is a poor Irish orphan who grows up to become a highly controversial, passionate, and notorious midwife and abortion provider in the mid-1860s in New York City. Her story is inspired by the real life events of Anne Trow, an English immigrant, otherwise known as Madame Restell, who developed birth control products and “Female Monthly Pills” along with her pharmacist brother throughout the mid-1800s, and distributed them through the mail. She also performed abortions and made house visits, and her practice was so well known that “Restellism” even became a commonly used euphemism for abortion. Anne was arrested in 1878 after a rumor spread that she killed a woman, and rather than face prison, she committed suicide.
Axie does not have the exact same storyline as Trow did, but through her character we learn about some of the challenges Trow must have encountered, and the circumstances that women, especially pregnant women, faced at that time. Birth control is nearly nonexistent; Axie’s husband somehow procures an animal skin condom, a rarity. And women’s healthcare is performed almost entirely in secret — it is shameful to discuss, and the medical practice is filled with inaccuracies. Axie builds a prototype women’s healthcare clinic in her home, and later moves it to a separate building as her business grows. But when a man named Mr. Comstock comes along and threatens to jail her for indecency or “vice,” she grapples with whether or not to keep her clinic open — to continue protecting women’s lives, or to live a “normal” life with her family, free of the law.
Mr. Comstock’s character is based off a real man named Anthony, who was the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, financed by some of the most wealthy and influential New York philanthropists at the time. He used their money to lobby the New York State Legislature for laws criminalizing pre-marital sex and adultery. He succeeded when the Comstock Law of 1873 passed, a federal law which made it a crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception or abortion. This was at a time when the American Medical Association condemned abortion because it may enable a woman to “overlook the duties imposed on her by the marriage contract.” (The U.S. Supreme Court continued to uphold a slightly modified version of the Comstock Law into the 1960s.) Mr. Comstock played a large hand in criminalizing sexually active people and reproductive healthcare both in the book and real life, and his fear mongering still rings true with the plethora of medical inaccuracies and shaming tactics present around women’s healthcare today.
What is troubling is how the problems women faced in the 1860s so closely mirror issues women are still dealing with today. Many of Axie’s patients come to her for an abortion because they have no other choice; they cannot afford a child, their husband is abusive, they were raped. Poor sex workers are impregnated by customers, wives are impregnated by lovers and would be in danger if their pregnancy is discovered (by their husbands OR their lovers). Some women simply do not want to be pregnant.
Now 150 years after Axie Muldoon — and Anne Trow — had their practice, women need and want abortion access for the same reasons. And while awesome organizations are fighting the stigma that comes with women’s healthcare today, and women are rallying all over the country for quality, accessible reproductive healthcare, we still have a long way to go. Anthony Comstock may be long gone, but there are many in his place; over 200 anti-abortion measures have been enacted in the last four years and the anti-abortion movement is not slowing down. But we know that reproductive healthcare is not, and never has been, shameful, so for Axie Muldoon and Anne Trow, and all the women in history who have ever been denied, shamed, or criminalized for quality reproductive healthcare, let us all keep fighting on.
By volunteer Jamie D.