Breaking the Silence: Abortion and Knowledge in Summer and Weeds

By Jana Tigchelaar

While bodily autonomy and individual privacy are phrases commonly associated with the current discussion of reproductive rights in the U.S., the key term for understanding the culture of abortion starting in the late nineteenth century is knowledge, according to Kristin Luker in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. As legal exceptions to the ban on abortion rested on a physician’s determination of medical necessity, abortion became the privileged ground of the doctor whose medical license gave him the sole ability to decide when abortion was medically justified. In other words, by the late nineteenth century, abortion became a question of who could lay claim to this specialized knowledge, and who could exercise their authority based on it. Luker calls this era from the 1880s until Roe v. Wade in 1973 “The Century of Silence” because while the medical community determined the necessity of abortion care, they also dominated the public narrative about abortion.

Other critics, however, point out that this was not a complete silence. In her book When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973, historian Leslie Reagan notes that women did “speak of their abortions among themselves and within smaller, more intimate spaces.” One such “intimate space” (which is paradoxically also very public) is within published literature. Abortion was a recurrent plot element in literature published in the early decades of the twentieth century; as Meg Gillette points out in “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence,” from “1910 to 1945, more than seventy abortions were contemplated or had by characters in modern literature.” This literature reveals a struggle that is firmly embedded in the narrative of knowledge and authority. In two of these texts, Edith Wharton’s 1917 novel Summer and Edith Summers Kelley’s 1923 novel Weeds, the question of knowledge is bound up with issues related to class, privilege, and connection—specifically the way the medical takeover of reproductive health care transformed the prior networks of knowledge shared among women. The most frankly sexual of Wharton’s works, Summer is also a novel about who has knowledge, both in basic terms of information and in terms of being in the know about cultural and social capital. While the pregnancy that results in the

novel from a love affair between lower-class Charity Royall and the upper-class urban visitor Lucius Harney could easily be read as a cautionary tale for unmarried young women, the novel offers less of a warning against unchecked sexuality and more against the dangers of trusting those whose social station or privileged position gives them unearned authority. For example, Harney uses his understanding of upper-class conventions and “good” taste as a gatekeeping device to signal to Charity his higher status, an action which delineates her own tastes as unrefined and tawdry. When Charity, unexpectedly pregnant, seeks medical advice from the nearby town of Nettleton’s illegal abortion provider, Dr. Merkle, she encounters another privileged figure, one who emits an aura of superiority due to her access to forbidden medical knowledge; in fact, Wharton describes Dr. Merkle as a “grim gaoler making terms with her captive,” a character who essentially imprisons Charity by means of her medical advantage.

Dr. Merkle is an interesting figure in the context of abortion laws during this era. Before 1880, abortion was considered legal in most states if it took place before “quickening,” when a woman could feel the movement of the fetus. Quickening links an abortion’s legality to a woman’s privileged and embodied knowledge; the feminized nature of this knowledge is compounded by the fact that midwives and nurses, almost exclusively female, were the most common providers of abortion care. However, doctors, overwhelmingly male in the nineteenth century, sought to limit the practice of medicine by these “unlicensed” female practitioners, and the criminalization of abortion was one means of such control. Dr. Merkle is a woman, but she is the type of medical figure who, Wharton seems to suggest, would flourish in the environment of control ushered in by the criminalization of abortion care. She is the worst of both worlds: an unkind, unfeeling woman, driven by monetary desire rather than a true urge to help women seeking reproductive health care. She merges the callousness of the male-dominated medical profession that controlled abortion access following the 1880s with a dark, twisted version of the female midwives and nurses who, prior to abortion’s criminalization, were the caregivers and saviors of so many women.

Charity’s dilemma in Summer is exacerbated by the interruption of the networked knowledge of women supporting other women that was effectively outlawed by abortion’s criminalization. Separated from her lower-class biological mother when she is “rescued” by Lawyer Royall from the lawless mountain community, divested of her foster mother, Lawyer Royall’s wife, following her death, and isolated from most women in the community of North Dormer, Charity lacks access to the intimate female spaces in which abortion care would have been discussed. While Charity’s one friend, Ally, shares the information about Dr. Merkle and her abortion services in Nettleton, she does so as part

of a warning: Ally’s older sister, Julia, nearly died following her abortion from Dr. Merkle, after which Julia’s sole option for supporting herself was through sex work. Wharton’s attitude toward Dr. Merkle is clearly negative, but what Wharton seems to be condemning here is not the services the doctor provides to desperate women, but the mercenary and unscrupulous way in which she extracts (or even extorts) money and goods from her patients. When Charity seeks out Dr. Merkle herself, she is poised to see the woman not as a supporter, but an opportunistic sadist. The outlawing of abortion has disrupted the supportive system of medical and social care by women, for women, that thousands had relied upon for centuries.

While the lesser-known novel Weeds, by Edith Summers Kelley, contains a network of female knowledge which is more intact than that in Summer, the lack of access to reproductive care in the rural Kentucky setting of the novel similarly strands the heroine without knowledge and without resources. The novel follows Judith Pippinger Blackford from her youth on her parents’ farm through her marriage to Jerry Blackford, her struggle with young motherhood and tobacco farming, and her eventual mournful submission to her unhappy, limited life. In Scott County, Kentucky, the land is depleted by the ruinous practice of uninterrupted tobacco farming while the residents remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and ignorance. Following the difficulty of pregnancies and childbirth, the formerly vivacious Judy is faded, downtrodden, and desperate. As Barbara Lootens notes in “A Struggle for Survival: Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds,” one of the few critical works on the novel, this diminishment is directly tied to the societal inevitability of Judy’s motherhood; according to Lootens, Kelley’s novel suggests that “motherhood, which is implicit in the image of woman, is the symbol of degradation.”

Maternity in Weeds is evocatively depicted in terms of gaps in and limitations of knowledge in Scott County. When Judy, struck down by a “strange disease” that is “shrouded in mystery,” complains to her coarse neighbor, Harriet “Hat” Wolf, about her symptoms, Hat delights in enlightening Judy about her condition. Judy, whose mother died prior to Judy’s adolescence and therefore possibly before she could convey to her daughter the needed information about pregnancy and childbirth, bases her understanding of pregnancy entirely upon her observation of farm animals. When Judy protests to Hat that “a caow ain’t sick when she’s a-fixin’ to have a calf,” her neighbor smugly replies that “Wimmin has troubles caows don’t never even dream on.” Rather than offering sympathy and support, Hat shares secret intimate knowledge with a sense of superiority and condescension which humiliates Judy. This attitude is not limited to Hat; we learn that the other women of the community “spoke to her about

her pregnancy” with “an air of great intimacy and secrecy” that strikes Judy as “the very soul of lewdness.” But this is not prudishness on Judy’s part, as Kelley links Judy’s attitude toward the interfering women of the community to a lack of privacy: Judy “resented their insinuating interference in a matter which she wished to concern only herself and Jerry.” That the neighbor women’s advice is often contradictory only compounds the offense.

However, the knowledge of her female neighbors becomes necessary later when Judy, already drained from the difficult birth of her third child, finds herself pregnant once again—and this time the pregnancy is the result of a brief affair with an itinerant minister. The community women had issued “whispered confidences” and “dark hints” about “unwilling mothers [who] had sometimes succeeded in doing what she now felt that she must do.” Judy had previously avoided “interfer[ing] with nature in its course,” but at this point in the novel attempts several methods to induce miscarriage. First, Judy tries unsuccessfully to end her pregnancy by wildly riding on muleback, an outing that is observed by much of the community and from which the neighbor women “draw their own conclusions” about her intentions. When this method proves ineffective, “she forced herself to try to use the knitting needle,” but cannot continue beyond “the first stab of pain.” Judy then seeks out medicinal solutions, but the “nasty smelling decoctions” she brews from “pennyroyal and tansy and other noxious herbs” only increase her unpleasant symptoms of early pregnancy. Ultimately, Judy succeeds in ending her pregnancy only after attempting to drown herself in a pond; while Judy’s grip on life is such that she cannot make herself sink beneath the water, the fever that results from her time in the freezing water and from cutting her foot on a piece of metal submerged in the mud brings on premature labor.

Like Charity in Summer, Judy is isolated from a supportive community of women. Instead, the gossiping neighbors who tend to Judy during and following the painful stillbirth judge her shoddy housekeeping, her obvious infidelity, and her dissatisfaction with what the women see as a good life with a kind husband. Although the women of the community assist Judy, they do so in a way that builds no connections of friendship and support. Rather than the networks of women-centered community care that flourished prior to the medical community’s takeover of reproductive knowledge, Judy’s only choice is fractured folk remedies with a heaping side of disapproval. Notably, Weeds’ discussion of reproductive knowledge focuses almost entirely on the ripple effects of the medicalization of pregnancy and abortion; the novel’s doctor, Dr. MacTaggert, is helpful and ministers kindly to all citizens—no sinister Dr. Merkle here. What Kelley gives us is a critique of a community that long ago lost the old ways of female-centered care, a lost resource that is compounded by poverty and isolation. Without the

folk birth control remedies or abortion care that would have been an option even in Judy’s rural community a century before, Judy’s remaining option is to abstain from marital relations with Jerry: “She was through forever, she told herself, with having children and with running any risk of having children . . . She would be mistress of her own body.” But Judy’s assertion of her right to bodily autonomy would result in complete isolation, and she ultimately chooses connection with her husband and family over full separation—a fraught choice that some readers have interpreted as trapping Judy in a cycle of poverty and depression.

Both Summer and Weeds conclude in enigmatic and troubling ways. Charity ultimately cannot compel herself to use Dr. Merkle’s services and faces being an unwed mother (as Harney has, of course, been engaged to a woman of his own social class all along). Lawyer Royall, Charity’s adoptive father who has made predatory sexual advances on his ward before, steps in and “rescues” Charity by marrying her. Wharton’s framing of this action in the novel suggests that Royall does so for purely altruistic reasons, aware of her pregnancy and wanting to save her the shame of public humiliation, but his earlier actions toward Charity raise questions about his motives. Judy, meanwhile, succeeds in terminating her illicit pregnancy, but Kelley makes it clear that her burdens remain: the mother of three children already, Judy is a shadow of her former vivacious self. She reconciles with Jerry following the near-death of their daughter Annie from influenza, but the death of Uncle Jabez, Judy’s friend whose “mere presence in her world” had lifted “her life above the daily treadmill” leaves her with a colorless existence.

Neither Wharton nor Kelley preserves the silence said to be characteristic of the century defined by the criminalization of abortion, and the intimate spaces of their novels lay bare the effects of the compartmentalization of reproductive care within the specialized field of licensed physicians. Charity and Judy lack the bodily autonomy, right to privacy, and personal freedom that Roe would work to guarantee and that even the earlier model privileging female-centered knowledge had supported. Limiting abortion creates a vacuum of care, one which effectively traps both Charity and Judy in the cycles of poverty, isolation, and ignorance they were born into. It is perhaps ironic that the contemporary rhetoric of abortion rights urges what “the century of silence” enshrined: the right of a medical professional to make decisions about a patient’s abortion care. Of course, the current conversation about reproductive rights also tempers the power of physicians by returning to women (and others who may become pregnant without identifying as women) their right to claim privileged knowledge of their own bodies. What holds true in the literature published during “the century of silence” holds true in this new era of abortion limitations: those seeking reproductive care will find spaces both intimate and public to break that silence.

Jana Tigchelaar is an Associate Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department at Marshall University. Tigchelaar is at work on Among Neighbors: Women’s Regionalist Literature and the Project of Neighborly Reconciliation, a scholarly monograph examining neighborliness. Her writing has appeared most recently in the edited collection New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and Against the Grain; Legacy; and the edited collection Community Boundaries and Border Crossings: Critical Essays on Ethnic Women Writers.

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