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**An Amazon EDITOR'S PICK for BEST BOOKS OF 2023 SO FAR in BIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR and HISTORY**
**An Amazon EDITOR'S PICK for BEST BOOKS OF THE MONTH (March 2023)**
**A Bookshop.Org EDITOR'S PICK (March 2023)**
“This is the story of one of the boldest women in American history: self-made millionaire, a celebrity in her era, a woman beloved by her patients and despised by the men who wanted to control them.”
An industrious immigrant who built her business from the ground up, Madame Restell was a self-taught surgeon on the cutting edge of healthcare in pre-Gilded Age New York, and her bustling “boarding house” provided birth control, abortions, and medical assistance to thousands of women—rich and poor alike. As her practice expanded, her notoriety swelled, and Restell established her-self as a prime target for tabloids, threats, and lawsuits galore. But far from fading into the background, she defiantly flaunted her wealth, parading across the city in designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and bejeweled carriages, rubbing her success in the faces of the many politicians, publishers, fellow physicians, and religious figures determined to bring her down.
Unfortunately for Madame Restell, her rise to the top of her field coincided with “the greatest scam you’ve never heard about”—the campaign to curtail women’s power by restricting their access to both healthcare and careers of their own. Powerful, secular men—threatened by women’s burgeoning independence—were eager to declare abortion sinful, a position endorsed by newly-minted male MDs who longed to edge out their feminine competition and turn medicine into a standardized, male-only practice. By unraveling the misogynistic and misleading lies that put women’s lives in jeopardy, Wright simultaneously restores Restell to her rightful place in history and obliterates the faulty reasoning underlying the very foundation of what has since been dubbed the “pro-life” movement.
Thought-provoking, character-driven, boldly written, and feminist as hell, Madame Restell is required reading for anyone and everyone who believes that when it comes to women’s rights, women’s bodies, and women’s history, women should have the last word.
SHE WAS NOT FRENCH.
And she was not even called Madame Restell—until much later.
The heroine of our tale entered this world in 1811 as Ann Trow. The “lucky star” under which one of her future clients claimed she was born hung over a small English town called Painswick. Those who would later allege she was sent by devilish agents could hardly have picked a more perfect birthplace.
Today, Painswick, with its Cotswold stone cottages, is known primarily as being “the epitome of an English town.” It is one possessed of an idyllic beauty, standing on a hill overlooking one of the Five Valleys of Gloucestershire, a land of rivers and streams. Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII once hunted in its woods; ironically, Boleyn’s eventual executioner, William Kingston, also hailed from the region.1 In 1643, during the First English Civil War, King Charles I and Royalist forces stayed in Painswick for a time. According to a walking tour guide, “tradition has it that [King Charles I] went up to the Beacon and, seeing the beautiful valley to the east, said, ‘This must be Paradise.’ Since then that valley, and the hamlet on its western side to the north of Painswick, have been called Paradise.”2
Yet there was also another side to the splendor of Painswick. During Ann Trow’s childhood, the townspeople possessed an unusual fondness for pagan customs, celebrating a yearly festival to the Greek satyr god Pan. Until around 1830, citizens of Painswick staged an annual procession in honor of this pagan god, who was most typically associated with sexuality.
The tradition appears to have originated with Benjamin Hyett, a member of the local gentry. In the mid-eighteenth century, Hyett erected a classically styled woodland pavilion, called Pan’s Lodge, where he and his friends could celebrate “nocturnal orgies,” according to the historian Timothy Mowl. Disinclined to let nobles have all the fun, it seems, locals soon got in on the action. Gentlemen’s Magazine, in 1787, described the town’s festival as one that “would have disgraced most heathen nations,” as it was filled with “drunkenness and every species of clamor, riot and disorder.”3
So, Ann was born into an uncommon place with particular—and particularly libertine—customs. But she was far from the only woman to grow up with a similarly blasé outlook toward sex during the period of her youth. While eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century society admired virginity, actual attitudes toward everyday premarital sexual activity at the time were more relaxed—both in Europe and even in supposedly puritanical America—than they’re often portrayed as being in modern media.
As the historian Jack Larkin stated, “Into the 1820s, almost all Americans would have subscribed to the commonplace notion that sex, within proper social confines, was enjoyable and healthy and that prolonged sexual abstinence could be injurious to health. They also would have assumed that women had powerful sexual drives.”4 Premarital sex between couples was common. So common, in fact, that one pastor, in South Carolina in 1847, claimed that most brides—“except for two or three”—were pregnant when he performed their weddings.5 In some northeastern American states, bundling—in which two sweethearts would snuggle, supposedly chastely, in bed, with the consent of their parents—was a common custom during courtship through the 1700s.6 The “chaste” part of the practice, however, was notoriously misleading—which may help explain why, in the 1790s, one-third of rural New England brides were already pregnant by the time they walked down the aisle.7 Women were seen as enjoying the practice of bundling as much as, if not more than, men. A poem from 1785 captures the spirit of the tradition:
Some maidens say that, if through the nation,
bundling should go out of fashion,
courtship would lose its sweets, as they
could have no fun til wedding day.
The concept is hardly that different from modern attitudes toward courtship. A 2002 study found that by the age of forty-four, 99 percent of Americans had sex. Ninety-five percent had premarital sex, making premarital sex nearly universal.8
As the lewd poem implies, many considered sexual impulses in women to be natural, not shameful. Indeed, popular magazines advocated punishment for men who had premarital sex with women and then left them, but sympathy for the women, who were perceived as unfortunate victims in that situation.9 It may seem incredibly obvious to say “you should sympathize with a woman who had sex with a man and got dumped after”—until you realize that there are still messages today likening women who choose to have premarital sex to worthless, chewed-up gum.
Ann had the strange fortune to live during a period of great change regarding sexual attitudes. In modern times, we’re sometimes guilty of assuming that one sexual ideology dominated a previous century—thinking everyone from the nineteenth century was prudish, for instance. Or else we theorize that all of history is one long, uninterrupted upward trajectory from utmost prudery to utter hedonism. In truth, dominant attitudes regarding sex shift decade to decade. Consider the laissez-faire approach to sex during the early aughts with those considered acceptable a decade and a half later, in a #MeToo era. The attempted rapist character on Gossip Girl in 2007 who became the show’s romantic hero in later episodes would not have been given that story line fifteen years later—indeed, in Gossip Girl 2.0, characters now ask, “Do I have your consent?” before sex.
Over the course of her life, Ann watched public sentiment slide from being moderately permissive toward female sexuality to being more constrained, culminating in a time when doctors were convinced that “good women” did not have a sex drive at all. The change must have felt a bit bewildering, especially to someone who grew up in a place where residents partook in “every species of clamor, riot and disorder.”
Sexual permissiveness aside, Ann’s upbringing was simple. Her father was a laborer who worked at the local woolen mill, as did her mother. Her schooling consisted of basics: she might have learned how to read, most likely from the Bible, so as to recite the catechism, though religion was not a large part of her upbringing. Judging from records concerning Ann Trows, who was born in Painswick during this period, Ann wasn’t baptized until the age of 16, perhaps in preparation for her marriage.10 While (male) country doctors sometimes came from humble backgrounds, certainly she and her family would have had no such aspirations for her. They never expected that one day she would go on to buy all her family members houses, in spite of the fact that from an early age it was clear that Ann possessed “an acute intellect and a determined will.”11
Like many young girls from lower-class families, Ann was sent into domestic service at the age of fifteen. Servitude at the time was a brutal business, no matter how charming BBC shows persist in making it seem. Dismiss any Downton Abbey notions you might have about this period of Ann’s life. Young Miss Trow was not serving tea to nobility.
Instead, she worked for a middle-class butcher’s family. Given her age, and the fact that she was unskilled, and came from a poor family, it’s likely that she was a maid of all work. As such, she’d be required to do any and all chores around the house. Her day would begin before dawn. She might awake in an attic—which would be freezing during the winter—and creep downstairs at around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. to make sure all the fires were lit before the family came down for breakfast. Then she would spend the day scrubbing floors, carrying water into the house from a well, emptying chamber pots, dusting the rooms, changing the beds, polishing the brass, scrubbing the laundry, cleaning the rugs, and serving the family’s meals. Her work would continue until after nightfall—perhaps around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., at which point she’d collapse, exhausted, only to begin again the next day.
Domestic drudgery of the lower orders was work that most of us would find physically and emotionally exhausting. However, Ann was naturally someone who enjoyed being busy. There were to be few periods of her life where she appeared to relax, and she always seemed a bit bewildered by those who enjoyed a life of idleness. She was also tireless.
Ann would never forget this time in her life. Nearly a lifetime later, her servants would live in nicer conditions than those of her neighbors, and she’d go out of her way to help them. And, just as she’d never forget the grim physical work that accompanied being a maid, she’d remember, too, the sexual peril inherent in being a teenage girl living in a near stranger’s house.
Despite most households’ insistence that maids not have gentlemen callers, her work as a servant would hardly have insulated Ann from sexuality, both her own and that of her peers. Many ladies took great care to keep their female staff from meeting with men from outside the house. But they often forgot about the men inside the house, especially those within their own families.
If well off, these men could assault household maids with little or no repercussions, legally or socially. And they would. This was sufficiently common in the eighteenth century that the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift advised the household maid “to get as much out of her master as she possibly can and never allow him the smallest liberty, not the squeezing of your hand, unless he puts a guinea into it.… [N]ever allow him the last favor for under a hundred guineas.” He urged particular caution around the family’s eldest son, as, from him, the maid would “get nothing from him but a big belly or the clap, and probably both together.”12
Swift meant for readers to take his comments humorously, as any maid would have known that there was not much room for negotiation. If a maid did have sex with a male member of the family who desired her, she risked becoming pregnant and losing her job. People may have been happy to marry women of their own class whom they’d already impregnated, but if they impregnated a maid, they weren’t going to keep paying her to dump out their chamber pots. If she refused sexual favors, however, she was likely doomed anyway: She could be fired immediately. Most chose the former option, compliance. A memoir written by an anonymous wealthy man, most likely Henry Spencer Ashbee, who grew up during the mid-1800s, My Secret Life, stated, “As to servants and women of the humbler class… they all took cock on the quiet and were proud of having a gentleman to cover them. Such was the opinion of men in my class of life and of my age. My experience with my mother’s servants corroborated it.”13 The author further discusses impregnating some servants and, perhaps fortunately for them, procuring abortions.
Ann may or may not have experienced these assaults herself, but even so, she was likely well aware of their prevalence. If none presented in her household, she would certainly have heard stories about other maids who had been seduced or outright raped by their masters. Young girls hoped to follow the example set in Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded—the popular novel of the period in which a young maid thwarts her master’s near constant attempts to rape her (at one point he leaps out of her closet; at another, he kidnaps her) only for him to marry her. Ann may well have even read about these experiences in the popular advice guide A Present for a Servant-Maid. Published in 1744 and still referenced throughout Ann’s own era, the manual was divided somewhat evenly between good recipes and warnings about the terrible men who would try to sleep with the help. That list included their masters, male servants, sons of the household, and guests. As for what to do, the manual suggested it was probably best to keep away from men as much as possible, to remind married men of their wives, and to avoid smiling at single men, as it would “the more inflame him and render him more persevering than ever.”14 The Servant-Maid guide was, to its credit, candid about the fact that avoiding these inflamed men would be incredibly difficult, and, in some cases, even impossible. It also stressed that if a young woman became pregnant, the man would probably not marry her, a situation that could lead to prostitution. At best, because life was not a romantic novel, it mentioned, he would marry her, and then all his friends would sneer at her for being poorly born.
It is a shame that this book did not contain any effective suggestions for birth control—something Madame Restell would end up attempting to remedy later in life.
In any event, trying to avoid a master’s wandering hands while also dumping out his chamber pot seems stunningly degrading. Whether Ann had to fight off advances is lost to history. But for the rest of her life, she would show the utmost sympathy—and often offer vastly lowered prices for her services—to women who had been impregnated by their employers.
At this time in her life, Ann’s options seemed to be either to marry or remain in service. She had little desire to remain a maid.
So, Ann married.
It was hardly unexpected. At sixteen years old, she was pretty and popular, and known to be “a favorite among the cloth weaving population of Painswick.”15 One of her suitors was a twenty-two-year-old man named Henry Sommers. As a journeyman tailor, Henry had completed his apprenticeship. He was considered fully educated and qualified to work in his field. With such a useful skill he could expect to have steady employment. At the time, Painswick was well known for its cloth and weaving industry. By marrying him, Ann’s own fortunes would improve, and she could stop hauling water for her employers’ laundry.
But as many women who live in the real world ultimately discover, married life is not always a fairy tale.
Shortly after her nuptials, Ann found out that her new husband was less a Prince Charming and more of a charming alcoholic. She discovered that she was “no better off after marriage than before.”16 As a result, “to support him, and herself, she had to do the tailoring work that he should have done.”17 Ever the hard worker, she soon became very proficient, and within a few years she was a talented dressmaker.
By 1830, she was also a mother to a daughter named Caroline. Supporting her family in Painswick was a constant challenge, but “she heard that in America she could get good wages for the trade that her husband’s dissipation and idleness had forced her to learn.”18
So, in 1831, Ann, Henry, and their toddler set sail to New York. Had she known how fierce the competition would be, she might never have left home.
THE VOYAGE TO NEW YORK FROM ENGLAND WAS A BRUTAL ordeal for the poor in 1831. Immigrant ships were considered, according to the Quebec Gazette in 1834, to be “the worst of all the merchant ships of Gt. Britain & Ireland.” “With few exceptions,” the paper said, “they are very old, very ill-manned, very ill found.”1 The passengers were crammed together on bunks for the monthlong voyage with little or no regard for their comfort. The more immigrants the ship owners were able to accommodate, the more money they made. The close quarters allowed disease—whether colds or flu, or more serious ailments, such as typhus—to spread easily and quickly. The health of the passengers was not helped by the fact that the food was appalling, if present at all. Until 1842, the British government did not mandate that the ships going to America provide passengers with adequate food and water. Before then, starvation on immigrant ships was not uncommon, especially if the journey was longer than expected due to bad weather. In 1836, a ship by the name of Diamond traveling from Liverpool to New York took one hundred days to make the crossing, due to poor weather, rather than the thirty days the passengers had anticipated. As a result, seventeen of the one hundred and eighty steerage passengers starved to death onboard. Captains and other employees would barter food in return for sexual favors from female passengers. Even after 1842, the food allotted to passengers was “not sufficient for the sustenance of any human being.”2 The immigrants had to cook their own food, and fights were known to break out as people jostled for access to a fire for this purpose. Furthermore, the water given to voyagers was often stored improperly. It had, according to one immigrant, “a rancid smell that… was enough to turn one’s stomach.”3 The water was also limited; what the ship could hold had to be reserved for drinking—there was little, if any, left over for washing. Passengers would defecate in buckets, which were known to tip over in rough weather. The stench on the ships was, consequently, overpowering.
What a relief it must have been for Ann and her family, hungry and filthy, to step off that ship and be met with a vision of New York. When Frances Trollope traveled there in 1827 and saw the city in all its grandeur for the first time, she later wrote, “Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”4
How infinitely different this city was from Ann’s pastoral hometown! How exciting to be in such an American city, filled with the bustle of horses and carriages and buildings being rapidly constructed.
And how full—truly full—of people it was. Already New York’s population was 185,000, and it was growing rapidly. By 1840 it would be 327,000.
Until her arrival in New York, Ann Trow Sommers did not realize that she was only one of thousands of women who thought they might make a good living through their sewing skills in America. In 1830, the economist Mathew Carey estimated that in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore there were already between 18,000 and 20,000 working women, many of those working as seamstresses.5 Just as with the population, that number would continue to rise.
The mid-1800s saw a distinct shift in America, from being a country where people gathered primarily in rural areas to one where people were flocking to urban industrial areas for work. In 1800, 83 percent of the US labor force was in agriculture. By 1850, that number had decreased to only 55 percent.6 This new labor force, made possible by industrialization, included women. The migration to the cities offered promise to many, but the appeal was especially strong for portions of the female population. For example, mill towns—which had sprung up during the 1830s—offered women financial independence away from their homes. That lure was strong enough that by 1840, women made up three-quarters of the workforce in these areas. Many hoped to earn enough money to provide for a relative, pay a brother’s tuition, or save for their own dowry and then return home. Others intended to get a better education, or to buy the things they wanted for themselves—books! pretty dresses!—with their own money. At least one went because she “hate[d] her mother in law,” which seems fair.7
At the mills, women would earn wages as well as food and accommodation in a nearby boardinghouse with six to eight women to a room. But employment conditions were far from ideal. Workers labored from sunup to sundown. According to an 1849 issue of Operatives magazine, the boardinghouses were so “absolutely choked with beds, trunks, bandboxes, clothes, umbrellas and people” that it was “difficult to stir, even to breathe freely.”8 At the mills, fiber particles wafted in the air, making it hard for workers to breathe.
But while the environment itself was dismal, it also presented women with the possibility of exhilarating new intellectual challenges. Corporations offered lecture series to employees: twenty-five cents for twenty-five lectures. Workers had access to libraries that they might not have seen in more secluded areas. Factory towns like Lowell, Massachusetts, published literary magazines composed of the women’s writing, such as The Lowell Offering. Industries often boasted proudly of the “literary mill girls” who had improved themselves while away from home. In actuality, many women found the work and long hours so exhausting they had no energy for lectures or penning pieces. Still, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier discussed how “here, at last… the work of her hands is adequately rewarded; and she goes about her daily task with the consciousness that she is not spending her strength for naught.”9 Being paid for labor can be intoxicating, especially in an era where women from more rural backgrounds were expected to labor for free. By the 1850s, one writer bemoaned the tendency of women to work away from home: “The most intelligent of the farmer’s daughters become schoolteachers, or tenders of shops, or factory girls. They contemn the calling of their father, and will, nine times out of ten, marry a mechanic in preference to a farmer.… [T]hey remember their worn-out mothers.”10 At least some young women seemed to agree with this assessment. After they had been relatively independent in the mills, many women who returned to their family’s farms in the 1840s complained somewhat snootily of “nice folks” who were sadly “countryfied in their ideas.”11
By 1845, there were approximately fifty thousand working women in New York City—around one-seventh of its total population. Most of them were employed in factories, where they typically worked 13 to 18 hours a day and earned less than $3 per week. For perspective, in modern terms, that equates to a salary of $33 to $96 a week for as much as 126 hours of work. This amount was only about one-quarter of what men at the time received for equal work.
Still, competition for the limited jobs available to women was so keen that, as the New-York Tribune reported, women were happy to “snatch at the privilege of working on any terms.”12
Ann likely felt fortunate to have her husband with her when they landed in America, especially as the streets where she was living were not exactly paved with gold. Upon their arrival, Ann and Henry lived on Oliver Street in Lower Manhattan, near the notoriously dangerous immigrant neighborhood of Five Points, a far cry from the quaint charms of Painswick.
If the streets of Five Points were paved with anything, it was vomit and horseshit. The stench alone was brutal, and the insect problem was notable. That was due to the fact that the neighborhood’s spring-fed Collect Pond had been filled in to become a new residential area in 1811. This initially seemed like a fine solution to a problem that had developed: the pond had become contaminated by the growing factories of the area dumping their waste in it. And so, “Paradise Square” was constructed.13 The houses were lovely. But the workmanship that had gone into filling the pond was not. By 1820, the pond began to reassert itself, the land became marshy, and the houses began to crumble. In the summer, mosquitoes swarmed the neighborhood, bringing with them malaria. The pools of stagnant, contaminated water also became breeding grounds for cholera.
This scenario did not attract a particularly nice class of residents. The neighborhood became known for crime, prostitution, and the gangs later made famous in Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book, Gangs of New York. Asbury’s tales, by his own admission, grew somewhat in the telling. It’s doubtful, for instance, that Hell-Cat Maggie, a female fighter, really filed her teeth into points and kept all the ears she ripped off her opponents pickled in a jar at her bar. Or that Mose, an Achilles-like figure who was said to have led the “Bowery Boys” gang, was eight feet tall and once ripped an oak tree out of the ground to beat members of a rival gang to death. But Asbury did capture the colorful spirit of a neighborhood that horrified and fascinated many in equal measure. In 1834, the frontiersman Davy Crockett visited the area; he later said, “I think I saw more drunken folks that day than I ever saw before.” The denizens of the neighborhood were, in his estimation, “too mean to swab Hell’s kitchen,” and after interacting with them, he decided, “I would rather risk myself in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night.”14
It follows then that Ann, a young mother who probably walked through that neighborhood every day, must have been a good deal braver than American folk hero Davy Crockett.
During her time in Painswick, she had become accustomed to the notion that sex was a fact of life—sometimes good, sometimes bad. But it was only now that she would see the desperate situation into which that unavoidable fact plunged American women.
By the mid-1800s, the streets of New York teemed with an estimated 30,000 homeless children. The miserable conditions they lived in were startling at best, but more often appalling. In 1849, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle begged people to look to Lower Manhattan, five minutes from the Fulton Ferry, where they’d see “ragged children crouched and huddled together like swine… greedily devouring the contents of their filthy baskets: all day long they have been wandering up and down the streets gathering half picked bones and rejected food; cast from the swill tub into the gutter.” The paper described a scene of “six wretched, starving, freezing children” huddling around their mother, who was “ragged and filthy in the extreme, her dress in rags and tatters, her hair is matted in wads, and she is, indeed, an object of loathing.”15
- **Longlisted for the Brooklyn Public Library Book Prize in Nonfiction (2023)**
**An Amazon EDITOR'S PICK for BEST BOOKS OF 2023 SO FAR in BIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR and HISTORY**
**An Amazon EDITOR'S PICK for BEST BOOKS OF THE MONTH (March 2023)**
**INDIE NEXT List Pick for March 2023**
**A Bookshop.Org EDITOR'S PICK (March 2023)***
Next Idea Book Club, "February Must Reads" and "40 Nonfiction Books to Watch Out For in 2023"
Cosmopolitan, "11 Best Books to Put on Your TBR"
Amazon, Best Books in History and Nonfiction (March 2023)
The Spectator, "Books to Watch Out For in 2023"
American Journal of Bioethics, "Recommended Reading"
"The fact that Ann Trow isn’t a well-known feminist heroine is a travesty. Thankfully, Jennifer Wright is here with an extensively researched, compulsively readable account of this singularly fascinating woman and her extraordinary legacy that still affects so much of the country even today... Lost to history by the concerted efforts of power-hungry, sexist men, this remarkable woman is finally receiving her due in this fast-paced, whirlwind of a book. This book is more than a retrospective on the life of a forgotten heroine; it’s a telling account of how women’s health became both a commodity and a tool of oppression. Highly recommended for anyone with an eye on today’s politics and wonders how we got here."—CityView
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Books