This should be a must read book for our times. A cautionary tale that reminds us what the “good old days” consisted of. That reminds us of what life without choice means. And how one man’s personal crusade can and shackle lives for generations.
My Notorious Life is a novel based on the life of Ann Lohman, a 19th century midwife and abortionist dubbed the Wickedest Woman in New York. Mostly because she was successful, rich and flaunted it with her lifestyle and dress.
Kate Manning does a superb job of portraying this fascinating figure from our history. Her fictional version of Ann Lohman is Axie Muldoon, daughter of Irish immigrants who is sent off to fostering by a “well-meaning” man of the cloth when their mother falls ill. Her and her siblings are split apart, each going to a different family. Axie runs away to find her mother with another “orphan” Charlie. She finally reunites with her mother, only to have her mother fall ill from another pregnancy. She gets her to a local midwife where her mother dies because it was too late for treatment.
It is here, with the midwife, that Axie finds her home and learns her trade as midwife and eventually abortionist. When her foster mother, the midwife, dies, Axie takes with her the recipe book of remedies. She begins to peddle the remedies on the streets with the help of Charlie, childhood friend and soon to be husband.
Charlie takes the advertising to the newspapers and then expands to surrounding towns. It isn’t long before they are no longer the poor near homeless orphans. They rise rapidly in society and finances. Axie’s letters to her sister are no longer lies of a luxurious life, but are quickly becoming the reality.
She performs her first abortion when her friend shows up and begs her to help her. Then word of mouth begins to bring her more and more patients. Women/girls who are victims of rape, incest, married women who can’t support the children they have, married women who have too many children. Rich woman, poor women, street women and society women. Abortion is illegal if the fetus has quickened. And Axie won’t intervene if it is “quick”. She will shelter the woman till its time.
Midwives are generally left alone. But the male medical industry wan’ts to rope in this lost business. But, women then, as women often now, want another woman. One who truly understands the workings of a woman’s body. Who understands how to work with the natural rhythms. Not one that wishes to bring forceps and surgical instruments to force what should happen on its own.
Enter into the arena Anthony Comstock, not a doctor, not an elected governor, but a postal inspector. A hateful prude of a man who called himself a “weeder in God’s garden” who boasted of having driven at least 15 people to suicide with his persecution. From Anthony Comstock, we have the anti-pornography laws that still exist on the law books today. Laws that imprisoned many for years for crimes as vile as the sending of medical texts, distribution of condoms or birth control, distribution of information about sex, birth control, human anatomy, etc.
Though Axie is too big, too well known for Comstock to come after in the beginning, as his power grows, he begins to set his sights on her. Her flamboyant lifestyle and challenges to him make her a target he has to make an example of.
My Notorious Life is a story that should be required reading anyone who questions a woman’s right to choose with her own body. For, it shows you a world well before women had those rights. When women didn’t even have the right to vote, own her own money, much less her own body. It also shows you when our body’s care was wrested from the hands of the skilled women and into the uncaring hands of the physician. And it introduces you to a fictionalized version of a lost woman hero, Ann Lohman. A pioneer and warrior for women who still served the lowest born even at the peak of her fame and wealth. One of many unsung heroes that paved the way for women to rise above the servitude of men and forge a life of their own choosing and making.