Madame Restell The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionistby Wright, Jennifer
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Madame Restell is a sharp, witty Gilded Age medical history which introduces us to an iconic, yet tragically overlooked, feminist heroine: a glamorous women’s healthcare provider in Manhattan, known to the world as Madame Restell. A celebrity in her day with a flair for high fashion and public, petty beefs, Restell was a self-made woman and single mother who used her wit, her compassion, and her knowledge of family medicine to become one of the most in-demand medical workers in New York. Not only that, she used her vast resources to care for the most vulnerable women of the city: unmarried women in need of abortions, birth control, and other medical assistance. In defiance of increasing persecution from powerful men, Restell saved the lives of thousands of young women and, in fact, as author Jennifer Wright says in own words, “despite having no formal training and a near-constant steam of women knocking at her door, she never lost a patient.” Restell was a revolutionary who opened the door to the future of reproductive choice for women, and Wright brings Restell and her circle to life in this dazzling, sometimes dark, and thoroughly entertaining tale.
In addition to uncovering the forgotten history of Restell herself, the book also doubles as an eye-opening look into the “greatest American scam you’ve never heard about”: the campaign to curtail women’s power by restricting their access to healthcare. Before the 19th century, abortion and birth control were not only legal in the United States, but fairly common, and public healthcare needs (for women and men alike) were largely handled by midwives and female healers. However, after the Birth of the Clinic, newly-minted male MDs wanted to push women out of their space—by forcing women back into the home and turning medicine into a standardized, male-only practice. At the same time, a group of powerful, secular men—threatened by women’s burgeoning independence in other fields—persuaded the Christian leadership to declare abortion a sin, rewriting the meaning of “Christian morality” to protect their own interests. As Wright explains, “their campaign to do so was so insidious—and successful—that it remains largely unrecognized to this day, a century and a half later.” By unraveling the misogynistic and misleading lies that put women’s health in jeopardy, Wright simultaneously restores Restell to her rightful place in history and obliterates the faulty, fractured reasoning underlying the very foundation of what has since been dubbed the “pro-life” movement.
Thought-provoking, character-driven, funny, 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.
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