My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

January 25, 2023: AbortionStudying: The Eleventh Virgin

[On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that case and a handful of other histories and stories of abortion in the U.S., leading up to a weekend post on the current laws and debates.]

On what an autobiographical novel helps us see about history and politics alike.

I wrote about the multi-part and profoundly inspiring life of Dorothy Day in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column. That’s all part of the frame for Day’s 1924 autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (published when she was just 27 years old), so check out that column if you would and then come on back for a couple takeaways for this week’s series.

Welcome back! The Eleventh Virgin is a multi-faceted depiction of Day’s childhood and young adulthood that touches on countless themes (through the lens of fictional character June), but abortion is a central through-line in the book, and not only because one of the novel’s culminating events is June’s own abortion after her love affair with a self-centered artist. One of the first characters Day creates at length is Mrs. Wittle, a depressed New York housewife for whom young June goes to work as a housekeeper; the 38 year old Wittle is pregnant with her second child, reads and talks obsessively about dangerous pregnancies and related themes like marital rape, and in one conversation asks June openly, “What different ways are there for performing abortions? Have you ever heard, June? I must ask Mrs. Bigley when she comes over this afternoon.” Day adds that from both Mrs. Wittle and her husband, a psychologist, the teenage June is “beginning to learn of sexual problems.” This section and character make clear once again what I highlighted in yesterday’s post: abortion has been a familiar and consistent part of American history, and more specifically of the identities, perspectives, relationships, and communities of women (young and old) at every stage.  

June’s own eventual abortion is one of the novel’s most overtly autobiographical events: Dorothy Day had an abortion of her own in 1920, part of the end of her brief and fraught love affair with the journalist Lionel Moise. Day would later write that Moise had pushed her to get the abortion, which she would call “the great tragedy of my life” and which she believed for five years had left her sterile; when she became pregnant in 1925 (with her biologist partner Forster Batterham) it was thus a hugely moving moment for Day (less so for Batterham, from whom she eventually separated). I’m not here to judge or even really engage with Day’s personal experiences of and evolving perspective on abortion, but to my mind that’s precisely the point: of all the issues that have become central to our political debates, none is more personal and individual than abortion. Both fictional characters and actual lives can help us understand, explore, and empathize with those personal and individual stories—but they also, and I would say especially, can help remind us that we have no real place from which to judge, much less to legislate, those personal and individual choices and lives.

Next AbortionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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