I’ve been anticipating Janis Robinson Daly’s debut novel for some time after following her road to publication on social media. I’m a fan of Historical Fiction, so I pre-ordered it as soon as it became available.
As I began reading, I was at once plunged into a world of a female physician caught between two centuries—the 19th and 20th. Women’s rights–both suffrage and healthcare–a World War, and another global pandemic were all brought vividly to life.
A while back I read and reported on another female physician and her fight for women’s rights in a blog post here. In that post, I noted that some things hadn’t changed much. Women are still fighting battles for autonomy and justice over one hundred years later. These two well-researched books–both inspired by the authors’ ancestors–struck many of the same notes, especially regarding women’s rights.
While Pioneer Doctor told of a female physician in the wilds of Montana mining towns (the only job she could find!), The Unlocked Path tells of Eliza Pearson Edwards graduating from Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She becomes an Ob/Gyn, a niche women doctors were allowed to fill and much needed.
For Dr. Edwards however, the care of women was a profoundly personal calling after witnessing the death of her aunt who wouldn’t seek medical attention from a male doctor. Many other women suffered the same fate. They often died of curable diseases and conditions rather than suffer the embarrassment of disrobing for a male doctor or describing their female troubles to a man. Furthermore, many husbands wouldn’t allow male physicians to deliver their babies, preferring (female) midwives.
Both heroines fought against the repressive Comstock Laws, which prohibited mailing birth control information as “Obscene Literature” and “Articles of Immoral Use.”
Both fought for women’s right to vote.
“We’ve been called. We must continue Miss Anthony’s fight–our fight–and ensure women win the vote. Then we can repeal the Comstock Laws and other insidious ones like it to give women not only the right, but the choice to decide what may be best for them.”
Both women saw reproductive healthcare are paramount.
“If mothers controlled their bodies, they controlled their future and their children’s. They would achieve a new height in women’s rights, even without the vote.”
“Male doctors abhorred birth control and opposed what they called the vulgarity of many of the methods. Further, their conservative manner kept them from speaking plainly with a female patient, let alone show her how to use a douche, or fit her with an appropriate-sized pessary.”
“The immigrant women of South Cove were also the poorest. They were the ones who begged for her help while they delivered a sixth, seventh, or eighth child. These mothers struggled to feed and clothe the children they already had. If they learned how to prevent a pregnancy, they wouldn’t have to try to nurse them through fevers, which shook their feeble bodies and left them crippled or lifeless, and in need of a coffin they couldn’t afford.”
There were, of course, means of contraception, but poverty—again—could be a barrier to even the simplest methods.
“Most husbands won’t wear a condom and withdrawals are too much effort on his part. Douching may be impossible for women in line with twenty other families for a turn in a bathtub, if her building even has a tub.”
When Eliza attends Sharon, a young woman who died after a back-alley abortion, her anger and grief drive her to action.
“Cause of Death. The medical diagnosis was obvious: Peritonitis. The underlying sympathetic diagnosis often outweighed the scientific: Shame. Poverty. Fear. Unable to use contraception. Untrained abortionists. Dirty implements. Lack of follow-up care and instructions…Eliza faced her grim task, thinking death certificates should include more lines to explain the cause.”
“Whether they had blonde or red hair, blue or hazel eyes…each one became the raven-haired, brown-eyed Sharon, the one I could not save. Like Sharon, no one helped those women with their decisions. They rarely told anyone of their pregnancies. Most of them visited the abortionist by themselves as no one would risk breaking the law to accompany them. Each one, unmarried and married, returned to their homes to suffer in silence.”
Throughout the book, Eliza’s strong circle of female family and friends support, advise, and bolster one another as they face life’s inevitable trials and triumphs, including love and its loss.
This is not a political book. It is Historical Fiction. And as such fills in the dreams, desires, details, and heartbeat of a time, place, and circumstance. In doing so it lets us see that we here in the 21st century are experiencing some of the same injustices and conflicts as those who came before us. Perhaps readers will gain a bit of understanding and compassion. Their struggles are our struggles. The beat goes on.
PS: I’m now reading both Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg and Violeta by Isabel Allende. Are you sensing a theme? Do you find yourself “stuck” in a time and place when you read? A while back, it was World War II Europe. Now I see women’s issues in everything I read.