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Privy to Their Secrets: Archaeological and Historical Context of 19th Century Abortion in America

Author(s): Andrea Zlotucha Kozub

Year: 2014

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Motherhood was the defining role for women in 19th century America, but recent discoveries of fetal remains in privies demand a new consideration of how and when some women chose to avoid opportunities to become mothers. These individuals lived in a patriarchal society without reliable contraception, with a medical establishment just beginning to understand the concept of fetal development, and a legal system that relied on a woman’s report of fetal quickening to determine her right to ‘normalize’ her monthly cycles. Abortion was chosen by women from all walks of life as a means of preventing or postponing maternity. It is believed by historians that the majority of women who terminated pregnancies in the 19th century were married, with many of these being white, middle class Protestants. Archaeological evidence from two privies in Upstate New York suggests that while jaded prostitutes and seduced virgins undoubtedly used abortion as a means of ending obviously inconvenient pregnancies, it was also commonplace among housewives. For some of these women, abortion was a means of family planning, one that was fully compatible with motherhood.

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Privy to Their Secrets: Archaeological and Historical Context of 19th Century Abortion in America. Andrea Zlotucha Kozub. Presented at Society for Historical Archaeology, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. 2014 ( tDAR id: 437007)

Record Identifiers

PaperId(s): SYM-46,03

Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America