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[Trigger Warning: abortion, suicide]
Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand
by Margaret Sparrow
Victoria University Press
“Stories of the women who died are important because otherwise their voices remain silent.”
There are newspaper clippings, advertisements, labels and wrappings, witness accounts, court reports, catalogued objects, and photographs scattered throughout this book. These are the pieces of history, the shards of physical evidence, that Dame Margaret Sparrow uses to examine women’s experiences of abortion in the 19th century. Turning every page of Rough on Women unearths something new and brings another voice to life.
The challenge of understanding abortion in 19th-century New Zealand is huge. Women who underwent successful abortions were understandably silent about what they had done – therefore, it is the hundreds of chilling coroner’s reports of “maternal deaths” that are the most useful.
Sparrow examines each one on a case-by-case basis. There’s Mrs Clara Hannagan who died in rural Ngāruawāhia when no doctor could come to her aid, Mrs Mary Brown who took a fatal dose of poison pennyroyal, and many more.
The families of women who died abortion-related deaths were fiercely protective of the unspeakable truth. They distorted facts, added irrelevant information, and deliberately lied in death notices. 19th-century women’s experiences of abortion were, in every possible way, silenced. And it has taken a long time for them to find a voice. Rough on Women does the critical job of excavating the truth. It finally gives them something close to a voice of their own, even though they lived over 100 years ago.
Sparrow transports us to the isolated colonial world that these women lived and died in. Intertwined with historical analysis, there are passages of narrative where she retraces the final moments of the women’s lives. She takes us to their front doorsteps, into their bedrooms, onto the streets where they lived.
Her style is not that of your typical history book. She writes factually and simply, sometimes almost conversationally. At fewer than 200 pages, Rough on Women is readable and always interesting, even if you’re not used to non-fiction.
The book also covers a broad range of topics affecting women in the 19th century, from infanticide rates to methods of contraception. Important figures in the history of New Zealand feminism are introduced, such as Lady Anna Stout (1858–1931) who was among the first to publicly advocate for gender equality. But safe abortion wasn’t yet a consideration for these early feminists – it was still “unmentionable”, and we are only just beginning to be able to talk about it publicly today.
Rough on Women is essential reading for anyone interested in women’s issues and New Zealand’s social history. Its timely release just prior to this year’s election hopefully stirs us to remember that abortion is still technically a crime according to New Zealand law. It just goes to show how long it can take to undo so much stigma and unspeakability surrounding this issue. And it hasn’t been undone yet. Margaret Sparrow sees clearly what must be done next: “The fundamental flaw has been to treat abortion as a crime … Ultimately it is the woman (of any age) who should decide; not a parliamentarian with a conscience vote, or a state-funded doctor.”
She hopes that in collecting these women’s stories, the book “will be a legacy of all the women who died, and they will not have died in vain”. Rough on Women reminds us how far we’ve come, but also that the fight’s not over yet.