Sam Goldman interviews writer Kate Manning, author of My Notorious Life, a novel about a midwife and abortion provider from the 1800’s based on a true story. Read Manning’s op ed for The Washington Post, “Antiabortion laws are forced-birth laws. Here’s what that looks like.”
Follow Manning’s work which includes other eloquent and pointed opinion pieces about women, abortion, and more, plus links to get her books, including her forthcoming novel Gilded Mountain at her website katemanningauthor.com.
Music for this episode: Penny the Snitch by Ikebe Shakedown
Episode 124 Refuse Fascism
Sun, 8/28 7:17PM • 57:25
Kate Manning 00:00
Government mandated childbirth is forced birth and we do need to use that language if forces are out there trying to deprive women of bodily autonomy and the right to choose what’s best for themselves and for their families and when to give birth. If a woman chooses to have a child, if a couple chooses to have a child, that’s one thing. But if the government is telling you that you must bear a child, that is completely different. Protesting and really making our voices heard, is the way to go.
Sam Goldman 00:49
Welcome to Episode 124 of the Refuse Fascism podcast, a podcast brought to you by volunteers with Refuse Fascism. I’m Sam Goldman, one of those volunteers and host of the show. Refuse Fascism exposes, analyzes, and stands against the very real danger and threat of fascism coming to power in the United States.
Thanks to everyone who goes the extra step and rates and reviews on Apple podcasts, shares and comments on social media or YouTube. It helps us reach more listeners and we read every one. Here are just a few from this past week. On Twitter, @AfterDaylight wrote: “When you’re tired of having Happy Crack smoke blown up your ass and ready to hear what’s really up and what needs doing to fix it, there’s the @RefuseFascism podcast.” Arky Okey Exile on Apple podcasts wrote a review: “Copying the link to share with my friends. Important legal analysis of this perilous moment in abortion rights and human rights in the US, sharing the links also.” Thanks, Arky Okey Exile.
Everyone, be like them, review us on Apple podcasts to help us reach more listeners, and copy that link, share it with friends. And from my email inbox I received a really thoughtful email from CJ this past week full of research on a topic she suggests that we cover on fascists moves to have a convention to rewrite the Constitution. As part of this email, she wrote: “We are experiencing a lot of changes right now around the world and especially in this country. As we grapple with the rise of fascism, this podcast provides the necessary dialogue that helps us put into words the attacks we see taking place and gives us the language and resources to talk about them with the people in our lives.”
Thanks again to @AfterDaylight, Arky Okey Exile and CJ for writing. After listening to today’s episode, go help us find more people who want to refuse fascism by rating and reviewing on Apple podcasts and encouraging your friends and family who listen to do the same. Subscribe/follow so you never miss an episode. This means also subscribe to our YouTube channel, where we also post the episodes each week, and of course continue all that sharing and commenting on social media.
In today’s episode, we do something a little bit different that I think you’re going to enjoy. We’re going to share an interview with novelist Kate Manning discussing forced birth, her novel “My Notorious Life” and her forthcoming novel “Gilded Mountain.” But before that, we need to talk about some developments from this week as they relate to the fascist threat.
At a Democratic Party fundraiser this past week, President Biden said something new worth commenting on. He said: “What we’re seeing now is the beginning, or the death knell, of extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump. It’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”
As an organization, Refuse Fascism set out six years ago now to actually stop the Trump/Pence regime, at first from even being inaugurated, and then to drive them from power through mass, sustained, nonviolent resistance. We worked to break people out of a deadly politics as usual, a spiral of accommodation and conciliation with fascism that some of us have seen coming for decades now. And one key element of breaking those mental shackles is using the “F” word, fascism. Calling it what it is: Fascism, a qualitative change in how society is governed.
Fascism, once in power, its defining feature is the essential elimination of the rule of law and democratic and civil rights. It is significant that Biden is even saying “semi-fascism,” and it is a good thing that others — that there are some people in influential positions — using the word, but it’s also vital to recognize what Jeff Sharlet put his finger on: “Good news of Biden’s saying fascism is that it gives centrists permission to see what’s right before their eyes. Bad news is that it may inadvertently lead them to formally normalize the term. We have a Democratic Party and a fascist party, and that’s our two party system.”
As we have seen over these past six years, almost anything can be normalized. Can it be any more clear? Biden raised the specter of “semi-fascism” — cause there’s nothing semi about it, but anyway — he did this in order to raise money for elections that these fascists have told us, and proven to us, they won’t respect. It is past time to recognize that fascism isn’t a passing trend, the worst of insults, a pendulum swing, a game or an empty breath. There can be no reconciliation with fascism, except on the terms of these fascists. 21st century nuclear equipped American fascism must be stopped.
Paul Street, member of the Refuse Fascism editorial board, historian and author whose latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neo-liberals, and the Trumping of America had this important insight in his latest Counterpunch article: “Three in every four Republicans believed dear leader Trump’s big Hitlerian lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Red republi-fascist states have passed numerous measures and enacted various policies to suppress votes and cancel election outcomes they don’t like.” And Paul goes on to say, “93% of candidates favored by the tangerine-tinted maniac have won their midterm Republican primaries so far. In four swing-contested states critical to the presidential electoral college outcome in 2024-2025, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Republican nominees for key offices in charge of statewide elections, governors and secretaries of state, are dedicated Trumpy election deniers committed to delivering their party and leader their state’s elector slates no matter what the voters say in 2024-2025.”
I also need to shout out Shadi Hamid, of the Brooking Institute and the Atlantic, for really showing the world that you do not need to be smart to be part of the American intelligentsia, you just have to be useful. He tweeted: “This is not a good look for Biden, to say that MAGA-ism is semi-fascism is effectively to say that tens of millions of Americans are semi-fascists. Also, what exactly is semi-fascism? It’s not even a thing.”
The truth: As I said before, there’s nothing semi about it. The only thing semi is that they haven’t fully consolidated power, that they aren’t in power right now. There’s an intense battle among those who rule on how all of this is going to pan out, but our interests, the interests of people who do not wish to go along with those who seek to erase LGBTQ people from public society and even from existence, who seek to knock women back to the Dark Ages, who aim for the mass rounding up in concentration camps, or worse, for immigrant siblings, who don’t want to go along with taking Black folks back to the time of old Jim Crow with the New Jim Crow still in effect, if not outright enslavement, who cannot live with a pouring of gasoline on an already burning planet or the indoctrination of youth in an even more overt American chauvinism.
Those who do not wish to see the democratic and civil rights that do exist, as limited and not for all as they are, swept away, we need to confront the uncomfortable truth: This fascism is real. We’re not just slinging insults, it’s a movement that’s strengthened and hardened, a movement of great depth and reach. This is a country full of Nazis. A key part of that understanding of what fascism is isn’t just recognizing the seriousness of the threat, but the inaptitude and willing blindness of those who grease the wheels. After a coup, you call it semi-fascism? This isn’t something you can vote your way out of.
And to directly answer Shadi, I need to quote Bob Avakian: “The unavoidable truth is that this country, the much proclaimed shining city on a hill is full of fascists.” As we’ve discussed on this show, the roots of fascism in America are deep. I said America, but I want to be clear, I’m talking throughout the United States. At its core, its most organized core, is the Christian fascist movement. A movement that’s been organizing for decades. They have a religious fervor for a return to the “lost cause,” a noble way of life, unfettered, brutal white supremacy and patriarchy, each on its own taking on genocidal proportions while wrapped in the MAGA package, and together, an aggressive approach to the whole world, including threatening nuclear annihilation that mirrors the aggressive individualism of their movement.
In other news — I know that was uplifting — in other news, the Department of Justice released an affidavit Friday that is central to the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, which contained over 184 classified documents. It indicates there was probable cause to believe that additional documents contained classified National Defense Information remained in his possession. This is a situation where even former Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz agreed with others that based on the redacted affidavit, there was enough for indictment of Trump. Dershowitz said on Fox News that “there is enough evidence here to indict Trump” and also noting, “but Trump will not be indicted in my view, because the evidence doesn’t pass what I call the Nixon/Clinton standards” and, I gotta say here, seriously, what the fuck if he is not indicted.
And now turning to the topic of this week’s show, this past week marked two months since the overturning of Roe. We now live in a country where one-third of women and girls of reproductive age no longer have access to abortion services in their state — 21 million women. The reality of this post Roe horror show is beginning to set in. This week, more trigger bans went into effect in three states; three states that already had abortion bans in effect. In Tennessee, it is a near total abortion ban. It is now a felony to provide abortion care. This is on top of the ban that was already in place the banned abortions after six weeks.
In Texas on top of the six-week abortion ban and forced through vigilante bounty hunters, it is now a felony punishable by up to life in prison in Texas. After the state’s trigger law, the felony is for the person who provides abortion services, to be clear. Abortion is now banned at the point of fertilization. This statute also says that the Attorney General shall seek civil penalty, a penalty of no less than $100,000 plus those attorney fees. And we’ve got to note that the clinics across the state had already stopped performing abortions in fear of such prosecution. Both states, Tennessee and Texas, have very narrow exceptions to save the life of the pregnant patient. In Idaho where there was also a six week abortion ban on the books already, after trigger bans went into effect this week, abortions are now completely banned in the state with the exception of rape or incest that has been reported to the police or to prevent the death of a pregnant person, but not necessarily to safeguard their health.
Like the other two states, this ban also makes performing an abortion a felony. Regarding the wave of abortion bans sweeping the country, Nancy Northup, CEO of the Center of Reproductive Rights notes: “Vast swaths of the nation, especially in the South and Midwest will become abortion deserts that for many will be impossible to escape.” Here, I seriously have to ask, why the fuck have we not shut this country down? With that, here is my interview with Kate Manning.
Today abortion bans went into effect in Texas and Tennessee, both states which already had abortion bans on the books. In Texas abortion is now a felony punishable by up to life in prison. There are no exceptions for anything in the Tennessee ban. And there is a suite of states with abortion bans taking effect in September. One in three women or girls, people of reproductive age, has lost access to legal abortion in their state, and North Dakota is set to enact their abortion ban tomorrow.
It is in that context that I am so excited today to welcome to the show Kate Manning. Kate is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, “My Notorious Life” and “White Girl.” I absolutely loved reading “My Notorious Life.” I finished listening to it not too long ago on a road trip to the Finger Lakes and was blown away. My friend and I were talking about how it was like Dickens, but if there were real stories about women, or To call a Midwife without the enslaving Catholicism that rests in that show.
And it was for a topic that is so timely, even though it was written in 2013, it is a book to read right now. It is actually a fun read, [KM: chuckles] and uplifting and is something that we need to nourish our spirits. Her forthcoming book, which I have right on my desk that I have not finished, is “Gilded Mountain,” a historical novel set in the small marble mining town of Moonstone, Colorado. It grapples with the forces common to both the 1910s and 2020s, wealth, poverty, immigration and freedom of expression, exploring themes about longing for family equality, beauty and joy. I want to welcome Kate. Thank you for coming on and talking with me.
Kate Manning 16:07
Thank you, Sam. That was a great, very flattering introduction. Thank you so much. I’m glad that you described “My Notorious Life” as a fun novel. When I wrote it, I kept thinking, Oh, you’re not going to write an abortion novel. I thought a small university press might publish it, but it’s based on a true story of what women’s lives were like in New York City in the 1800s, and for many, many years. The midwife named Madame Restell was a nom de practice. She worked in the city as a midwife and abortionist for 40 years until she was hounded to death by Anthony Comstock, so it’s quite a story.
Sam Goldman 16:41
It is incredibly engaging, and when I met you, even though it is about a time that you may not know a lot about when you’re reading it, what the women in the story face is very similar in some ways to now what many are facing. I think that there are fully developed female characters, complete with agency and struggle and fear and all the things that make human beings full and complete. I really, really loved reading that, too.
Kate Manning 17:23
Thank you. As I was writing it, as I was researching, I started really with these orphan trains that I had never heard about — the fact that there were 30,000 homeless children on the streets of New York, and have a big effort to help them, you know, good hearted samaritans decided to ship them out West. So some tens of thousands of kids were shipped out of the city, on trains, apparently, to find good homes and fresh air. You could say they were shipped out to become servants, indentured servants, and that they were gotten rid of so they would stop picking your pocket or possibly growing up to cut your throat.
But these kids were as young as two. They were infants, and many of them just been abandoned on the streets. The other side of that — this was history I had never heard, and once I got them out into the Midwest, I thought, well, I don’t know anything about the Midwest, and I wanted to write a New York novel. And I just stumbled upon this caricature of a woman who was described as the wickedest woman in New York. She was painted as a bat woman devouring babies, and I was just stunned and taken aback. Then I thought, who was she? It turned out that she was this midwife who was part of a community of free thinkers downtown. They were interested in promoting birth control and she learned somehow about medicines that helped women miscarry.
The story really stunned me, in many ways, mostly because I had never heard of it. You are taught that the history of birth control starts with Margaret Sanger. You don’t understand that even during the Victorian era, which is painted as a prudish and uptight time, and that women just never talked about anything below the waist. Well, maybe they didn’t talk about it, but they still had the same things going on. So to find that story and to question why didn’t we ever know this, really motivated me to write the story.
Sam Goldman 19:22
Yeah, it’s definitely a whole hidden history that everything was new that I was learning, and that was very eye opening. I’m gonna talk more about the book, but I wanted to talk a little bit about a piece that you wrote that was published in May in the Washington Post, and it was actually how I first came to know that you existed and your brilliant work.
For those listening, Kate wrote an excellent article for The Washington Post, listing and enumerating the ways anti-abortion laws, or as Kate calls them, forced birth laws unfairly target and affect women and unwanted children, including the impacts on income, time and emotional trauma from “force child surrender,” and the extra burden all this places on low income women, including an especially large numbers of women of color. But you start off by graphically showing the physical effects of pregnancy and birth in a way that we don’t see in print. You say, “childbirth has been likened by many of us, experienced it, to a kind of torture.” I was wondering — it’s a two-part question, so I want to start with: Can you tell us a little bit more about this? Why do you feel like it should be likened to torture? Why do you feel that way?
Kate Manning 20:45
The op-ed starts with the sentence: “I’m going to talk about my bladder.” I prefer not to, but because these forces are out there trying to deprive women of bodily autonomy and the right to choose what’s best for themselves and for their families, and when to give birth. I really was brought up never to mention any of any of this. To use euphemisms. Not to talk about bodily functions. I’m very known in my family as really a rather prudish person in the sense that I use polite language the way most women have been raised to use.
So, I was so disturbed by the leaked draft and the looming inevitability that we would lose Roe and we would lose abortion rights in this country, state by state, I felt like my head was on fire, and I just poured out my own experiences with giving birth to three kids who I adore, and who were much wanted and very difficult to come by, I have to say. You know, a lot of women in my generation, just be straight, I had a lot of fertility problems, miscarriages. So I signed up for this. I signed up for the damage to the body that every woman who gives birth experiences. Some of it is minor, you know, some of it is just some stretch marks, so, you know, don’t complain about it, but the fact that we don’t talk about it, the fact that we use our physical experiences of childbirth, sort of the way you talk about sports injuries; I’m tough and I can take it, you know. I got really hit hard or the battle was tough, we got grazed by a couple bullets, but we’re tough and we can take it. Well, women are tough, and women have taken it and do take it and sign up for it because we love and adore children and we understand the responsibilities that come with raising children.
But giving birth hurts a lot and comes with grave risks to life and just to your anatomy. So I talked about my first caesarean, how I heard the doctor say, as I was being stitched up — it was an emergency cesarean for my first child — I heard the doctor say, put the bladder back in first, and I never forgot that. And like many women, after childbirth, postpartum, have bladder leakage, not to put too fine a point on it, and it’s only gotten worse with my three kids who are now grown, and it’s just something that you understand is a consequence. It’s just one of many, many. So this article that I wrote includes a lot of the injuries, and I think we need to tell these stories. We need to stop being reticent and just say this is what happened to me. This is what my experience was like giving birth. Hey, guys.
Sam Goldman 23:36
Yeah, I fully agree. It’s something that, again, as I said before, it’s something that we don’t come in contact with often, and honestly I think that many people are completely unaware of. I really appreciated — there are many parts, but — yet you wrote: “to expose abortion bans and restrictions for what they are — let’s call them what they are: forced birth laws or government mandated childbirth” This language centers the pregnant woman in the law, her suffering, the toll on her body. Then you go on to say “abortion foes who wave photos of bloody fetuses outside clinics, fetuses that could not survive outside a woman’s uterus, we who oppose the annihilation of our bodily autonomy ought to plaster state houses with photos of our [KM: episiotomies] — I can never say that word — our incisions, our caesareans and scars or intravenous line hematomas, our bloody postnatal sanitary pads and bloodstained bed sheets, our cracked nipples and infected breasts.”
I think that one of the reasons the women’s movement was so slow and weak to respond to the Dobbs decision, and in fact, in my opinion, to not act, full well knowing where this was headed before the decision, both as the draft was released and the actual decision had to do with this predefined approach, this mincing words approach going back decades. For instance, the insistence of framing the conversation as some abstract conversation about bodily autonomy, or some abstract conversation of choice. It glossed over, in my opinion, the very real stakes for women’s lives. I was wondering, is this part of why you wrote the piece? And what did you hope?
Kate Manning 25:28
I don’t know, I hoped that like a hail mary pass, a last ditch effort, somebody might read it and say, oh, gosh, I never thought of that. I don’t know. I didn’t pay attention to the Dobbs arguments, but I think there are constitutional arguments — I’m not a constitutional lawyer — that can be made about not just privacy, but about cruel and unusual punishment, about enforced servitude. Because if a woman chooses to have a child, if a couple chooses to have a child, that’s one thing.
But if the government is telling you that you must bear a child, that is completely different. Government mandated childbirth is forced birth, and we do need to use that language. I didn’t think it up. I’m not the first person to call it forced birth, but I think that to emphasize that to mandate this kind of law, which outlaws abortion, and outlaws a woman’s agency to choose whether or not to bear a baby, that is deeply important. If we don’t call it what it is, if we don’t understand that this mandates clinical instruments being inserted in a woman’s body, it mandates exams and medical interventions, and it mandates risk that can be quite extreme. We know it endangers a woman’s life.
Abortion is much safer than a colonoscopy. Abortion is much safer than childbirth. Those things have been talked about, but not discussed. These pictures that anti-choice people, anti-abortion people wave around, will be quite graphic, quite bloody, quite extreme, and we have been too polite to wave our own pictures because it’s gross. The pictures they wave around are gross. I took my kids to a march in Washington a long time ago. And I was upset that they saw those pictures, not because I thought that abortion was murdering a baby. I was upset because I thought that that was just a crass PR move that didn’t understand and didn’t explain and didn’t show the complexities. I think that’s what’s really missing. We don’t talk about the complexities of all of this and I wish we did.
Sam Goldman 27:44
I think that’s essential, and the discomfort that I feel people need to see in a visceral way, because what’s happening is so uncomfortable to millions who have had their bodies, their lives, their futures hijacked by the state. Those of us who were outside the Supreme Court with Rise Up for Abortion Rights, also held pictures of Becky Bell, who died in 1988 due to an illegal abortion that was the result of parent consent laws. We also held the picture of Rosa Jimenez who died in 1977 in Texas of an illegal abortion. She’s the first known woman to die because of the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated federal Medicaid funding for abortion, and I’ve had friends that have gone and done actions like pouring blood on the steps of City Hall for the blood that’s being poured by women being turned away.
Kate Manning 27:44
I think the courts are stymied for now and it will take a long time to move laws through the courts, but the state legislatures are perfectly able to backtrack. Today, or just recently, there was a Republican congressman in South Carolina who voted for the Heartbeat Bill in 2021, really, not really paying much attention to what it was. He was weeping this week to realize that one of his constituents, a 19 year old who was pregnant, the fetus was not viable, she could not get an abortion, and she — I could be wrong, but — she may have had to lose her uterus because of the complication of this pregnancy and she nearly died or she could have died. He was very upset to realize that this is what the law enabled because she couldn’t get help in her state; she couldn’t get medical help.
So I’m sorry that it’s come to this. I never thought in 2013 — I kept thinking: Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t live back then, in the old days. But then it turns out that everything old is new again, and we can’t be complacent, we can’t take this for granted, you just have to continue to push back.
Sam Goldman 30:02
I really appreciate the point that you’re making about complacency. I think oftentimes, we’ve comforted ourselves with the fact that we are the majority — that most people want/believe that abortion should be legal and that has been enough — and discounted, in some ways, the ferocity of a hate-filled, women-hating, patriarchal movement that doesn’t just want to slam women back 50 years, but whose cruelty knows no bounds. I think we both underestimated that, but we’ve also underestimated our responsibility in that context. Whatever else we do, I think what is is most decisive in this moment is calling forward that right now, still in many ways, silent majority of the decent people who care about the lives of women and girls, and who care about justice more broadly, to actually do what women did in Argentina and Mexico [KM: and Ireland] and Ireland and in Colombia, and to take to the streets en masse and enforce this demand in front of society.
Kate Manning 31:18
Look at what Act Up did. You have to look at what other protest works, and it has to go hand in hand with serious organizing to get out the vote. And education, absolutely, because the shame and stigma, not just about abortion but any aspect of the female body that isn’t all rosy Hallmark cards with bunnies and rabbits and pink and blue. It must be overcome by discussions of what isn’t entailed. I don’t think young people understand what they’ve lost and will more and more be hit with this reality. I can only hope that motivates change, because of the kind of protests they’re discussing.
But yeah, everything old is new again. In 1840s, Anthony Comstock burned some five tons of books, he banned 4 million photos, 4,000 arrests of journalists, doctors, booksellers, news clerks, editors. He had midwives arrested, he had abortionists arrested, and an art student arrested because she was posing as a model for the Art Students League. This was very puritanical, it was religious zealotry, and there’s a new book by Amy Sohn about him called “The Man Who Hated Women.” You have to see that impulse, that through line in history. Again, I’m not a historian. I’m a novelist, but you do see the line straight through from the puritanical days and the prudishness about discussing anything to do with the female body. I grappled with trying to understand it.
There’s another very good article about a pregnancy story, which I recommend if you haven’t seen it in the Atlantic Monthly and I’m looking for the name of the author. It’s wonderful. It talks about her experience and how she nearly died, how she was so sick during her pregnancy — a wanted pregnancy — he was itching constantly, she had something wrong with her. Doctors couldn’t understand it. She carried the pregnancy, determined, gave birth, but it was like a kind of torture, and that’s how she describes it. She chose it, but those stories are really important. We need to shout pregnancy and childbirth, too. We need to tell those stories, because everybody’s here because of them… they aren’t without.
Sam Goldman 33:38
I love that. I love that so much. Not that you sit around with a crystal ball, but because you do a lot of work, you know, looking back and doing historical fiction, I think that you also have a good sense of where things go. For those who are listening who may not know, one in four women will have an abortion by the time she’s 45 or so, and the majority of these are already mothers. I was wondering, what do you see as what’s to come?
Kate Manning 34:10
Well, I don’t know, but some causes for optimism are that abortion pills can be very easily obtained. Misoprostol and mifepristone can be taken, two pills, you can get them online and you should do so safely. You can do self-managed abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, and that is a huge, huge boon to women who otherwise wouldn’t have access to any kind of family birth control. You know, the morning after pill helps, so that’s a good thing.
But there are gathering storms trying to outlaw that, which harks back to Anthony Comstock. It’s the same playbook. Anthony Comstock Laws said you can’t send anything “obscene” through the US Mail, and that is the reason why so many people were arrested; because of pessaries and “French letters” and “remedies.” There were abortifacients in those days that women knew and found out through advertisements. All this is to say these things are cyclical, but if you’re not vigilant, it can get very serious very quickly and you can lose any ability even to resist without grave consequences.
So we see women and doctors being arrested and jailed, as Madame Restell was arrested and jailed back in the 1850s and 60s. So, do I know what’s going to happen? I hope that quickly, not over many decades, we will get back our rights to abortion. I think the path through the courts is very difficult, but the path through the state legislature and voting and protesting and really making our voices heard is the way to go. So I just hope it can happen sooner, rather than later before we lose generations of women who are going to be held back and imprisoned by this decision.
Sam Goldman 36:03
I think, turning to look at your book, because this connected with me a lot — it was published, again, as I said to listeners in 2013 — as Kate has talked about, it’s the story of an 18th century midwife, and how she is persecuted by anti-abortion, anti-birth control laws then. It’s based on the actual woman that Kate talked about Madame Restell, who built an extremely successful business in New York City during this era, who was similarly hounded by the patriarchal state and ended up committing suicide. One of the things that I loved about your book — there were many — is how dramatically you bring to life the terrible weight of shame that inflicted women then, and how awfully ignorant people were about their bodies.
You know, as you mentioned earlier in our conversation, this past week South Carolina Rep. Neil Collins made the news for the speech he gave that you’re mentioning where he’s just starting to realize that the forced birth laws that he’s consistently supported are resulting in women and girls being forced to carry non-viable pregnancies and risk death and permanent injury to themselves. This to me, it’s heartbreaking that 150 years later that ignorance is warring back. I was wondering if you had any more thoughts about that ignorance reasserting, and if there’s any factors that you see that cut…?
Kate Manning 37:23
I think that ignorance is the tool of these people who would like to drag us backwards. That’s why we’re seeing book bans, and that’s why we’re seeing books being yanked out of school libraries, and that’s why we’re seeing laws passed that say you can’t say “gay” and you can’t teach about sex. Ignorance is what causes all of this in my view. I think the more people know, the more information they have, the more able they are to understand the need for democracy. Really, we need to honor many perspectives.
I will say that the pro abortion side has been very careful, always, to say: We respect your choice, if you don’t want to have an abortion, don’t have an abortion. That’s your right to say. We’re not asking anyone, we’re not forcing anyone to terminate a pregnancy. But I wish there was similar respect coming from the other direction. I look at my own evolution when I first began to talk about this book in front of book clubs, and I’d see a group of women and I would guess that three out of 15 or two might have had pregnancy terminations. But I said pregnancy termination; I didn’t say abortion. Now I say abortion, and now the I talk about my bladder. I’ll talk about my bladder, I’ll talk about episiotomy, I’ll say what it is. I think that we really need to get over it, talk about it and stop being so prissy.
Sam Goldman 38:49
I think that the times demand it. We can’t afford to, as I said earlier, prettify the nub. I really value that. The major villain in your book you mentioned, is Anthony Comstock. He was the founder, the founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and namesake of the laws that outlawed the sale of birth control and abortion medication via mail. I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about what he represented then, and who his ideological descendants are today. Especially as there’s this renewed focus, as you mentioned, on the distribution of medication via mail, and whether those outlandish things he says in your book are actual quotes from the real man? I was curious about that as well.
Kate Manning 39:34
Most of the quotes about things Anthony Comstock said, I can’t remember off the top of my head, are things that he actually did say and the advertisements for abortifacients are actual advertisements, and the quotes from the wonderful trial of Caroline Ann Lohmann, aka Madame Restell, the renowned female physician, all of those are part of a transcript of a real trial that she was forced to sit through. But Comstock was a part of a Congregationalist family in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he was one of ten children. His beloved mother died in childbirth when he was ten. He was raised to hate demon rum, to pray many times a day. He wrote a lot in his diary about how he had sinned and sinned again. And we can only imagine it was the sin of self-abuse, as it was called euphemistically in those days.
Comstock was very upset when he joined the Union Army and saw soldiers smoking and cursing and drinking. He would charge into bars and smash them up. Then he was incensed at the sort of girly, juicy, dirty postcards that he saw soldiers using and he, through the YMCA, founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice — drinking, smoking, dancing, porn, all that stuff was vice, but especially birth control and abortion. So, he hounded a lot of people and everyone wanted him to go after Madame Restell, who was renowned for her practices helping the wealthy wives, mistresses, daughters, sisters of the elite in New York and everywhere.
I would say today, he has many, many descendants. The ghost of Anthony Comstock has been haunting us and has been reincarnated. One person I think of is actually James O’Keefe who — I can’t remember the name of his organization –, but he’s the guy who poses as one thing and goes in and springs a raid on somebody, you can probably tell me.
So he did this to an abortion clinic, I believe, and he often turns up at events, pretending to be one thing and is not. Comstock does the same thing. He went into Madame Restell’s parlor posing as a guy who was looking for some remedy for his wife so that she wouldn’t get pregnant again. You know, she had nearly died the last time she gave birth, and could Madame Restell help him? And when she gave him the birth control that she hoped would work, he came back with two police officers to arrest her. But he also brought a newspaper reporter so that they would record the moment of her being accosted. And he was after this kind of publicity and this kind of promotion in this kind of grandstanding. He talked about how she got what she deserved. When she didn’t show up on the morning of her trial, which happened to be on April 1st, it was because she had killed herself. She had seen the handwriting on the wall, she saw the laws were changing, she saw that she would go to jail again.
But in my novel, I imagined, well, what, if these rumors that she wasn’t really dead, that she had recorded all the names of all the important men whose wives and daughters and mistresses had used her services? What if she really wasn’t dead, and she was going to reveal all that? What if that was the real story? So that that was the sort of entree into the plot. So, yeah, he has a lot of Comstock-eries. It’s like Whack a Mole [chuckles]. Project Veritas.
Sam Goldman 41:42
Yeah, when I was thinking of the question and who I would say, I didn’t think of O’Keefe, so I love that was what you thought, because I thought about more of your classic — many people now are calling them Christian nationalists, I will continue to call them Christian fascists — that have existed. There’s many of those, but I think that there is also something about those who, no doubt have a very political agenda, but also have this opportunism and wanting to establish themselves as a brand through that process.
Kate Manning 43:45
Absolutely. The Republican Party under the first George Bush was pro-abortion rights, pro-choice. The Catholic Church nearly approved the birth control pill. It came this close to saying the birth control pill was a blessing because of how it helped women avoid the grave damage and destitution that having too many children brings upon them. I do think that a lot of it is grandstanding, a lot of it is not real religious belief, it’s just religious groupthink. I think that everything old is new again, but new with a power of the internet and surveillance and all of the things that come with technology. We could be in bigger trouble. some of it is is amazing, but I don’t like the ability of people to track doctors and the movements of people who need medical attention. Abortion is healthcare.
Sam Goldman 44:41
I agree abortion is healthcare, but it’s not only healthcare, and because of this, they’re not just going and bombing where women get mammograms or something like that. It’s health care, but it’s more than that. It’s about control. The human rights aspect of it, I think is critical, I feel.
Kate Manning 45:00
It’s human rights. It is a human right. All you have to do is go online and read letters to Margaret Sanger. Margaret Sanger has been challenged for her views on eugenics, but she was a model for us in many ways and the way she resisted these forces, and she was a visionary to ask what can be done to help women. These letters are desperate: “What can you do for me? Please help me. My husband abuses me. He’s a drunk, I can’t keep him away from me. I’ve already got many children. I have no one to take care of them. What can you do?”
It was this outpouring of desperation that women sent to her that got us the birth control pill — many forces. When you look at the history of, say, the Janes, there’s a new movie about the Jane Collective of feminist women who’ve learned to do abortions themselves. You see today many very, very brave abortion providers who are exhausted and doing everything they can to help women. They’re so compassionate, and they give as much care as can be allowed in their states. Then we have this huge movement to fund abortions for people who live in states that can’t get them. It’s all well and good to say I’m going to donate to this fund, and we should all do that, but it’s a stopgap measure. Charity is not justice. We don’t have a system that treats all people equally when it comes to this matter.
So if you live in Texas, please come to New York, please come to New Jersey, come to Connecticut, come to another state where abortion is legal and people can help you. But that’s expensive. Who takes care of your kids while you’re gone? As you said, most of the people who choose abortions are already moms, and they can’t do justice to their existing children, they can’t help them thrive if they have to spread themselves so thin, and spread their very thin resources among so many. The old woman who lived in a shoe was probably about that. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. So she gave them some soup without any bread. It’s always been thus, and we really, really need to tell our stories. That’s what I do. I just tell stories.
Sam Goldman 47:21
And you tell them beautifully, and with both measures of fire and compassion. Before we end, I want to talk about your new book. [KM: Oh, good.] I’ll give you an opportunity. Kate’s new book is forthcoming. It will be out in November and it is Gilded Mountain. I want you to tell us a little bit about it and what inspired you to write it.
Kate Manning 47:47
Okay, well, it’s a long story, so I hope you read it. I hope it’s another rip-roaring tale about the past which will help bring the past alive. I think of it as Downton Abbey set in the Colorado mountains in the deep snow and it has an element of labor uprising. That’s really what sparked me. I started looking at women like Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who were so out of character for their times. These women were so strong, and they really took on wealthy industrialists. They helped workers win the weekend, win the eight-hour day, win overtime, win health and safety measures and a living wage — just a way to make a good life.
Because in Colorado in those days, there were violent labor wars. There were government hired Pinkerton thugs, speeding up workers who just wanted a better life. So there’s that element in it, and it’s based on some true stories out of Colorado. I stumbled upon them when I found an old family photograph. The photograph showed some people in front of some mountains and I knew nothing about that. My father told me that one of them maybe was his grandfather that had something to do with working the marble for the Lincoln Memorial. And I went: Oh, I didn’t know that. I didn’t think much about it, but then I started to do some research and the stories that I found about newspaper wars — a female newspaper editor who was kicked out of her town for taking on the company.
I found a utopian community of African Americans, founded by people that were just trying to make a place for themselves to be safe from violence that was rampant during those times. It’s about a young girl who has big dreams and has been told to be quiet. Complaints are the seeds of misery, she says, but Mother Jones tells her — because Mother Jones is in the novel — No, you have it backwards. Complaints are not the seeds of misery. Misery is the seed of complaint, and you’ve got to start complaining. It’s not complaining, it’s speaking up. So that’s Gilded Mountain, and it’s two years in this little mountain town of Moonstone, Colorado. It really serves as a microcosm for all the things that were going on at that time: stock market crash, monument building, and the questions of what do we honor and who and why. So I hope you’ll pick it up, I hope, I hope it is on some lists.
Sam Goldman 50:27
I can’t wait to finish reading it, and I want all my listeners to go to the show notes, you’ll find more about Gilded Mountain, so you can pre-order and all that good stuff. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective and expertise and stories with us. I’m going to put it in the show notes, your Washington Post piece so folks go check it out, along with a link to more on where you can get ‘My Notorious Life’ in addition to ‘Gilded Mountain’. Is there any other place that you want to direct people to if they want to read more from you or follow your work?
Kate Manning 51:11
I have a website, KateManningAuthor.com, and my sporadic journalism is there. I’ve written some more on on abortion rights and on the Janes and some other things. Thank you so much, Sam, it’s really a privilege to get to talk about my work. You stay in your in your writer’s cubbyhole and don’t talk to people about it for many, many years, as each book takes about six or seven years. So it’s really a privilege, really a privilege to talk to you about it and to understand your objective in promoting free expression and democracy. So thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Sam Goldman 51:46
Access to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental right — one we’ve gotta fight for. I’ve gotta be real: It can’t be fought for simply by, as Biden says, delivering more seats and relying on the Democrats to get it done. None of the major advances for the oppressed in this country have ever been won solely by voting. Just this past week, we marched in this country, the anniversary of women’s suffrage; the right to vote. A victory that was not won by voting, but through tremendous struggle in the streets.
The simple truth is that progress for the oppressed has always required stepping outside of politics as usual and waging disruptive and determined resistance. What the formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass said all the way back in 1857 remains true today: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” For too long, people who care about abortion rights have taken the lead of the Democratic Party as it sought so-called common ground with the Christian fascists who were assaulting abortion rights, terrorizing clinics, bombing clinics, killing doctors.
For many years, the Democrats insisted that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare,” as if there’s something wrong or shameful and people deciding for themselves when and whether to have a child. And when it became clear that the Supreme Court was on track to overturn abortion — because let’s be real, it didn’t come out of nowhere — the Democratic Party and most of the official pro-choice movement didn’t even attempt to fight it, focusing instead on preparing for a post Roe world. Recently, when an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution was up for a vote in Kansas, the Democrats led with a strategy of downplaying the question of abortion and instead adopted language popularized by the anti-mask, anti-vaccine movements.
While it is positive that this particular amendment was defeated, this defensive messaging cedes the moral high ground to the anti-abortion movement, as they escalate their attacks nationwide. Democratic politicians preach a realism of simply working within this new reality. They tell us to dig in for the long haul of the electoral process or to focus on protecting abortion in a few states, helping women induce their own abortions or helping women travel across state lines. Whatever their intent, this allows the Christian fascist juggernaut to continue to advance and capitulate to a growing nightmare.
Whatever else we do — because I’m not telling you not to vote, what I’m telling you is, whatever else we do — what is key is calling forward this fury of all those who love justice to fill the streets and reverse this whole direction. We’ve gotta go into the streets and raise the uncompromising slogans that Forced Motherhood Is Female Enslavement, to demand legal abortion on demand and without apology. Doing this can set new terms throughout society, arouse and involve growing numbers of furious women, non-binary folks, trans men, every single person who cares about justice, and compel those in power to respond to our demands.
With that, I want to thank you for listening to Refuse Fascism. Our next episode, will mark our 125th — milestone — and we want to feature your voice. Share your thoughts with us on being part of a community, refusing to allow fascism to grow and dominate and terrorize humanity in the United States. Post a video and tag us @RefuseFascism. Or leave us a voicemail by visiting anchor.fm/Refuse-Fascism and hitting the message button there. You might even hear yourself on next week’s show. We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts, questions, ideas for topics or guests, or lend a skill. Tweet me at @SamBGoldman or drop me a line at [email protected]
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