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Recovering Women’s Reproductive Lives, One Mutilated Record at a Time

by Catherine Prendergast

Catherine Prendergast is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Fulbright Scholar. Her latest book and first work of narrative nonfiction is The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle that Shook America.

In 2017, I stumbled upon a searing letter by poet Nora May French to her boyfriend, in which she confesses she is aborting her pregnancy by him. The letter, written in 1907, was located in the papers of that boyfriend, literary journal editor Henry Anderson Lafler, in the Bancroft Library of UC Berkeley. Remarkably, French wrote it while she was self-administering her abortion. She explained to Lafler that she had bought the pills the previous Friday, taken them on Saturday, and was on Sunday finally feeling the cramps that suggested the end of her pregnancy was near. The pain she was in as she wrote was evident not only in her description of having to suppress screams, but also in her handwriting; her pencil nearly etched the paper. FOR MORE

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