Brodie, Janet Farrell

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BRODIE, Janet Farrell


Female. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A.; University of Chicago, Ph.D.


Office—History Department, Centers for the Arts and Humanities, Claremont Graduate University, 121 East Tenth St., Claremont, CA 91711; fax: 909-607-1221. E-mail—[email protected]


Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, associate professor of history, chair of department.


Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1994.

(Editor, with Marc Redfield) High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction (essay collection), University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2002.


Cultures of Secrecy in Cold War Los Angeles.


Janet Farrell Brodie's field of interest is United States social and cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and she teaches women's history, Cold War history, gender history, and United States environmental history.

Brodie's Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America is a study of the period during which family size declined from 7.04 to 3.56 persons and of the conditions, advances, and actions that were responsible for this decline. Brodie examines the influences of American contraceptive pioneers like Robert Dale Owen, whose Moral Physiology (1831) advocated withdrawal by the male, and physician Charles Knowlton, whose controversial Fruits of Philosophy (1831) promoted douching. During the nineteenth century, Americans adopted European birth control devices, including the sponge, and the condom became more popular when Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization of rubber. The rhythm method, which relies on abstinence during a woman's fertile period, also was widely used, although not necessarily effectively, due to a general lack of knowledge about the female reproductive cycle.

Etienne Van De Walle commented in the Population and Development Review that although much of this history has already been documented, Brodie adds considerably to it, including her close examination of the characters involved and their backgrounds. Van De Walle felt that the book's primary contribution is in its review of the means of circulation of birth control information: "self-help literature and sexual advice pamphlets, circulars advertising products, traveling salesmen and quacks peddling their particular brand of contraceptive snake oil, and lurid advertisements for condoms, women's contraceptive devices, and abortions contained in specialized periodicals such as New York City's Sporting Times and Theatrical News." The message of reproductive control was spread by reformers and other free thinkers both in print and through the lecture circuits that addressed audiences throughout the country.

Among these nineteenth-century reformers was Frances Wright, who in 1825 used her own fortune to establish Nashoba, an interracial community in Tennessee, to which she brought slaves that she had bought and set free. According to Brodie, the stigma of extramarital pregnancy was so strong during this period that when Wright became pregnant out of wedlock, she could not continue her life work amid the public scandal that ensued. Harriet K. Hunt, who was denied admission to Harvard Medical School, lectured under the auspices of the Ladies Physiological Society of Boston. Following the Civil War, female lecturers increasingly tied voluntary motherhood to women's rights.

According to Brodie, the birth control devices that were promoted during the nineteenth century included syringes, drugs, medicated sponges, rubber devices, and pills, and since many of these had medical or hygienic purposes, they were tolerated. Vaginal hygiene, for example, can be the end goal of douching, condoms were considered to be prophylactics (or devices used to prevent disease), and large doses of medications that regulated menstrual periods could cause abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Little is known about contraceptive use in the population at large, and a study of university wives from 1892 to 1912 is perhaps the most complete survey of methods used. Brodie does write of the diary of a Mary Poor, who from 1845 to 1868 noted both her menstrual periods and dates of intercourse.

As Brodie notes, things changed in 1870 with the passing of the restrictive Comstock laws. Under the new rulings, the dissemination of birth control information became illegal and subsequently went underground. Brodie contends that the population, which was making strides in birth control and family planning, did little to oppose the new rules because of the "commercial aspects of reproductive control," noted Van De Walle, "and … the influence of social purity reformers who placed contraception in the same bag as gambling, drinking, lotteries, prostitution, and child labor. To many feminists, contraception appeared to have the potential of unleashing male sexuality; male moralists thought that reproductive freedom would lead to women's rejection of their natural roles as wives and mothers."

In addition, medical professionals felt threatened by the advice-givers, and the American Medical Association (AMA) first rallied against abortion, then extended their opposition to contraception. In doing so, they also purged the reproductive advice arena of all "irregular physicians"—which mostly meant women, since none had yet to be admitted to any American medical school. As Wendy Chavkin noted in the Lancet, in Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, "Brodie informs us about forgotten, courageous people like the reproductive control advocates who pressed on with their convictions and helped transform the modern age." Van De Walle concluded by saying that "this is a fascinating story, and it is told here with passion and intelligence."

Regina G. Kunzel of the Women's Review of Books wrote that Brodie's "insights into nineteenth-century meanings of contraception and abortion … are not without significance for current struggles. Recent assaults on Roe v. Wade have warned us against contrasting the 'dark ages' with a progressive present, and Brodie offers additional caution against viewing the history of reproductive control as one of steady and linear progress."

Brodie and Marc Redfield collaborated on High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction, which features essays on the psychology of addiction, the relationship between opium and the British Empire's efforts to control and stigmatize China, alcohol abuse as reflected in Victorian novels, the representation of drug use in film, and smoking. Richard Broderick noted in the Ruminator Review that in the Western world, the word "addiction" is now applied to compulsions unrelated to drugs, including shopping, sex, eating, and gambling. He also noted that "the link between addiction and morality seems peculiar to the West."



Booklist, April 15, 1994, William Beatty, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 1488.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, fall, 1996, Jane Sherron De Hart, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 343.

Journal of Social History, fall, 1995, Steven Mintz, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 192.

Lancet, August 23, 1997, Wendy Chavkin, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 598.

Population and Development Review, June, 1996, Etienne Van De Walle, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 375.

Ruminator Review, spring, 2003, Richard Broderick, review of High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction, p. 15.

Women's Review of Books, September, 1994, Regina G. Kunzel, review of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 23.*

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Brodie, Janet Farrell

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