3.22.2013

Dr. Bessie

From Alan Graebner, Birth Control and the Lutherans—The Missouri Synod as a Case Study, Journal of Social History, Vol. 2, No. 4, Summer 1969, pages 320-22:
"In this case he [Rehwinkel] was much aided by his wife, a remarkable woman trained as a physician who was practicing medicine and homesteading in Wyoming when she met Rehwinkel. She had grown up Methodist; thus, “when you told her something was wrong, she wanted to know why, and you couldn't just quote Walther [the Synod's patriarch] to her.” Impatience with ultraconservative standards of woman's role, inquiring skepticism and professional medical competence were highly corrosive; by the early 1940's Alfred Rehwinkel was exploring a new position before groups of pastors and occasionally laymen (Alfred M. Rehwinkel, Dr. Bessie, CPH, 1963; interview, Alfred Rehwinkel, June 21, 1967. For a report of one appearance before laymen, see Lutheran Layman, XVIII, 1947, 25). In such sessions, Rehwinkel provided a sympathetic history of family restriction, explicitly defending the much maligned Margaret Sanger. To dispel intimations that contraception was murder, he explained the mechanics of conception and tried to vitiate the simplistic equating of race suicide and birth control."

©1963, CPH
In an attempt to learn more about this "remarkable woman," today I read Dr. Bessie, the 168 page biography about Dr. Alfred M. Rehwinkel's wife coauthored by the husband and wife team. 

The first 92 pages of the book paint a picture of a rather progressive woman doctor who has plenty of experience that would make one sympathetic to the notion that birth control could be a blessing - at least for some.  I was surprised and pleased, however, to see this perspective tempered somewhat in the second half of the book. 

The changing culture of the Twentieth Century, perhaps like others, seems punctuated by the tension between the beliefs, traditions, and sentiments of the past and the perceived challenges of the modern age.  These same tensions are clearly evident in each of these two Rehwinkel books, Dr. Bessie and Planned Parenthood

There is a certain level of respect, though brief, given to the traditional values and beliefs of the past by these authors.  However, the overall works both form more of an apology for the progressive agenda. Any defense of the right perspective gets only a few sentences and is outweighed by the overall force of the balance of their writings.

In the beginning of the book, we learn of an ambitious young daughter of a physician.  She is engaged to a banker's son.  However, the advice of a "motherly friend and neighbor" named "Mrs. Bensen" dissuades her from this prospect:  "Bessie, why don't you go to college and study medicine?"  Bessie writes:

"I had thought about it so much, but never had the courage to discuss it with anyone else, not even with my father.  ...For a moment my spirits dropped again, fearing that he might not agree.  How terrible that would be!  All my hopes and dreams would again be shattered.  It would mean that I would get married like other girls and settle down to the humdrum life of a married woman in a small town.  There would be nothing else to look forward to." 

She approaches her father, who tries to change her mind, but Bessie's ambitions win out and the father gives in with the words:  "Very well, you're old enough to know what you want to do."

The next two chapters are all about her difficulties in school and as a new young woman doctor.  At the end of chapter III, she relates the difficulties of delivering babies in those days, but at the same time explaining that "it seems that women were hardier that they are now.  The laws of nature are designed for the survival of the race.  After all, the Creator had ordained for man to increase and multiply long before there were any doctors, nurses, or hospitals."  There's one of those points of tension in the book I was talking about.

Next we learn about a few tragedies that strike Bessie's life.  Her brother's wife develops an infection after the birth of her fifth child and dies.  However, before her death she prays in Bessie's presence:  "O Lord, I know that Bessie will not let my children come to want.  Help her and bless her for what she will do for them."

Only a few months later Bessie's brother dies, leaving the children orphaned.  So what does Bessie do?  She finds a woman willing to take care of the baby and another sister takes the other boy.  She finds another woman to take care of the youngest of three girls (2 years old), paying her for room and board.  And the older two girls she puts in "a Home" (orphanage?).

Then, only a few months after her brother dies, Bessie's latest fiance (who she hasn't mentioned yet up to this point) dies.  To get away from all the tragedy she moves to another town.  Her conscience then gets the best of her and she returns to rescue the two oldest girls from the orphanage, bringing them home to live with her.  Bessie writes:

"When my relatives found out what I had done, they were not at all encouraging but rather criticized me as having acted impulsively and undertaken a foolhardy venture.  Even my father warned that I was taking on something far beyond my ability.  He spoke from experience, because in his second marriage he had married a widow with several children, and he knew what it meant to assume such a responsibility." 

Then, as a result of the banking crisis and economic problems of 1907, Bessie suffers financial ruin.  But, before relating the events that followed this she interrupts an otherwise chronological story to relate some of the "unpleasant experiences" she had in the early days of her practice.  And, again, she returns to the subject of procreation.  As a general doctor, her stories seem to overemphasize some of the most negative obstetrical scenarios one could think of.  It is easy to see how these experiences made a very deep impression on Bessie that was obviously part of the thinking she and her husband had about birth control.  Here is the thrust of the first story:

"The unfaithful husband and father of the 12 children had contracted gonorrhea from some prostitute in the city while his wife was in the last stages of pregnancy or in the early days after her confinement, and then, before she was able to leave her bed, he had infected her with this dread disease." 

The next story is about abortion.  A young woman who is engaged gets pregnant, but her fiance dies and then she wants an abortion.  While she counsels this young woman in a prolife manner, Bessie follows this story up with the following words: 

"Cases like this demonstrated to me again and again the unfairness of society in dealing with moral delinquents.  The man, equally guilty, in most cases no doubt more so, remains anonymous.  He goes free and may continue to wreck other girls, but the girl must bear the consequences alone and is branded for life."

It is clear that the Rehwinkels would never have approved of abortion. However, as usual, hard cases make bad law. You can see how any practical discussions Bessie and Alfred had about birth control would have favored the likes of Margaret Sanger and the acceptance of birth control. This book about Bessie is completely consistent with Alfred's book Planned Parenthood.

So, back to the life of Bessie, she moves out west to Wyoming.  Here we learn again about some of the more deplorable conditions in which women give birth and in which doctors must deliver babies.  Yet, after a long chapter detailing a laundry list of negatives, Bessie writes perhaps the most unexpected words I found in this entire book:

"But I survived, and so did my patients despite all these hardships and disadvantages.  All of which proves again that man by nature is a pretty tough creature.  Man was intended to survive and multiply even under the most unfavorable conditions.

"The fact is that even today the greatest number of human beings are born into the world under circumstances far more primitive than we had on the Western frontier in those days.  The greatest increase in population still occurs in countries where they know nothing of modern hospitals, sanitation, or even doctors.

"Only we of the Western world have all these luxuries and conveniences, and we are growing soft, lazy, and fat.

"It will remain for history to determine whether the soft and pampered materialistic generation of our age will be able to preserve the wonderful heritage that has been passed on to them by their more rugged and less favored forefathers." 

Bessie, a Methodist, ends up meeting a young Lutheran vicar, whom she marries, leaving her medical practice behind and moving to Canada, having three children of her own, and ending up in St. Louis.  There's a lot of good story-telling in there, but I guess I'll leave that for those of you who want to read the book for yourself.  The important point for the sake of the subject this QF group is most concerned with is explained in Bessie's own words, summing up this latter portion of her life as follows:

"I discovered that there are greater things in the life of a woman than a professional success.  A woman may succeed in a man's profession and enjoy the independence of a career, but she remains a woman still.  And I learned that to be the wife of a good man and devoted husband and a mother of loving children is infinitely greater than the success in a profession... There is nothing greater in the life of a woman than motherhood." 

That's not the "moral of the story" I expected to hear from Bessie and Alfred Rehwinkel, but I like it!

However, while these early feminists like Bessie Rehwinkel often still saw motherhood as the "crowning achievement" of a woman's life, it was more like the frosting on a cake that would be "humdrum with nothing else to look forward to" without the "cake" of all the other achievements a woman should enjoy before ever getting married, and continue doing after the banner of motherhood has been won with one, two, or at most three, children. Then she can stand proud in any group of women, silently despising all the lesser women who "never went to college."

No, motherhood is not the frosting on the cake. It is the cake! - a cake that is so sweet and delicious it needs no frosting. Unfortunately, this leaves it less appealing to the eye. It also is known to bring pain and anguish. All the other achievements in a woman's life are like all the other dainty and tempting deserts at the table that can be sampled at a party. There's nothing necessarily wrong with these other deserts, per se, especially if the cake is not available at this or that time.

However, after sampling these other deserts, a woman often does not have the appetite or the ability to recognize or fully enjoy what is actually the best cake on the table, or else she is already so full that she only takes a few bites before she can eat no more. Sometimes the party is over before she has a chance to try it. Many enjoy the other fine deserts so much that they refuse to consider that ugly looking cake that doesn't have any frosting, even going so far as spitting it in the trash if they unexpectedly find it in their mouths.

7 comments:

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Addendum added later:

While these early feminists like Bessie Rehwinkel often still saw motherhood as the "crowning achievement" of a woman's life, it was more like the frosting on a cake that would be "humdrum with nothing else to look forward to" without the "cake" of all the other achievements a woman should enjoy before ever getting married, and continue doing after the banner of motherhood has been won with one, two, or at most three, children. Then she can stand proud in any group of women, silently despising all the lesser women who "never went to college."

No, motherhood is not the frosting on the cake. It is the cake! - a cake that is so sweet and delicious it needs no frosting. Unfortunately, this leaves it less appealing to the eye. It also is known to bring pain and anguish. All the other achievements in a woman's life are like all the other dainty and tempting deserts at the table that can be sampled at a party. There's nothing necessarily wrong with these other deserts, per se, especially if the cake is not available at this or that time.

However, after sampling these other deserts, a woman often does not have the appetite or the ability to recognize or fully enjoy what is actually the best cake on the table, or else she is already so full that she only takes a few bites before she can eat no more. Sometimes the party is over before she has a chance to try it. Many enjoy the other fine deserts so much that they refuse to consider that ugly looking cake that doesn't have any frosting, even going so far as spitting it in the trash if they unexpectedly find it in their mouths.

Dalas said...

Thank you for bringing light to this issue. So many (even confessional Lutheran) women that I know find absolutely nothing wrong with early feminism.

It is the same thing as modern feminism, simply in its infancy! It was more mild, but it contains the same poison. People don't understand this. Which is not surprising, considering you can't publicly speak against the women's "civil rights" movement without being labeled crazy.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

There are those who disagree with my cake analogy, claiming it is a false dichotomy to say that these other deserts are competitors to the wonderful cake of motherhood. They say:

"The error of the feminist is to see these cake ingredients as separate and competing goods. Thus they hold motherhood in diminished regard. The error on the other side is effectively to buy the feminist view that these things, because they may be viewed as competitors with motherhood, are in fact merely competitors with motherhood and not potential ingredients to the cake that may make the mother even more 'sweet and delicious,' even more effective as wife, mother, homemaker, etc."

I don't consider it a false dichotomy. I reject the earlier form of feminism, which is the same position put forth in the above quote where these are all seen as potential ingredients that enhance motherhood.

I find it an offense to motherhood when it is said that these other things make a woman "even more effective as wife, mother, homemaker, etc." I also find it offensive when it is said that "going to college, earning a degree, and having some experience outside the home make someone a better wife and mother than she would have been otherwise."

These sentiments I have heard many times from well-meaning friends directly imply that my own mother, my mother-in-law, to some degree my own wife, the majority of mothers throughout history, and the future mothers my own daughters will be, were and will be "worse" and "less effective" mothers than they could have been if they had engaged in these other things.

If one thing is seen as "better" and "more effective", the other is necessarily "worse" and "less effective."

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

To clarify, the other deserts are not forbidden fruits. The "false dichotomy" language is not an accurate description of my argument.

My position is more a matter of seeing all these things as distinct entities. They all may be of benefit to the woman, but I refuse to say that any of these other things make a woman a better mother.

Motherhood is distinct from these other aspirations of women, though motherhood obviously may affect the other aspirations as much as the other aspirations may affect motherhood. These other things are not, however, necessarily mutually exclusive of Christian motherhood.

I make no false dichotomy here and am not criticizing those women who have done more things than be mothers, and especially not those who have not been able to be mothers.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

"Desserts", that is. ;-)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Perhaps our biggest concern here should be choosing words in speaking about these issues in a way that treats other individuals with due respect.

I think it would be more respectful to speak of these other things in life as perhaps making a mother "different" than she would be otherwise, and "different" from other mothers in this or that regard. "Different" doesn't necessarily mean "better" or "worse." In the same way, saying that something "affects" something else does not, in and of itself, necessarily mean that it makes something better or worse. It may, but a great deal of potential offense is avoided if language is chosen prudently.

I feel the same way about describing a "person" with regard to their level of education. A liberal education may make a person "different" than they would be otherwise. There are potential benefits, but also potential detriments to everything in life, including the obtaining of a liberal education.

However, it can very easily be heard as disrespect for those who do not have a liberal education, and also sound like a certain degree of arrogance, to speak of a liberal education making someone a "better person" than they would be otherwise. Such statements of being "better" can and do cause offense, even when no such offense is intended.

There are certainly a lot of benefits to being wealthy or beautiful, but it is offensive and arrogant to say that these make one a "better person".

Gregory K. Laughlin said...

One thing that stood out to me in this account is the anti-child mentality which Bessie and her family had as regards her orphaned nieces and nephews. Yes, for a time she took on the task of rearing her nieces, but her family thought it too great a burden to bear for her (and apparently for themselves) and thought the better course was placing them, or at least some of them, in an orphanage.

I can think of several instances in my own family's history in which orphans were reared by extended family members. One stands out in particular. My paternal grandmother was one of nine children who reached adulthood (two others died before the age of three). After the birth of their third child (my grandmother), my great-grandmother's mother died, leaving three minor children, the half-siblings of my great-grandmother (whose own father had died when she was very young). My great-grandparents took in these three orphans and reared them to adulthood. My great-grandparents were not very well-off and I'm sure it was a burden, but they did not send off these orphans to an orphanage. Suddenly, they went from a household with three children to one with six. A lot of folks even then probably would have counseled that this was enough. Yet, they welcomed into the world eight more children of their own.

Dr. Bessie and her family's reaction to the orphaned children of her brother illustrate that the contraceptive mentality already infected them before she became an advocate of contraception. That attitude is that the burden of rearing children outweighs the blessing. In the end, that is the attitude that forms the foundation of the contraceptive mentality and it is a direct rejection of God's word to the contrary, in which He declares that children are a blessing from Him and that those to whom He gives many children are particularly blessed. It is not surprising, then, that Dr. Bessie and her husband came to support contraception given that she and her family, at least, already held the attitude behind it.