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Mary Gove Nichols is hardly a mainstay of American history texts, but why she isn’t is something of a mystery. After rebounding from an emotionally tormenting first marriage, Nichols (1810-1884) became a leading lecturer on what was, in her day, not the most fashionable of topics: women’s equality.
Nichols alternately awed and scandalized Victorian-era audiences with frank lectures on sexuality and the female anatomy. She promoted “free love,” a philosophy she defined modestly as the right of women stuck in loveless marriages to divorce and remarry. And she founded a medical school in New York City to promote bold new concepts that were scoffed at by the medical establishment, including such now-commonplace notions as cleanliness, vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and caffeine, and the wearing of comfortable clothing. (It was, after all, the age of the corset.)
Author Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt first ran across a reference to Nichols while working toward her Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. “It seemed implausible that I had never heard of her,” says Silver-Isenstadt, 34. But not even the growth of women’s studies as an academic discipline had managed to rescue Nichols from obscurity.
Intrigued, Silver-Isenstadt decided to write her dissertation about Nichols and her supportive husband, Thomas Low Nichols. A book version of her work—Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols—has recently been published.
“I would have enjoyed meeting her,” Silver-Isenstadt says. “She was so passionate. She called a spade a spade and was very insightful. She could look at who was getting screwed by the system and help change it. She wasn’t a weakling. I always admire that in somebody.”
Silver-Isenstadt—who this spring will graduate with a medical degree from the University of Maryland and plans to become a psychiatrist—was impressed that Nichols articulated a notion along the lines of “The personal is political” a century before the feminist movement of the 1960s. Nichols sought to provide women with basic information about their bodies, something they could learn almost nowhere else. Moreover, her dissents from contemporary medical assumptions were later proved correct; Nichols argued that such accepted treatments as bloodletting and mercury-based medicines did more harm than good, and
she was right.
Why Nichols has been relegated to the footnotes of history is curious—but it may have to do with an irreconcilable contradiction that has flummoxed historians. Toward the end of her life, Nichols converted to Catholicism, thus adopting a conservative religion that barred divorce. Another reason for Nichols’ near disappearance, Silver-Isenstadt speculates, may be because Nichols didn’t embrace the suffrage movement. For many historians, suffrage has been the main prism for viewing 19th-century women’s history; Nichols expressed ambivalence about suffragists.
“Nichols felt that for men to give up the vote was a relatively small concession,” Silver-Isenstadt says. “She felt that sexual equity and freedom was a much more important right. If you were the property of your husband, that mattered a lot more than your right to vote.” —Louis Jacobson