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.