Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Mary Thompson

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Mary Thompson[edit | edit source]

Mary Thompson
BornMary Medlin
circa 1902
OccupationUnemployed, Housewife
SpouseDaughtery Thompson
PartnerHarry Wilson
ChildrenElizabeth and James Thompson

Overview[edit | edit source]

Mary Thompson was interviewed by Mary Hicks on December 13th, 1938 for the Federal Writers' Project. She was born circa 1902 and was a white, unemployed woman who relied financially on her various romantic partners. By age thirty-six, the time of her Federal Writers’ Project interview, she would have had five romantic partners—something unique to the time period.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Mary Thompson, then Mary Medlin, was born circa 1902 to James and Arlene Medlin.[1] She claimed her parents spoiled her, so when she stopped going to school in fifth grade, her parents were supportive. She married Daughtery Thompson when she was fourteen, and a year later, gave birth to their daughter, Elizabeth. After the painful childbirth, Thompson grew discontent in her marriage and began to have affairs. The explanation for these affairs was she “simply couldn’t get enough of love.”[2]

Later Life[edit | edit source]

The couple lived with Thompson’s parents, and although Daughtery worked at the sawmill, Thompson received the majority of his salary to spend on clothing for herself.[2] Thompson became pregnant through her affair with James Harris and named the child James after him. Daughtery soon discovered the affair and attempts to murder Harris, leading Harris to end the affair out of fear. Daughtery refused to give Thompson a divorce, so, to anger him, she began to openly bring lovers to their home. The marriage came to an end when Daughtery physically assaulted her, causing Thompson to force him from her life. After, Thompson dated numerous men; however, she refused to bear children with any other man. Eventually, Thompson moved to Raleigh, North Carolina with Harry Wilson, her partner at the time of the interview with the Federal Writers’ Project.

This is a fire insurance map from Sanborn Fire Insurance. The area blocked as "62" contains the location of where Mary Thompson was interviewed, presumably her home.[3]

Wilson paid for her treatment when Thompson was diagnosed with cancer in her womb. Doctors credited the cancer to her dozens of abortions which are inferred to be a result of her reluctance to bear more children. With the era’s universal lack of access to contraceptives and Nativism that encouraged white women to bear children, Thompson would have experienced trouble accessing any type of contraceptive. The couple was not exempt from the financial trouble of the Great Depression and they were barely scraping by. After overcoming cancer, Thompson was too weak to work and came from a working-class family that granted her a minimal inheritance. Wilson only made $20 a week from a working-class job, making their combined wealth less than adequate. Despite the financial strain, the couple was portrayed as a loving relationship.[4]

Thompson retained a relationship over the years with Elizabeth, her first-born, but it was tense. Elizabeth, following her mother’s footsteps, had relationships with many men and was married off just after she began showing in her pregnancy.[5] Thompson is disdainful of Elizabeth’s actions, despite the irony of it. James, the son, was able to finish high school while the daughter dropped out when was sixteen, so there was clear favoritism for James by Thompson.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression and Women's Lives in the 1920s[edit | edit source]

North Carolina, like many other states in the Great Depression, faced serious financial loss in the 1930s. North Carolina saw a decrease in manufacturing value by over 50% in 1933 .[6] The state was primarily affected by the deflation of crop prices, yet this affected the banking sector, causing the entire state to be impacted.[6] In addition, by 1933 in North Carolina, “27 out of every 100 persons were on relief”.[6]

Before the Great Depression, women were seeing great strides in the women’s rights movement; however, in North Carolina, women were still facing obstacles. Women could only attend a select number of colleges, primarily women’s or private colleges.[7] North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted their first female students in 1921, yet it was not a welcoming space.[7] In addition to their educational obstacles, many women were unemployed in America. In the 1920s, “only about 15 percent of white… with wage-earning husbands held paying jobs”.[7] The low employment was credited to the beliefs at the time that employed women were taking jobs away from men if their husbands worked.

Reproductive Rights of the Early Twentieth Century[edit | edit source]

All women, even white women, faced restrictions over their reproductive rights in the early twentieth century. The birth control movement began in the 1920s; however, there was not widespread access to contraceptives. In the 1920s, the state and federal laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives were beginning to be lifted, yet the “American Medical Association’s ban on medically dispense contraceptive advice remained intact”.[8] In addition, the Comstock Law of 1876, which made the advertisement of contraceptives illegal, had lasting effects on the validity and safety of the types of contraceptives available.[9] Contraceptives were out of reach for many women. Furthermore, even when women did have access to contraceptives, the ban on medical advice and years of restrictions caused the products on the market to often be dangerous.

With the lack of access to safe and effective contraceptives, abortions were vital. Some even claim, in the 1920s, “working class women did not make a distinction between contraceptives and abortion”.[10] This was mostly due to the public’s acceptance of abortion as a necessity. In the early twentieth century, abortions were done quietly by physicians and midwives, yet by the 1930s abortion was increasingly found in the hands of medical professionals.[11]

Despite the public’s acceptance of abortion, those who disagreed, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), worked to reduce accessibility. There were bans and lobbying, yet one of the most effective strategies was fear. Doctors linked abortion to uterine cancer, despite the lack of real evidence. A doctor in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed, “it can be understood how the trauma incident to an abortion self-induced, with a crochet hook, pencil or some other instrument, could furnish the necessary conditions for the starting point of cancer”.[12] The AMA was a prominent supporter of the anti-abortion movement because of their monopoly over child delivery and Nativist ideology, and to enforce their ideals, they utilized fear and bans, especially regarding white women.

American Nativism[edit | edit source]

From a Ku Klux Kan book, Guardians of Liberty, this is an example of Nativism. A common fear among Nativists was the Catholic Church was trying to influence American politics through the influx of Catholic, primarily Irish, immigrants.[13]

Despite the public’s acceptance of abortion, the American Medical Association (AMA), alongside others, founded an anti-abortion campaign that, at its core, was racism. Nativism is used to “describe Americans who opposed demographic change in what was then a predominantly white, Anglo-Protestant nation”.[14] It is characterized by anti-immigrant beliefs and the advancement of the Anglo-Protestant race. White birth rates decreased while immigrants’ birthrates increased which caused Nativists to panic and begin encouraging white women to give birth. In the mid-1800s, the peak of Nativism, the AMA launched an anti-abortion campaign that specifically restricted wealthy white women’s access to contraceptives.[15] Nativism targeted white women’s reproduction because wealthy and middle-class white women were restricting the number of children they bore while immigrants were not.

References[edit | edit source]

Abrams, Douglas C, and Randall E Parker. “Great Depression.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/great-depression.

Benner, Louise. “Women in the 1920s in North Carolina.” Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History, 2004. https://www.ncpedia.org/history/20th-Century/1920s-women.

Caron, Simone M. "Race Suicide, Eugenics, and Contraception, 1900–1930." In Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History since 1830. University Press of Florida, 2008. Florida Scholarship Online, 2011. doi: 10.5744/florida/9780813031996.003.0003.

Kleinfeld, Rachel, and John Dickas. Resisting the Call of Nativism: What U.S. Political Parties Can Learn From Other Democracies. Report. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2020. 3-7. Accessed October 22, 2020. doi:10.2307/resrep24292.5.

Quigley, D T. “The Relation of Abortion to Cancer of the Uterus.” The Journal of American Medical Association XLVIII (7), 1907: 625. doi:10.1001/jama.1907.02520330067016.

Reagan, Leslie J.. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Accessed October 7, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Thompson, Lauren M. “Women Have Always Had Abortions.” The New York Times, December 13, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/13/opinion/sunday/abortion-history-women.html?searchResultPosition=2.

Thompson, Mary. “The Thompson Family.” Interview by Hicks, Mary A., December 13, 1938, Folder 280, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Tone, Andrea. "Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s." Journal of Social History 29, no. 3 (1996): 485-506. Accessed October 5, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3788942.

  1. Thompson, “The Thompson Family," 7006
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ibid., 7007
  3. Sanborn Map Company, Insurance Maps of Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina, 1914, 1914, paper, 64 x 54 cm., North Carolina Maps Digital Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ncmaps/id/9084
  4. Ibid., 7013
  5. Ibid., 7011
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Abrams and Parker, "Great Depression"
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Benner, “Women in the 1920s in North Carolina.”
  8. Tone, "Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s," 486
  9. Thompson, “Women Have Always Had Abortions.”
  10. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973, 6
  11. Ibid., 15
  12. Quigley, “The Relation of Abortion to Cancer of the Uterus," 625
  13. Alma White, Eating In, 1926, in Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty (Zarephath, N.J., Pillar of Fire, 1926) 124
  14. Kleinfeld and Dickas, Resisting the Call of Nativism: What U.S. Political Parties Can Learn From Other Democracies.
  15. Caron, Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History since 1830, 63