HHH column: Abortion in 19th-century America through the eyes of Mary Gove Nichols by Nienke Groskamp

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Nienke Groskamp. Nienke works for the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands. She previously wrote a master’s thesis on the history of spiritualism and abortion at the University of Amsterdam. In this column, Nienke explores the fascinating life of Mary Gove Nichols, a 19th-century hydrotherapist, whose positions on abortion help us to better understand the historical context around abortion and its advocates.

Abortion in 19th-century America through the eyes of Mary Gove Nichols

Nienke Groskamp

Mary Sergeant Gove Nichols (1810–1884), born under the name of Neal in New Hampshire, dedicated her life to health and marriage reform. Recently, her work has garnered attention among scholars for highlighting how oppressive systems compromised women’s health through inadequate medical care, tight lacing, and poor nutrition. However, historians, including her biographer Jean Silver-Isenstadt, have not adequately discussed her position on abortion. Abortion was a crucial element in the conflict between regular and irregular physicians during the mid-nineteenth century, and her life and work cannot be fully understood without considering it.


Nichols’ personal life, particularly her first marriage to Quaker Hiram Gove in 1831, profoundly impacted her activism. Enduring rape and the trauma of four stillbirths before her daughter Elma’s birth in 1832, Nichols struggled financially. They relocated to Massachusetts, where Mary supplemented her husband’s meager income with needlework and, later, therapeutic cold-water treatments. Starting in 1838, she lectured on anatomy, hygiene, diet, and sexuality to women and girls. With her parents’ support, she boldly left Hiram in 1841, taking Elma with her.

In the 1840s, living in New York, Nichols learned about hydrotherapy, an alternative medical system that advocated curing ailments with water. Hydropathists opposed the more invasive medical treatments of the time, instead promoting methods like soaking in hot or cold water, using water jets, and taking steam baths. Hydrotherapy revolutionized women’s health care in antebellum America. It promoted comprehensive prenatal and postnatal care, challenging the conventional focus on the delivery of children alone, and the notion of women’s inherent frailty. It advocated for women’s innate health and their roles in healing, emphasizing diet, dress reform, and hygiene. Mary’s writings popularized this method, bolstering her reputation as a physician despite lacking formal medical education.

Illustration in the Water-Cure Journal contrasting the harsh drugs of regular medicine with hydropathy’s reliance on pure water.
Source: Water-Cure Journal, April 1852. Reproduced in Silver-Isenstadt, Jean. Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

The fruits of marriage

After apprenticing in Vermont, Mary and her daughter moved to New York City, where Mary met free-love advocate and journalist Thomas Low Nichols. They married in a Swedenborgian ceremony. Their vows were nontraditional, with Mary stating, “if my love leads me from you, I must go,” and she adopted the combined name Mary Gove Nichols. Together, they championed health reform, and they founded the first U.S. hydropathic medical school.

Their marriage exemplified their commitment to the principle of free love. In their co-authored book Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results (1854), Mary argued against the notion that separation would harm children, suggesting instead that many children born within unhappy marriages were better off not being born. 

Indeed, she speculated “that the number of children murdered in marriage before birth, is as much greater than by unmarried women.” She added that when an unwanted pregnancy was brought to term, the children born of it were often destined for prison and even the death penalty.  Following this discussion of abortion and the fate of unwelcome children, she asked, “[m]ight it not be well to leave women the liberty to choose whether they will bear children to be hung, or not?” 

In 1854, publicly advocating for women’s freedom to choose whether to continue their pregnancy was challenging. American regular physicians had initiated an informational campaign to persuade the American public that life started at conception, rather than at the first fetal movements or “quickening.” With this shift, abortion was no longer a termination of pregnancy, but a termination of life—it became murder.


Challenging these physicians over their staunch anti-abortion stance necessitated solid justification. Mary’s was to equate married women’s plight to that of enslaved Black women, focusing on the lack of personal property rights. In her semi-autobiographical work, Mary Lyndon, she remarked “[c]hattel bondage is the lowest of all—but those who are oppressed by marriage, and find no escape but by loss of name and fame, food and children, may well be excused for seeing a parallel to the institution of marriage in that of slavery.”

This comparison of white married women’s oppression to that of enslaved Black people is, without a doubt, extreme. Scholars have grappled with this aspect of her legacy, with some labeling it as explicitly racist. When the Civil War started, Mary and Thomas Nichols relocated to England, where Thomas criticized the North for undermining states’ rights and individual freedom.


While Mary may not present herself as a compelling example of an abortion advocate, her writings open up space to explore the complex ethical questions surrounding abortion beyond the binary framework of “for” or “against.” Nineteenth-century texts, notably by Mary Gove Nichols, urge us to view abortion within its societal context, blending feminism, health reform, spiritualism, and abortion discussions. This approach challenges the modern tendency to frame abortion solely in medical or legal terms. Instead, it helps situate it within a broader context of overall women’s health and well-being.

Engraving of Mary Gove Nichols, based on a crayon portrait by her daughter, Elma Penn Gove. Source: Nichols, Thomas Low. Nichols’ Health Manual: Being Also a Memorial of the Life and Work of Mrs. Mary S. Gove Nichols. London: E.W. Allen, 1887, frontispiece. Archived by the Internet Archive.