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Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols
     

Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols

by Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt
 

Though little known today, Mary Gove Nichols (1810-84) was once one of the most infamous and influential women in America, a radical social reformer and pioneering feminist who preached equality in marriage, free love, spiritualism, the health risks of corsets and masturbation, the benefits of the cold-water cure, and, above all, the importance of happiness. A

Overview

Though little known today, Mary Gove Nichols (1810-84) was once one of the most infamous and influential women in America, a radical social reformer and pioneering feminist who preached equality in marriage, free love, spiritualism, the health risks of corsets and masturbation, the benefits of the cold-water cure, and, above all, the importance of happiness. A victim of emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her first husband, she made it her life's work to ensure that other women were better informed about their bodies and their opportunities than she had been. After leaving her first husband, she became a national figure in the 1840s and '50s by giving anatomy lectures around the country, attended by thousands of women, in which she openly discussed the needs, details, and desires of the female body. With her second husband, medical writer and social reformer Thomas Low Nichols, she embarked on an unprecedented intellectual and professional collaboration, and together they challenged the inequities of conventional marriage, demanded the right of every woman to have control over her body, and advocated universal good health.

Considered too radical and mercurial even by their fellow reformers, especially after their conversion to Catholicism, Mary and her husband were often excluded from the very social causes they had helped to found–just as they have been from the histories of their era. In Shameless, Jean Silver-Isenstadt offers the first biography of this remarkable woman who paved the way for such activists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger. Drawing on the extensive public and private writings of the Nicholses and their peers, Silver-Isenstadt vividly portrays Mary Gove Nichols' courageous life and visionary intellect, revealing the rich diversity of opinion within nineteenth-century America's social reform movements and uncovering the inspiring story of a woman who dared to live by the utopian principles she advocated.

Editorial Reviews

History Today
Shameless is a shining example of women's history writing at its best. Literate and mercifully jargon-free, it is enhanced by Jean Silver-Isenstadt's tremendous grasp of the social, medical and intellectual background. There are many more lives of pioneering women still languishing in the shadows; if they could be reclaimed in the same illuminating and engaging style, then women's history would have a much wider audience than it currently enjoys.

— Helen Rappaport

Booklist
First-time biographer Silver-Isenstadt carves a space in the annals of feminist social activists, health reformers, and sex educators for Mary Gove Nichols, a forgotten radical thinker who cleared the trail for Margaret Sanger and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Precocious, spiritual-minded, and free-thinking... she found her soulmate in her second husband, Thomas Nichols, a journalist turned doctor and an ardent feminist. Together they zealously espoused their belief in the connection between health, sexual liberation, and freedom; founded a school; dabbled in spiritualism; then unexpectedly converted to Catholicism. The Nichols' [Mary and her husband Thomas] story is complex, fascinating and relevant, and Silver-Isenstadt elucidates their lives and ideas with nimble insight and verve.

Chronicle of Higher Education
Engaging.

Bust
This [is a] remarkable biography of a woman who changed history, and the lives of many women, during the 1800s. Silver-Isenstadt's documentation of [Mary Gove] Nichols' life is both insightful and incredibly detailed... The reach of Nichols' influence is clear in Shameless, and this book gives true insight into the tribulations and rewards of one influential woman who made her mark on history.

— Reda Rountree

Choice

This well-documented biography details the hard but heady experiences of Mary Neal Gove Nichols while providing considerable and entertaining insight into sociocultural aspects of 19th-century US history.

Journal of American History
In this gracefully written book, Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt provides an insightful account of the lives and though of the health reformer Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884) and her second husband and fellow reformer, Thomas Low Nichols (1815-1901)... Silver-Isenstadt does an excellent job of placing nineteenth-century health reform in the larger context of antebellum feminism, utopianism, spiritualism, and other reform currents.

— Nancy J. Tomes

New England Quarterly
A scholarly work that engages a number of different intellectual worlds... Jean Silver-Isenstadt has saved Mary Gove Nichols from falling into the cracks of history... A valuable contribution to the complex discussion of gender and society in the nineteenth century.

— Erica R. Armstrong

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Although scholars have indeed recognized Mary Grove Nichols's attraction to various ideologies... no one has synthesized and explained (not to mention reveled in) the contradictory elements of her life. In this superb biography, however, Jean Silver-Isenstadt does just that... She broadens the meaning of both feminism and the hydropathic health movement, showing that the crux of Nichols's crusade for individual and social transformation was the revolutionary idea of women's sexual freedom.

— Anne Taylor Kirschman, Ph.D.

History Today - Helen Rappaport
Shameless is a shining example of women's history writing at its best. Literate and mercifully jargon-free, it is enhanced by Jean Silver-Isenstadt's tremendous grasp of the social, medical and intellectual background. There are many more lives of pioneering women still languishing in the shadows; if they could be reclaimed in the same illuminating and engaging style, then women's history would have a much wider audience than it currently enjoys.

Bust - Reda Rountree
This [is a] remarkable biography of a woman who changed history, and the lives of many women, during the 1800s. Silver-Isenstadt's documentation of [Mary Gove] Nichols' life is both insightful and incredibly detailed... The reach of Nichols' influence is clear in Shameless, and this book gives true insight into the tribulations and rewards of one influential woman who made her mark on history.

Journal of American History - Nancy J. Tomes
In this gracefully written book, Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt provides an insightful account of the lives and though of the health reformer Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884) and her second husband and fellow reformer, Thomas Low Nichols (1815-1901)... Silver-Isenstadt does an excellent job of placing nineteenth-century health reform in the larger context of antebellum feminism, utopianism, spiritualism, and other reform currents.

New England Quarterly - Erica R. Armstrong
A scholarly work that engages a number of different intellectual worlds... Jean Silver-Isenstadt has saved Mary Gove Nichols from falling into the cracks of history... A valuable contribution to the complex discussion of gender and society in the nineteenth century.

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences - Anne Taylor Kirschman
Although scholars have indeed recognized Mary Grove Nichols's attraction to various ideologies... no one has synthesized and explained (not to mention reveled in) the contradictory elements of her life. In this superb biography, however, Jean Silver-Isenstadt does just that... She broadens the meaning of both feminism and the hydropathic health movement, showing that the crux of Nichols's crusade for individual and social transformation was the revolutionary idea of women's sexual freedom.

Library Journal
This lively biography, based on the author's dissertation (Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1997), traces the remarkable life of 19th-century social reformer and educator Mary Gove Nichols (1810-84). Nichols and her second husband, Thomas Low Nichols, are virtually unknown today, perhaps because their advocacy of free love alienated them from other reformers and because they spent their last several years in England. Nichols was most famous, even notorious, for her advocacy of hydrotherapy (or water cure treatments), exercise, and simple diet and for her lectures on female anatomy and public health. She and her husband were also outspoken supporters of marriage law reform, which they considered even more important than women's suffrage. As Silver-Isenstadt demonstrates, although the couple challenged the institution of marriage, they shared a remarkably warm and intellectually collaborative marriage themselves. The Nicholses' water cure establishments, lectures, and voluminous publications anticipated later movements in support of public health, women's health, and particularly legal rights. This engaging biography is the first to shed light on Mary Gove Nichols's rich and controversial life and as such is a worthwhile purchase for both public and academic libraries. Patricia A. Beaber, Coll. of New Jersey Lib., Ewing Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Mary Gove Nichols was an infamous national figure in the 1840s and '50s, a social reformer and advocate of free love who drew huge crowds to her scandalous anatomy lectures. Abused by her first husband, she worked with her second, a physician, for the cause of universal health. Nichols' progressive and prolific writings about women's rights, alternative medicine, and sexuality foreshadowed those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. "Mary's trek," writes her biographer, a scholar of the history of science and currently a medical student, "was rutted, steep, and circuitous. Her strivings not only shed light on the 19th century, but they also give resonance to choosings." An excellent addition to any women's studies collection. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801868481
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
03/28/2002
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Regina Morantz-SanchezUniversity of Michigan
An excellent and appealing feminist biography.

Robert D. Richardson
Shameless is a terrific book, a compelling and brilliantly written narrative of the life, times, and works of the little known nineteenth-century educator and reformer Mary Gove Nichols. Nichols was well ahead of her time on a wide variety of issues—mainly women's issues—and it is satisfying to see her finally getting credit for her courageous work on women's health, on modern marriage, on sexuality, and on community. This book is an eye-opener; it has wonderful descriptions of the water cure, of utopian communes, and of nineteenth century marriages ranging from awful to great. Many well-known figures—Emerson, Fuller, Poe, Whitman, Horace Greeley, Henry James Sr. and Frances Osgood appear as well. This is also a love story. Jean Silver-Isenstadt has written a splendid biography. The vivid narrative is driven by historical fact, responsibly documented and enriched by cultural theory. The result is altogether as attractive as a good novel. (Robert D. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire)
Ronald L. NumbersUniversity of Wisconsin
A pleasure to read. This is the story of Mary Gove Nichols and her second husband, Thomas Low Nichols, nineteenth-century reformers who dabbled in everything from health reform to free love.

Regina Morantz-Sanchez
An excellent and appealing feminist biography. (Regina Morantz-Sanchez, University of Michigan, author of Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine)
University of Wisconsin author of Prophetes Ronald L. Numbers
A pleasure to read. This is the story of Mary Gove Nichols and her second husband, Thomas Low Nichols, nineteenth-century reformers who dabbled in everything from health reform to free love. (Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin, author of Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White)
Ronald L. Numbers

A pleasure to read. This is the story of Mary Gove Nichols and her second husband, Thomas Low Nichols, nineteenth-century reformers who dabbled in everything from health reform to free love.

Ronald L. NumbersUniversity of Wisconsin, author of Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White

Meet the Author

Jean Silver-Isenstadt holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.D. from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She lives with her husband and three children in Columbia, Maryland.

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