The Female Gaze: “The Knick dives into women’s health”

In Art, Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Film & TV
(Courtesy of Cinemax)

I clenched my abdomen as I watched a scene where a young woman is found on her bed drenched in her own blood before being rushed to the Knickerbocker Hospital. “There’s too much blood. That’s no miscarriage. We need to get in there now,” said Sister Harriet (played by Cara Seymour), one of the midwives at the hospital. She and her colleagues operated on the bleeding woman, but she did not survive.

This is one of many heart-wrenching scenes in the Cinemax drama series “The Knick,” which depicts the intriguing lives of those who work at New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900. Given the time period, the show features caustic racism and blatant sexism.

Without a doubt, the men run the hospital and the women are forced to juggle the sexist hostility of their environment. A majority of the female characters are victimized, whether it is from poor health, abusive relationships or straight-up misogyny. However, one of the show’s central arcs displays an interesting take on women’s health and abortion practices in the early 1900s.

Although the second season ended in 2015, the series shines light on topics that are relevant in today’s discussions around funding Planned Parenthood. Sister Harriet is one character in particular that is fascinatingly complex and is blanketed by her benevolent actions. She is an Irish Catholic nun who runs the hospital’s orphanage, but she also secretly conducts abortions. Her devotion to her religion is evident, but her devotion to helping others, especially vulnerable women, is unmistakable.

Sister Harriet reminded me of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Harriet’s abortion practices take place 16 years before the first birth control clinic in the nation opened in Brooklyn. The endeavor led Sanger to prison, according to a study from the American Journal of Public Health. Sanger was a nurse of Irish descent like Harriet. Sanger decided to enter the medical field after witnessing her mother’s early death, a result of 18 pregnancies that weakened her body.

In 1912, Sadie Sachs induced her own abortion leading to her tragic death. After seeing Sachs die of blood poisoning, Sanger decided to launch the birth control movement.

It is interesting how this series draws parallels to Sanger’s experiences (minus her support for eugenics).  “The Knick’s” pro-choice nun does not have such intentions, although the show brings up the controversial issue in season two.

My favorite partnership in the series is the unlikely bond between Harriet and Tom Cleary the ambulance driver (played by Chris Sullivan). At first, Cleary was disgusted by Sister Harriet’s secret, but after seeing the petrified face of the dying woman, he had more empathy. Empathy is a quality that is seldom taught, but it can shine through the most unexpected circumstances.

Becoming business partners over unwanted pregnancies was not the most conventionally cute bond, but that is what makes it interesting. Their bumping attitudes form an amusing friendship. It’s safe to say that Cleary is not the most virtuous man, but behind his blunt nature, he truly cares about Harriet.

One of the unwanted pregnancies that ground my gears a bit was Cornelia Robertson’s (played by Juliet Rylance). Robertson is the head of the social welfare office and daughter of one of the board members of the hospital. She becomes pregnant by her secret lover, Dr. Algernon Edwards (played by André Holland), a phenomenal doctor who is constantly beleaguered because of the color of his skin.

Robertson asked Edwards to abort her fetus, especially since she was betrothed by another man. But Edwards could not do it. He defied Cornelia’s wishes for the sake of his own views. Lack of empathy to say the least, and a bizarre reaction–knowing that Cornelia bearing his child during a time drenched in racism would have ruined them both.

Harriet ends up being arrested and disgraced by the Catholic Church; a heartbreaking scene as she humbled down before her Mother Superior.

“I could say that God sent an angel down to instruct me or there was something divine about it, but there wasn’t. The women just needed help and I helped them,” Harriet said. “So it’s true. I am what they say I am.”

Harriet is eventually released and foregoes her role as a nun. She continues her business partnership with Cleary by selling contraceptives. These contraceptives, which could consist of animal intestines or latex, were illegal at the time due to Comstock Laws.

These federal laws made it a crime to distribute obscene materials or items used for abortions or birth control, according to a study from the American Journal of Public Health.

It is wild to imagine anyone getting fined or imprisoned for selling condoms, but that was the case for 63 years in the United States, between 1873 and 1936.

I don’t want to dwell on the morality of such laws or practices. Sister Harriet’s and Cornelia Robertson’s experience are complex and personal. Laws around women’s health change and so does historical context. “The Knick” illustrates how the need for empathy is timeless.

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