This article is By Marysia from the Nonviolent Choice Directory and Blog, http://www.nonviolentchoice.info and http://nonviolentchoice.blogspot.com
Although born in Berlin, Germany, Maria Elżbieta Zakrzewska (pronounced roughly “Zak-chevf-ska,” 1829-1902) belonged to a Polish family who had lost their wealth and land to Russian occupiers. All her life, Zakrzewska, a religious freethinker, was acutely conscious of the ways that power could be abused or applied for good. She received excellent midwifery training in Europe and then, in 1853, immigrated to the United States to seek a medical education. At first, prejudice against her as a Polish immigrant and as a woman with professional skills and aspirations was so intense that she could at first only find ill-paid work as a seamstress.
Zakrzewska became friends with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first US woman of any race or ethnicity to achieve the MD degree. Blackwell encouraged her to brave the overwhelmingly male environs of the medical school at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University. Zakrzewska earned her MD in 1856. She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. She returned to New York City and with Blackwell sought to rent rooms where they could set up medical practice. They were refused time after time by landlords who mistook them for abortionists. The two doctors did not appreciate the confusion. Like Blackwell, who considered abortion violence against female and fetal life, Zakrzewska strongly opposed abortion. (1)
When the two friends sought to challenge Madame Restell (Ann Trow Lohman), New York’s most famous abortion provider, a lawyer told them to stop because Restell was a “social necessity” defended by the rich and powerful and therefore beyond any challenge. (2) But like Blackwell, Zakrzewska continued to challenge abortion through radical measures that made it less of a “social necessity.”
Zakrzewska worked with Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, also a physician, to start the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857. The first entirely female-staffed US hospital, it was later chartered as a women’s medical college. The Infirmary focused on service to the indigent. Elizabeth Cushier, a staff surgeon and Emily Blackwell’s life partner, noted that the Infirmary was at the time the only safe haven in the city for single pregnant women. (3) Elsewhere, while their babies’ fathers were not called to account, single mothers themselves were moralistically deprived of aid before and after they gave birth, and even when they were in labor. Many ended up in prostitution because they had no other means of survival. The Infirmary was up against a widespread prejudice that anyone who helped single mothers was aiding and abetting immorality—sometimes even on the part of people who inveighed against the practice of abortion but did nothing to help women avoid it. (4)
Zakrzewska moved to Boston and founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862. She headed it until retiring in 1899. Zakrzewska made maternity services for the poor and single an integral part of its services. She also created the Temporary Infant Asylum. The New England Hospital graduated several generations of women physicians and was also a pioneer in the professional training of nurses, including Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first formally educated African American nurse (1879). (5)
Zakrzewska drew much strength for her prejudice-dismantling, abortion-preventing, reproductive justice work from her domestic partnership with Julia A. Sprague, club historian of the New England Women’s Club, and from their circle of pioneering professional women, many of whom were also lesbian couples. (6) In early feminist circles, such “Boston marriages,” as they were called, were openly accepted and not uncommon before the rise of eugenics and its branding of LGBT persons as “perverts.” As the vast majority of early feminists opposed abortion, there was no dangerous and utterly misplaced confusion like there is today of LGBT justice with any right to abortion.
Zakrzewska was also moved by her own vivid memories of living as a poor immigrant herself. Although she eventually had a comfortable home, Zakrzewska never lost her “remarkable insight and sympathy” that allowed her to understand the lives of poor patients “from their own standpoint.” She believed that instead of do-gooder charity, “it is justice to one another” that “we should cultivate and practice.” (7) A suffragist and abolitionist, Zakrzewska called for an end to the sexual double standard. She warned the Moral Education Society of Massachusetts against consigning any women to “a class of animal women” who are treated as “legalized merchandise…I say, therefore, that one of the laws of our moral code should be, “Respect the woman in every woman.” (8) Zakrzewska herself practiced those ethics throughout her life, in her work against abortion as much as in anything else.
1) Marie Zakrzewska, A Woman’s Quest, ed. Agnes Vietor, New York: Appleton, 1924, p. 180. See also Elizabeth Blackwell, “Look at the First Faint Gleam of Life” as well as the accompanying biographical discussion, pp. 36-39 in Mary Krane Derr, Rachel MacNair, and Linda Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today (Feminism & Nonviolence Studies Association, 2005)
(2) Zakrzewska 1924, p. 180.
(3) Elizabeth Cushier, “Autobiography,” pp. 85-95 in Medical Women of America, ed. Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, New York: Froben Press, 1933.
(4) Derr, MacNair, and Naranjo-Huebl 2005.
(5) Along with Zakrzewska’s autobiography, the hospital’s annual reports (available from “Women Working, 1800-1930,” Harvard University Open Collections,
(6) Lillian Faderman, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, pp. 257-258.
(7) Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska: A Memoir. Boston, MA: New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1903, pp. 17-18
(8) Zakrzewska 1924, pp. 420-421.