My Great Grandmother, Abortion, and What We (Should) Ask of History

On November 9, 1922, my great grandmother Frances Owen departed Vancouver for the United States with the hopes of reaching Bellingham, Washington. An unmarried 25-year-old, she sought the care of Dr. Shute whom she heard from her friend Dot “was a good one to go to” to address that she was “6 weeks in a family way.” She intended to “get rid of fetus” and then stay in the United States to find work rather than return to Canada. Border officials determined she was seeking entry for an “immoral purpose” and designated her “LPC” – likely public charge. Frances was denied entry and returned to Vancouver where, seven months later, she gave birth to Mary. Frances had my grandma Millie a full decade later, six years into her second marriage. Within a few years neither Mary nor Millie remained in her care. These glimpses of her life offer a clear indication that Frances did not want (or did not feel equipped) to mother.

frances immigration doc

I grew up with only superficial knowledge of Millie’s parents, birth and adoptive. Family whispers of her childhood trauma cautioned us against asking questions. Millie was born into the depression of the 1930s and placed into a children’s home as a toddler. She faced loathsome treatment there, only to be adopted by a family that included two men who further abused her. While it took her decades to reveal these experiences, her aversion to talking about her younger years always discouraged further inquiry. Besides, my grandfather’s family tree was so rooted in fanciful narratives that it became easy to treat it as the totality of our story. Both Millie and Ernie are gone now and I find myself bothered by the gendered silences of our family knowledge. This is particularly so given that the ghosts of her trauma have infused the lives of the women who follow her.

My journey into Millie’s past began with querying her three daughters (my mom and aunts) about their memories. This lead to the name of Millie’s favorite niece and the good fortune of contact information that remained up to date. Family knowledge is similarly sparse among Mary’s descendants but in sharing her birth name they provided me with the name my great grandmother carried during her first marriage: Frances Brankey. Thanks to the digitization of Canadian records I quickly located both of her marriage certificates and realized we had never before heard her correct surname. She was born Frances Owen in Birkenhead, England in 1897. She arrived in Canada in 1908, likely as part of the relocation of British children to the colonies. Census data shows that she lived with the Green family through her teens and early 20s (we had “Greer” listed as her birth name, likely an error in translation somewhere along the way). While her relationship to them is unclear, it appears that Frances developed a familial relationship them as Mary listed Annie Green as Frances’s mother on her death certificate.

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Frances fades from view until 1922 and her quest for an abortion. She was living with a John Demestri at the time and it appears Frances reported him as her sexual partner. Records show, however, that he was married at the time. Since Frances was a domestic, it is likely that she was living in with his family. The paternity of Mary is perhaps questionable, as she reported that she had “been with other men also.” Border agents suspected her of being a sex worker as they documented that “she has never taken money or new clothes” from these men. Perhaps Frances was pregnant by a married man who refused responsibility. Perhaps she was uncertain of the paternity and sought to remedy a messy situation. Perhaps her attempted journey was an extreme act of desperation or perhaps she simply had little keeping her in Vancouver. Perhaps after sailing the Atlantic on her own at 11 years old this didn’t seem like much of a move or perhaps she was seeking a new adventure. Her reasoning is almost certainly lost to history.

When Frances was unable to access the 1922 abortion she returned to Vancouver and married Italian watchman John Brankey in February 1923. Within the first few years of their marriage he passed away leaving Frances alone to care for Mary. She was working in a factory at the time of her marriage to Charles Davis in 1927. He was twenty years her senior (51 to her 31) and family fables say that had several children from a prior marriage (records show that he was divorced). Six years into their marriage Millie arrived. We believe that within a few years Frances found herself alone again and surrendering her children. Over the years our family had only very occasional contact with Frances or Charles. The few records I have located do little shed light on what became of their marriage. Charles is almost entirely a question mark. The only other information we have of Frances is the confusion of details about her birth parents. On the occasion of her first marriage she reported her mother to be Englishwoman Jane Surney. At her second marriage, though, she named Madeline Duval, a French woman. Was she unsure of her past? Was she trying to rewrite her own story?

In mothering and being mothered, Frances’ story is incredibly traumatic. Whether through death or condition, she lost her parents before her teen years. A forced journey across the Atlantic and a new life in Vancouver cut her off from her past. As a young woman trying to find her way in the world, she was forced into motherhood. How much was she modeling or resisting the past the left behind?


Her story is not necessarily remarkable for the time she was born into. But it is remarkable to the family, mine, that struggled through the lived trauma of our matriarch. It is remarkable to me in seeing the patterns between her life and that of the generation which precedes me. It is also remarkable to me as a woman able to live my desired childree life and as an activist fighting to keep abortion safe, legal, and accessible. Recent research indicates that trauma is passed on through DNA. How are the women who follow her living within or beyond the most difficult of what she had to survive? Seeing her life, even by glimpses, allows for new understanding.

This is a family story. But it is also a story about life without legal abortion. As we contend with the current spate of anti-abortion laws, women are sharing their stories to demonstrate how abortion saves lives and makes possible the best possible versions of ourselves. But others question the weight placed upon women (and those with uteri) to share their most personal stories in order to lay claim to the basic human right that is control over one’s own body. Every one of us is living a life shaped by the scope of reproductive health decisions women have (or have not) had access to. None of us can claim a personal narrative untouched by this issue. History is full of women like Frances who fought for and were denied control over their bodies. I believe it is my right as her great-granddaughter and my responsibility as an historian to share the story of generations of pain that followed from her inability to get to Dr. Shute nearly 100 years ago. I believe that history can and should carry the weight of storytelling.

 

 

 

 

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