Learning What a Young Wife Ought to Know

Play is a witty reminder of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom

Sudac and MacMillan embrace as Sophie and Jonny. 
Photo provided by Rosemary Doyle

The story of a young woman struggling to defend her reproductive choice in 1920s Ottawa might not strike audiences as a hilarious, heartwarming romance. However, audiences would be proven wrong by Hannah Moscovtich’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know—on stage at the Grand Theatre until Feb. 17. 

The play centres around Sophie, a young working-class woman in ’20s Ottawa. After Sophie loses her sister, Elba, to a botched abortion, she marries Jonny, her sister’s former lover. 

As time goes by, and money gets tighter, Sophie’s less inclined to have more children. On top of financial pressure, she has a prolapsed uterus and her womb can’t provide the necessary nutrients for the foetus. 

After four pregnancies, Sophie and Jonny try to stop having kids. They try abstinence, but they can’t keep their hands off each other. They try some sort of sponge that Sophie sticks in her vagina, but it just ends up stinging Jonny  and and melts with use. 

Their attempts at birth control are amusing, and throughout the show, Sophie pauses and asks the modern-day audience whether this is what they use to prevent pregnancies.

Throughout the show, the outdated takes on morals and medicine provide the audience with some comic relief while the still-relevant reasons of why women choose not to have children are adressed. 

The lighthearted approach to the serious content matter could easily be butchered. It’s challenging to make people laugh about things that make them uncomfortable.

However, the three actors—Anna Sudac as Sophie, Jesse MacMillan as Jonny, and Alexandra Montagnese as Elba—bring  Moscovitch’s masterful script to life. They navigate the line between serious and playful perfectly, giving the audience permission to laugh in situations that don’t usually merit laughter. 

The jokes in the play highlight the deeper issues. Sophie’s continuous back-and-forth with the audience is a reminder that while women phrase their questions in more modern terms, they aren’t old-fashioned issues. 

Although women today aren’t penalized for pity-kissing the dying postman, as poor Sophie was, there are still a lot of moralistic approaches to women’s sexuality and reproductive decisions. 

South of the border, women’s reproductive rights have been under attack as states work to defund Planned Parenthood and restrict access to birth control and abortions. These restrictions can actually cost women their lives. When women don’t have access to birth control and abortions are illegal, women are at risk. 

As the audience watches Elba die from a cathertar-induced abortion, Sophie asks whether this is a common form of birth control for women. The sad truth is the answer is still yes for many.

At one point in the play, after arguing about more children, Jonny asks Sophie whether she wants another baby. She rightly points out she can’t afford another child and could die if she gets pregnant again. 

For many women, the question of whether to put your own needs ahead of those of anunborn child is seen to be a selfish choice, assuming that motherhood is not a choice.

In Ontario, women have access to free and safe abortions. It’s our right and we should never lose sight of the fight it took to get here. This access allows each woman to decide her own life course, and choose to start a family at  her own pace. 

What a Young Wife Ought to Know is an important reminder of the women who died in the fight for reproductive rights. It’s something we take for granted these days, but it’s valuable to remember the cost of a world without free, safe abortions, whether it’s on stage or not.

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