Women’s History and Reproductive History
by Melissa Soltman, MA, TeenNow California Member
The nation is constantly abuzz with the topic of reproductive rights. You can’t turn on the news without hearing every presidential candidate’s opinion on the topic. It’s almost impossible to talk about women’s rights without talking about a woman’s right to preside as the decision-maker over her own body. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s break down the history of women’s reproductive rights to examine the issues that really make up this provocative yet critical topic that affects over half of our population. Women’s social and political freedom, their right to education, and autonomy over their bodies is directly linked to their reproductive freedom.
GIVING BIRTH AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
Many people think that the current controversies surrounding pregnancy, abortion, and birth control have been around since the beginning of time; however, it wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s that states began passing antiabortion laws. Abortions before “quickening” were even advertised and routinely performed at the time our constitution was written. One of the documented reasons abortion became a hot button issue is the medicalization of birth. Before the twentieth century, midwives attended to pregnant women; these were usually women well known and respected in their communities. However, as medicine and surgery benefitted from more advanced technology and sterility (literally and figuratively), many doctors (mostly men) worked hard to eradicate practices by “untrained” people, like midwives and homeopaths (mostly women), who competed with them for patients and business.
As gynecology and obstetrics were officially created as fields of practice, doctors convinced women and men that the only acceptable, clean way to give birth was to do so in a doctor’s office—despite the incredibly low maternal and neonatal mortality rate at the time. Even though the early practices of obstetrics were often riddled with dangers, the newly established American Medical Association (AMA) succeeded in labeling midwives as “witches” and naming abortion “immoral and dangerous.” Essentially, many doctors took up the antiabortion cause to eradicate their competition. By 1910, all but one state had criminalized abortion, except when absolutely necessary (to save the woman’s life), which required the attention of a doctor. Women continued to terminate pregnancies, but they did so illegally and dangerously; many lost their lives. The use of midwives dropped dramatically, and birth became a condition for which women were treated in a hospital.
It goes without saying that these issues involve very personal and private decisions. However, it’s important to note that a woman’s body was not always a site onto which certain political or religious paradigms were inscribed. Let’s look further at the progression of reproductive rights…
ENTER ANTHONY COMSTOCK
In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed, which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail. This included contraceptive devices and information. This allowed those working for women’s access to information to be arrested for even mentioning birth control information in a letter.
TAKE THAT, MR. COMSTOCK!
In the early 1900s, Margaret Sanger and many other women risked their lives to disseminate birth control and share information. Margaret Sanger received 250,000 letters from countless women, desperate for a stronger distinction between sex and reproduction and to avoid serious health complications. Sanger and other practitioners were arrested multiple times under the Comstock Laws. Each time they were released, they returned to the work of giving women choices for their bodies and lives. Knowing the importance of disseminating information, the U.S. government decided to support sexuality education as part of the White House Conference on Child Welfare in 1919, even though it would still be more than 30 years before all married couples could secure contraceptives from a licensed professional.
1920 was a year of triumph; it was both the year Margaret Sanger opened the first family planning clinic in Brooklyn and the year that the 19th amendment made it legal for women to vote in all elections. Here lies a perfect parallel between political access, reproductive choice, and the road to true autonomy.
Birth control was eventually released from Mr. Comstock’s tight grasp; in 1936, one of Sanger’s cases led a judge to review the law and decide that contraceptive methods could no longer be classified as “obscene” due to data demonstrating the benefits of contraception.
FREEDOM….YEAH FREEDOM! (you know the words…)
It’s not until the 1960s, alongside the civil rights and antiwar movements, that women began to fight en masse for autonomy in all senses of the word. The Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of oral pills for birth control in 1960, and with the much-enjoyed freedom to decide when to have children, women continued to work toward equality. In 1965, a landmark decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, included the right of married people to use birth control as part of their constitutional right to privacy. In 1968, all 3 TV networks carried family planning public service announcements. In 1972, Title IX required sexual equality in any education program receiving federal funding. At the same time, a female country western singer, Loretta Lynn, wrote a song called “The Pill” which was subsequently banned across the United States. (Look up the lyrics!) Women’s fight for social equality is utterly intertwined with women’s reproductive rights throughout history and today.
The infamous Roe v. Wade (1973) established abortion as a legal right, within the broader right to privacy. While Roe v. Wade was a huge victory for women’s access to safe healthcare, there were still women who continued to struggle for access. In 1975, as a reaction to the times, 25 states voted to restrict or abolish sexuality education.
THE REAL YOU
In the following decades, women enjoyed more freedom and access (successes I wish we had more time to discuss!). Allowing women to choose when to have children allowed them to choose their lifestyle. Some women were able to establish careers, which allowed society to see the contributions of which women were capable in addition to their domestic achievements. Women’s progress in recent decades – in education, in the workplace, in political and economic power – is directly linked to women’s ability to control their own fertility.
Reproductive rights cannot be quarantined from the broader context of gender and social equality and must be addressed in relation to equal access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunity. Do we still have a long way to go? Of course. But honoring women’s history must include recognizing the reproductive freedom for which they have had to fight and for which they continue to fight. How can a woman pursue opportunities and make healthy choices without autonomy of her body?
SO WHAT NOW WHAT?
As an educator, I know it’s almost impossible to engage in topics this controversial. I wonder, though, if there is a way to examine the topic of reproductive rights from a historical perspective, to include it in the study of women’s history in an unbiased manner, and to engage in a discussion about the link between having freedom and being able to make healthy choices for one’s future, a link that applies to many historical instances. Timelines are excellent at mapping out the progression of reproductive rights alongside other issues in women’s history, such as the right to vote and establishing a presence in the workplace. Organizations and libraries often have films to borrow as well that address these topics in a teen friendly manner. We all know the importance of sharing the achievements and plight of women; why not add a huge piece of women’s history into the mix with other historical triumphs?
Choice: Then and Now
The Purity Myth: Low resolution film here for free
The Business of Being Born (Available on Netflix Watch Instantly and in stores)
Birth Matters by Ina May Gaskin
Reproductive Rights Timeline Excerpts from Letters to Margaret Sanger
Our Bodies Ourselves Center for Reproductive Rights