Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Pill for Mothers and Others

"No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."
~ Margaret Sanger

(Note: Today's post appeared in a slightly different form on the New York Women in Communications blog Aloud.)

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and, with just a hint of irony, it was also the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. Gail Collins wrote a wonderful, wry column about this strange simultaneity and the history of women’s efforts to take control over their reproductive lives in Saturday’s New York Times. Click here to read it.

Although I was only 12 when the pill hit town and knew very little about sex, even I realized something life-changing had happened. For married women, the pill brought the reality of family planning and all the benefits that come with it. For all women, it brought the freedom to enjoy sex without worrying about pregnancy. It was a big step toward a world where women were could decide their own destinies.

As this 1967 Time magazine cover suggests, the pill also hastened the rise of feminism in the late ’60s — and did so in at least one way nobody talks about. The pill ushered in the “Free Love” movement on college campuses; students rejected puritanical restrictions and promoted having as much sex as possible with as many partners as possible (remember, those were the days before herpes, AIDS and hepatitis C were on the radar). The catch: young women who enjoyed sex and/or had multiple partners were still called sluts, whores and “nymphos.”  (Which reminds me: when is the last time you heard anyone call a man “promiscuous”?)

It did not take long for women to figure out that while they were now in charge of their reproductive cycles, they were still regarded as lesser beings. And in my experience, nowhere was this more prevalent than in the anti-war movement. In campus political organizations, men rarely took women’s opinions seriously, expecting us to go make coffee and sandwiches while they talked business. It reminded me of the 1800s, when men would repair to the smoking salon after dinner for conversation, while women did the dishes and, one supposes, fanned themselves to ward off the vapors.

Is it just a coincidence that so many of the women who fought for the ERA and founded the feminist movement had previously organized and marched for civil rights and for ending the war in Vietnam? I don’t think so. 

"We want far better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them." 
~ Dora Winifred Black Russell

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