3 Feminism and Reproductive Politics
3 Feminism and Reproductive Politics
- Rickie Solinger
Why is feminism so important to reproductive politics, and vice versa, in the United States?
Over p. 18↵the course of American history, questions about female fertility have typically been dealt with in ways that eclipsed the interests of women, individually and as members of various groups. Debates about who should have the power to manage women’s reproductive capacities have often been linked to debates involving larger issues—social, cultural, and economic, across the spectrum. Among slave-owners in the antebellum South, for example, reproduction was primarily an economic issue—owners desired to increase their holdings in human property—as well as a concern about maintaining traditional definitions of race and chastity. In the 1970s, reproduction was tied in to the white backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement and to issues about social provision and urban poverty. Reproductive rights have been associated with the desire of white people to maintain demographic superiority and the demand of environmentalists to slow or halt population growth. To resolve each of these social and political problems, various organizations and individuals have proposed, enacted, and enforced rules governing women’s sexuality and their reproductive capacities. Historically, as we’ve seen, women themselves were generally excluded p. 19↵from these rule-making processes. If anything, they were seen as the problem. When social problems persisted, women were immediately cited as the cause—for example, if large urban populations remained poor, politicians and others tended to look past such issues as low wages, scarce and expensive housing, inadequate day care, and lack of medical insurance and instead blamed women who made the “wrong” reproductive decisions, whether that meant having too few babies, too many, or something else.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing until the present day, feminists—those who claim that women have equal status with men—have worked to focus matters regarding reproductive rights, politics, and policy on the interests of women.
So-called First Wave feminists (c. 1848–1920) developed the concept of “voluntary motherhood,” which, in part, asserted that a wife must have control over her sexual life and reproductive capacity. This early claim was the preamble to a number of other ideas and activities, supporting the position that women’s health, safety, dignity, and access to full citizenship depended on their ability to control their own bodies and fertility. The content of the claim has changed over time; today most Second and Third Wave feminists, unlike First Wave feminists, support women’s access to contraception and abortion. Over time, feminist activists have focused public discussion, law, and policy on the ways in which women’s core interests depend on living in a society that grants them the right to manage their own bodies.
Why did Susan B. Anthony oppose abortion?
In the middle of the nineteenth century, as the country was rapidly urbanizing, abortion became more prevalent. Scores of full-time abortionists practiced in New York City, and medical and law enforcement authorities at the time estimated that a high percentage of pregnancies there and indeed p. 20↵nationwide ended in abortion. This development (as well as women’s increasing use of contraception, particularly in the cities) deeply disturbed the first generation of feminists, women who met at Seneca Falls in 1848 and in a stirring Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed women’s equality with men. Individually and as a group, they opposed the separation of sex and pregnancy and advocated “voluntary motherhood,” a status that included education, the right to vote, and sexual control, that is, the right to say no to a husband’s sexual demands.
However, they also disapproved of condoms, invented in the 1840s, believing that they would increase the opportunities for men to have sex outside of marriage. They disapproved of female contraceptives, too, the use of which, they believed, diminished women’s claims to “moral motherhood.” Contraception and abortion, argued these First Wave feminists, dangerously associated women with sexual pleasure, undermining the only dependable bases of a white woman’s claim to social and familial respect—her physical purity and her moral authority.
Following the First Wave generation, how did feminist ideas about contraception develop?
In the mid-nineteenth century, First Wave white feminists declared that a woman’s only dignified contraceptive strategy was exercising her ability to say no. In subsequent decades, a number of culture-changing developments doomed the Comstock Laws, which prevented dispensing contraceptive information and materials.
Again, urbanization was a key factor. The 1920 census showed that for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside, a dramatic marker in a long process that took young women away from their families and into anonymous urban living and work settings. Between 1900 and 1940, female labor force participation rose 6 percent p. 21↵per decade. These wage-earning young women, rural transplants and immigrants, often completely unprotected by family, found themselves sexually vulnerable and facing a new degree of latitude regarding sexual decision making; they needed a means for controlling the consequences. The Great Depression of the 1930s further deepened all women’s needs both to control their fertility and to earn money. World War II brought unprecedented numbers of women permanently into the workplace. By the 1950s, one-third of all women with children ages six to seventeen worked for pay. For African American women, the rate was higher than 50 percent.
Birth control advocates (including socialist feminists, notably Emma Goldman; a few outspoken physicians; and leaders Mary Ware Dennett and Margaret Sanger) recognized in the early twentieth century that women were desperate to control their fertility. They saw that women were educating themselves about their reproductive choices, through both reliable and unreliable means. As we’ve seen, women with resources could sometimes depend on the secret help of private physicians. Hundreds of thousands of women became willing to break the law to avoid having another baby. Indeed, while the Comstock Laws were largely in effect, between 1880 and 1940, white women’s birthrate declined by more than half, and the rate of decline for African American women was even more dramatic.
Though both Dennett and Sanger argued that “birth control,” a term Sanger is usually credited with introducing in 1915, was a woman’s right, they also variously linked contraception to eugenics. Reflecting common attitudes of the time, they asserted that fewer, “better” babies would improve “the race.” In the first several decades of the twentieth century, both leaders pursued their work within a cultural context that continued to place special value on white “moral motherhood,” a status that required “respectable” women to distance themselves from explicit sexuality and from the separation of sex and reproduction. Consequently, many “respectable” women p. 22↵were afraid to engage in public discussion and public support for contraception. Ultimately, neither Dennett nor Sanger surmounted the persistent strain of racism that depended on establishing white women’s purity by sexualizing women of color in contrast. Throughout the pre–World War II era, Sanger counted on the support of academics such as sociologist Edward A. Ross, geographer Ellsworth Huntington, and economist Thomas Nixon Carver; all were eugenicists.
In addition, an increasingly professionalized medical community began to seek control over all matters pertaining to pregnancy and childbearing; many physicians were not receptive to women-led or feminist efforts in this domain, from midwifery to lay efforts to disseminate birth control information. By the 1940s, Sanger’s organization, now called Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to accentuate the importance of “planning” to achieve a strong nation and responsible individuals, began to cite economic self-sufficiency as a criterion for parenthood. Such emphasis on economic status served to heighten the sense that only well-off white women were entitled to regulate their bodies and reproductive decisions.
Despite these challenges, the work of Dennett, Sanger, and other feminists helped change attitudes surrounding contraception. During the Depression, responding to this feminist activism and to women’s determination to control their fertility, a number of religious organizations, as well as the American Medical Association, reversed positions and endorsed the use of contraception. Greater numbers of medical schools began to train students in contraceptive practices. In a 1944 study of 3,381 physicians, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, professor of obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University, found that among physicians who had graduated from medical school in 1935 and later, 73 percent received training in contraception compared with only 10 percent of those who graduated before 1920.1 These developments facilitated Sanger’s fund-raising efforts to establish clinics for meeting the reproductive needs of poor women, including poor women of color. Labor unions, p. 23↵also imbued with a concept of “women’s rights,” became sites of information about contraception, as did clinics and other services organized by African American women’s clubs committed to protecting the young women in their communities, to “advancing the race,” and to making a claim for women’s basic needs and the importance of reproductive planning to women’s lives.
What was the reaction to the pill?
The birth control pill championed by Sanger and others was introduced to the US market in 1960. The pill is often linked to the “sexual revolution,” a cultural development whose meanings sociologists, journalists, and historians are still debating. Most have described the sexual revolution as marking an era when sexuality was no longer considered primarily a vehicle for procreation. Rather, they argue, for both males and females, sexuality became a means of achieving individual satisfaction and self-expression. Scholars have debated many aspects of the sexual revolution, including when and where it started, whether the behavior ascribed to it amounted to a revolution, and whether it is possible to capture a general meaning of new sexual expressions without paying attention to its various impacts on different demographic groups. It is important to add that the sexual revolution—whatever it means—was happening during the civil rights movement. Some proponents and opponents of racial equality put reproductive politics at the center of their agendas. In the 1970s, some women of color such as Angela Davis argued that the mainstream women’s movement was largely directed by whites who did not understand or address the concerns of black and Hispanic women. Subsequently the National Black Feminist Organization, the Combahee River Collective, the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Committee for Abortion Rights and against Sterilization Abuse focused directly on reproductive issues. These organizations p. 24↵focused variously on promoting women’s needs to control their fertility and not be victims of new and existing contraceptive methods. In particular, they opposed laws and policies that made contraception a duty rather than a choice, such as in the mandated use of contraception in exchange for favorable judicial or public-assistance decisions. These groups opposed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the expenditure of federal funds to pay for Medicaid funded abortion. They also opposed involuntary sterilization of poor women, a practice that continued in clinic and hospital settings for some years after women supposedly achieved reproductive freedom with Roe v. Wade.
In the 1960s and 1970s, some Black Nationalist men claimed that welfare departments and other public agencies encouraged (or coerced) women of color to use birth control, including the pill, as a form of genocide. The Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example, asserted that contraception amounted to population control and that white authorities could deploy legal abortion to promote genocidal goals. Responding to the argument, some activist women turned the genocide debates into a forum for defining feminist, women-of-color reproductive politics and articulating the claim that reproductive rights include the right to be a mother.
How did feminist activists support reproductive rights in the 1960s and 1970s?
In the years around Roe v. Wade, the organized reproductive rights movement was dominated by the National Organization for Women, the National Abortions Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood, and other groups led mostly by white women, with mostly white members. The movement largely focused on laws and policies that would allow women to gain control over their sexuality and fertility as a strategy for achieving full citizenship; most often this meant concentrating on matters involving contraception and abortion. As we will see, the subsequent course of reproductive rights activism p. 25↵has had to deal with the fact that the early movement was racially divided and that white women and women of color often defined the core issues differently.
Before Roe v. Wade, the women’s liberation movement used public “speak-outs,” public hearings, and lawsuits as forms of public education, demonstrating women’s determination in these forums and claiming their right to manage their fertility through abortion, when necessary. These forums also gave them an opportunity to draw on their own experiences to challenge the law and religious dicta. The willingness of women to speak in public before large audiences about such difficult and intimate issues was a sign of real change. Feminists spoke about and modeled the right of any female to tell her physician that she needed a prescription for birth control pills, becoming pioneers of patient-directed medical care. Near the end of the criminal era, feminists in Chicago, for example, organized highly successful, secret abortion counseling and referral networks and safe abortion services. These served as a model for groups in other parts of the country.
Before and after Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights organizations began to promote women’s rights to safe, accessible contraception, using the law to gain rights for married and unmarried women, and to hold drug companies accountable for the safety of their products. These efforts were essential to the emergence of what has been called the “women’s health movement.” Barbara Seaman’s book, The Doctor’s Case against the Pill, first published in 1969 and Our Bodies, Ourselves, published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1971, were foundational texts for this movement. They helped establish an agenda, one that demanded public hearings on the safety of the pill, won product insert rules to ensure consumer education, applied informed consent rules to sterilization procedures, stimulated the establishment of legal centers to support reproductive rights, and turned many girls and women into feminists and women’s health advocates.