University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Current attacks on access to birth control from conservative and religious sources often elicit disbelief from progressive women: we thought those battles were over. We thought we had won. A recent Planned Parenthood ad reminds us that it’s not the 1950s anymore: “It is unbelievable that in 2014 we are still fighting about women’s access to basic health care like birth control.” Progressive women often ask, sarcastically, if this is 1914, not 2014, as if the passage of a hundred years were a guarantor of progress.
However, a stronger grasp of the history of the birth control movement suggests otherwise: the anarchists and socialists who fought those battles in the early twentieth century would not, I think, be surprised that the issue is still with us. I imagine that Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Marie Equi, Ida Rauh, Crystal Eastman, Eugene Debs, Walter Adolphe Roberts, and many, many others working for access to contraception would know better, because they understood birth control as a central tenet of a larger struggle. Rather than looking at opposition to birth control as a lingering remnant of an otherwise settled past, the earlier radicals encourage us to see birth control as inextricably woven into other ongoing struggles for freedom and community. Rather than assuming progress and being repeatedly surprised at its absence, we could learn from earlier struggles to locate our understanding of birth control in a more radical frame.
The anarchists and socialists who fought for birth control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not think they were winning a definitive war, but that they were engaging in a prolonged and messy set of battles in which victories came at significant costs. They understood that if women did not control their own reproduction, someone else would control it, since states, capitalists, churches and families have serious investments in controlling women’s bodies. It wasn’t just attitudes that needed to be changed, but also institutions. They fought for birth control, not as a private decision between a woman and her doctor, but as a potentially revolutionary practice that radically challenged prevailing power arrangements, including that of men over women, capitalists over workers, militaries over soldiers, and churches over parishioners.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby offers an unwelcome opportunity to think about birth control through an appreciation of its radical past. Many good questions have been asked regarding the Hobby Lobby ruling – why do for-profit corporations have religious rights? Why is men’s sexuality unproblematic, so that insurance coverage for Viagra and vasectomies is uncontested, while women’s sexuality is subject to scrutiny? Why are straightforward medical distinctions between preventing conception and aborting a fetus ignored or confused? Why do conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rush Limbaugh decry recreational sex on the part of women but seem unconcerned that men might have sex for fun?
While recognizing the legitimacy of these queries, I want to raise a different question: Why are we surprised? Why is our indignation tinged with disbelief: “How could this happen in this day and age?” Critics routinely call the decision “hopelessly backward” and accuse critics of wanting to “turn back the clock,” as though there were a single historical timeline that carries us forward unless someone pushes us back. This is an utterly inadequate view of history. Instead, we need to locate both our victories and our defeats within multi-directional and open-ended historical processes, not steps in a single unfolding drama. We won’t understand the tenacity of efforts to control women’s sexuality until we give up the comforting assumption that history is a story of progress, and look more closely at the stakes and the terms of political struggle.
Reclaiming our radical past
Linda Gordon rightly points out, in her landmark study Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, that the radical roots of the struggle for birth control are largely unknown today. The situation faced by women in the U.S. in the early twentieth century with regard to controlling their reproduction was dire. The main problem was not a lack of known birth control technology, since, as Gordon documents, ancient, effective forms of birth control were selectively available, but in the U.S. had been largely forced underground. In 1873 the passage of the Comstock Law, which criminalized sending “obscene” material through the mail, gathered birth control, sexuality, and radical ideas in general into its elastic net of prohibitions. During this time, various barrier and suppository methods, called pessaries, were known and available to wealthy women through their doctors, but largely unknown or unavailable to the poor. Diaphragms and condoms had to be smuggled into the U.S. from Europe. Politics, rather than technology, made birth control unavailable to most American women, and to change that situation political struggle was required.
From a contemporary point of view, it is startling to realize that many anarchists and socialists placed women’s access to birth control at the heart of social revolution. We are accustomed to seeing the medicalized perspective – the claim that reproductive choices are questions of women’s health and should be left to women and their doctors – as the feminist position, the position we must defend. Yet, there is another set of feminist voices, radical voices, voices that aimed to free women as well as liberate workers, end war, and transform society. Jamaican writer Walter Adolphe Roberts championed birth control both to enhance women’s freedom and to advance the cause of social revolution. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman located women’s control over their reproduction as a central aspect of workers’ struggles and anti-war activism. They objected to Margaret Sanger’s strategy, which legitimized the birth control movement by aligning it with (mostly male) doctors, because Sanger’s approach removed birth control from the larger political context while giving power over women (including midwives) to doctors rather than to women themselves. Understanding these arguments can help feminists today to learn from our own movement’s past and perhaps to shape current reproductive struggles as steps toward more radical political change.
Anarchists and socialists who embraced birth control framed it as a revolutionary demand to include sexual and reproductive freedom as necessary aspects of social justice and individual autonomy. Controlling one’s own reproduction was part of transforming society. These progressive women and men integrated the liberation of women’s sexuality into their vocal anti-capitalist, anti-war mass movements. Just as capitalism sought to control the laboring bodies of workers, and militaries sought to control the fighting bodies of soldiers, so did patriarchal families, churches, professions, and governments seek to control the reproductive bodies of women. Restrictions on birth control, they concluded, served the interests of states by producing an endless supply of cannon fodder for imperial wars, the interests of capital by generating a reserve army of labor to keep wages down, and the interests of organized religion by maintaining women’s subservience and vulnerability within families and communities. A free society would be a society in which workers control their own labor, soldiers control their own fighting, and women control their own wombs. The radicals watched with dismay as their vision of a transformed society was displaced by the rise of a coalition between feminists, doctors and the state to privatize contraception as an issue “between a woman and her doctor.” Understanding the potentially radical implications of women’s reproductive freedom, they also saw that some kinds of birth control reform could reinforce patriarchy rather than challenge it.
Attention to these struggles can reframe contemporary debates over birth control. The Hobby Lobby decision and other losses for women are not temporary backsliding or inexplicable throwbacks to an earlier era, but instead indicate ongoing and predictable unrest over proper standards of sexuality and of women’s place. It would not surprise earlier anarchist and socialist feminists that the current Gilded Age, driven by neoliberal values and global corporate priorities, includes a resurgent war on women’s reproductive autonomy. These radicals would, however, likely recoil from the pallid notion that birth control is a “women’s issue” rather than a central aspect of a larger system of exploitation and control. A fuller grasp of our radical past can help us think of history as a dynamic network of shifting relations, operating at different paces in response to various challenges. The birth control movement then becomes a site of struggle, not an unfolding of a telos of development. We can look for the forgotten victories and lost possibilities of human freedom recorded there and bring those minoritarian views back into contemporary discussions.
How can birth control be more radical?
How might a greater appreciation of birth control’s radical past change feminism’s present and future? Perhaps it could give us an alternative to being on the defensive: rather than asking for health care, we might demand freedom. Rather than seeing doctors as our main partners, we might see unions, antiwar groups, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, alternative spiritual movements and other radical communities as coalition partners. We can make common cause with others who are similarly disadvantaged by, for example, judicial rulings granting corporations personhood, defining money as speech, and attributing religious identity to for-profit businesses. We might become more bold, not more cautious, in our thinking and acting.
For example, feminists often stress the difference between preventing and terminating pregnancy in order to use opposition to abortion to promote acceptance of birth control. Abortion and contraception are two separate issues, we say. Hobby Lobby’s court arguments are invalid because they confuse technologies that prevent fertilization with technologies that remove fertilized eggs, we point out. We invite people who oppose abortion to agree with us about birth control because, if all women had access to birth control, there would be fewer abortions. Perhaps we need to stop concentrating on these arguments. Even though these claims are accurate, they don’t appear to be working. I suspect they give up too much. While clearly abortion and contraception are different, it is their common value to women who want to control their fertility that makes both birth control and abortion into targets of conservative wrath.
Also, feminists often stress the priority of the relationship “between a woman and her doctor” to discredit other possible relations, say, between a woman and her employer, a woman and her husband, a woman and her Supreme Court justices. Perhaps we need to stop doing that, too. Medicalization of contraception has come to be the progressive position, the position we have to defend. But that only happened because more radical, more feminist perspectives were sidelined. Maybe it’s time to stress women’s freedom – and access to affordable and high quality health care would surely be an aspect of that freedom – rather than women’s health as our primary goal. When Sandra Fluke bravely testified before Congress about the importance of oral contraception for treating health issues other than pregnancy, she was vilified as a slut and a prostitute anyway. So perhaps it’s time to demand access to the birth control techniques that we want rather than parsing our desires to downplay sexual freedom. Calling on the courts to consider the “plight” of women who use contraception for non-sexual purposes implicitly suggests that those uses are somehow more legitimate, that women who have a “plight” are more worthy of consideration than women who have a cause. If oral contraceptives were sold over-the-counter at affordable prices or distributed for free at clinics (like condoms), then women’s reasons for wanting them would be irrelevant and the opportunites to judge women’s sexuality might diminish.
Further, feminists sometimes speak of opposition to birth control as psychological, a question of men’s fears of women’s sexual autonomy. Joan Walsh of Salon.com writes of a deep fear of women’s freedom on the Right; Andrea Flynn of Alternet denounces the Right’s obsession with punishing women for having sex. I don’t disagree with either of these claims, but I want to push them further – opposition to women’s reproductive freedom is not primarily a bad attitude or emotional hang-up. The interests of material structures and institutions that distribute resources, organize labor, conduct war, and administer spirituality are fully in play. Birth control keeps coming back as an issue not just because men don’t get it, but because capitalism, the state, empire, war and patriarchal religions are still in power, and those institutions have an enormous stake in controlling women’s sexuality.
Finally, feminists need to give up the comforting idea that history is on our side, that progress toward fuller rights and greater equality is written into the order of things, once we dispense with those irrational, wrong-thinking obstructionists. History, I think, isn’t on anyone’s side; more importantly, there are many histories, many trajectories, many different futures past. When feminists assure us, as Joan Walsh recently did, that “the right’s crippling panic over women’s autonomy will eventually doom it to irrelevance,” or, as Marcote commented, “the anti-sex argument is a losing argument,” we should question the implicit progress narrative folded into such guarantees. We are neither doomed nor blessed – rather, we have multiple opportunities to struggle for a better world and we should think carefully about their possibilities.
*My thanks to Nicole Sunday Grove, Jairus Grove, and Lori Marso for their help on this essay.