Editor’s Note: Today’s we are so luck to have another guest post from globetrotting feminists Elin and Hennie Weiss! Yay! Elin has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland. Hennie is currently finished up her Master’s Degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. They are both very interested in women’s studies, feminism and the study of men and masculinities, especially so gender role expectations and the representation of women and men in media.
The recent Senate hearing concerning President Obama’s policy on birth control caused quite the stir as an all male panel discussed women’s contraceptive rights. As outraged as many women and men were over the exclusion of females, who are most impacted by birth and contraceptive choices, men’s control over women’s bodies is not a new phenomenon. Across time and continents, women’s rights have been contested, fought against, and denied as men have assumed a paternalistic approach to women’s own choices concerning abortion, contraception, and birth, while issuing themselves the right to decide over women’s bodies. Men’s control over women’s bodies, however, has often been damaging and unhealthy to women. In this piece, we are discussing a few historical examples that showcase men’s influence and control over women’s rights and choices. We want to discuss examples that show that the persistent male control over women’s bodies and choices has not always been based on knowledge or competence but simply has concerned men’s need to control women.
The all male panel that discussed women’s rights to free birth control included men from different races and religious beliefs, as to fairly include different opinions. This panel however lacked one crucial aspect: women and women’s opinions. After all, this was a discussion that concerned women’s bodies, rights and choices. The fact that the panel consisted of all male participants is hugely upsetting. It is not, however, surprising since throughout history there has been a strong tendency for men to infantilize women while believing that women’s opinions are less valid and competent.
Even before the pill was invented and fairly available to women, many women attempted to control their sexuality through different methods aimed at limiting or spacing pregnancy. Since for many years a woman’s sexuality was often controlled by her husband, and marital rape was not seen as problematic, many women faced more or less constant pregnancies. This was especially hard on working class women who had to perform straining work shortly after giving birth, and who lacked the finances to provide for a large number of children. Various abortion methods were looked down upon but were often performed (Abbott 2011). During this time, the most famous abortionists were women while the most focused anti-abortionists were men. A man named Anthony Comstock was one of the most aggressive opponents of birth control (Tyler May 2010). Comstock fought to rid the United States of literature discussing birth control while prosecuting abortionists. He succeeded and in 1873 the Comstock Act was accepted, declaring the obscenity of birth control devices (Abbott 2011).
As stated above, women have long used various methods of contraception to avoid, delay, or space pregnancy, some more effective than others. But it was the pill that came to change women’s rights to their own bodies in ways that are still important today, more than 50 years after the pill first went on the market. Even though men have been credited with the invention of the pill, it was two women, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, who were the real “mothers of invention” (Tyler May 2010). Sanger and McCormick began to advocate for, and personally fund, the development of the pill. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States and was sent to prison for her actions, while McCormick funded much of the early research of the pill and illegally smuggled diaphragms to Sanger’s clinics. Both Sanger and McCormick dreamed “for a contraceptive that would be entirely controlled by women” (Tyler May 2010: 17). Not only were women’s rights to use contraceptives and abortions questioned and controlled by men, but during the same time, so were women’s rights to making choices concerning pregnancy and childbirth.
The policies aimed at limiting women’s access to birth control was largely implemented and promoted by male practitioners and the emerging medical profession in order to control births and remove authority from midwives and lay healers (Tyler May 2010). In the United States, medical practitioners and obstetricians started a campaign to get rid of midwives. This campaign lasted from about 1900 to 1930. Male practitioners acted on the belief that women’s bodies were weak and unable to successfully go through natural childbirth. Doctors and obstetricians effectively managed to keep many midwives from assisting women at birth, much through insisting that midwives were primitive and lacked the superior technology of doctors (Gaskin 2011).
Such beliefs and attitudes still prevail today as time limits (often followed by c-sections) are heavily implemented. Media depictions of c-sections have contributed to the belief that c-sections are easy and safe for women. However, medical interventions, such as c-sections, inductions, and forceps should only be used if a woman is unable to go through childbirth (Gaskin 2011). The fact that c-sections are on the rise is complicating the health of babies since they cannot be delivered by natural physical labor (through contractions and traveling through the birth canal). Physical labor often results in, among other things, better functioning organs and higher body temperature in the infant (Trevathan 2010).
The belief that men revolutionized birth and made it safe for women is commonly reiterated in anti-feminist literature. Roy Baumeister (2010) writes in his book Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men that: “As I noted earlier, women had not ever been able to solve some of the vexing problems of childbirth until male medicine showed the way. It was understandable that women were not capable of such intellectual work” (p. 149) and that: “The women’s sphere did not produce progress. It stayed pretty much the same…” (p. 147).
The increasing use of c-sections (promoted by male medicine) is both dangerous and includes an invasive medical procedure for women. In the 1970’s only 5% of mothers had a c-section. In 2008, this number rose to 32%. Ironically, women in America today are more likely than their mothers to die from complications of birth. Gaskin (2011) claims that the high mortality rates of American mother’s can be reversed by reducing the numbers of c-sections, by implementing mother-friendly childbirth initiatives, utilizing the skills and knowledge of midwives, and through education, meaning that we give childbirth back to women and empower women throughout the childbirth process.
Many women are now opting for home births so that they can better control their own environment, body, and escape the imposed time limit on birth. Researchers have claimed that women who opt for home births are selfish and put their child in danger. Much of the research done on the consequences of home births versus hospital births have however been described as both biased and as propaganda, and the methodologies of such research have been highly criticized (Gaskin 2011).
Just as women’s choices concerning home births are questioned and opposed in research, we also experience opposition from many other institutions that are highly male dominated. Opposition to different forms of contraceptives, such as abortion, was common before the implementation of the pill in 1961, as well as after. Political campaigns and religious affiliations displayed the type of paternalism and control over women’s bodies mentioned above. The Catholic Church has a longstanding opposition towards birth control, while Presidents and political leaders have fought for and against women’s rights in the public arena.
One example of both political opposition and support for women’s rights is the implementation and subsequent reversal of the Mexico City Policy in 1984, implemented by President Ronald Reagan. The Mexico City Policy was, “a global gag rule that refused U.S. government support to any agency, American or foreign, that used its own funds to support abortion services, counseling, or referral, even though these services would be legal and no U.S. money was involved” (Tyler May 2010: 54). It was not until President Bill Clinton came into office in 1993 that the Mexico City Policy was reversed. When President George W. Bush took office, he again reversed the policy and cut much funding for family planning options, while favoring abstinence only campaigns. Only a few days after taking office, President Obama again reversed the policy, lifting the restrictions of the Mexico City Policy (Tyler May 2010).
Women have fought for, and are still fighting for their right to chose if, when, and how to have children. Many male political leaders, as well as other people in positions of power regularly attack the right to abortions and contraceptives. The assumption therefore is that women themselves are not equipped to make decisions concerning their own fertility and life choices. As both Sanger and McCormick dreamed “for a contraceptive that would be entirely controlled by women” (Tyler May 2010: 17) even before the invention of the pill, these dreams are yet again questioned and repudiated by men who seek to control, dominate and decide over women’s bodies. More than 50 years after the pill went on the market, men ferociously seek to limit women’s choices. There should be no hearing, there should be no law, and there should be no male involvement in women’s choices. Let women decide for themselves.
One present example of the persistent male control over women’s bodies and choices can be demonstrated in a now ongoing campaign in the Honduras in which women that are using contraceptives such as “the morning after pill” are being threatened with up to six years in prison. This fact even applies to women who have been raped. Doctors who prescribe the high dose contraceptive can face between three to ten years in prison. (Anyone who would like to sign the petition against imprisoning women for using contraceptives, and doctors for prescribing contraceptives, can do so here: http://www.avaaz.org/en/no_prison_for_contraception_global/?cl=1719509666&v=13637).
We wonder what is really behind men’s interest in keeping women from attaining birth control. What is so daunting and intimidating about women’s rights to their own bodies? Pro-choice does not mean that all women have to avail of the opportunities and rights given to them. It merely means that women are allowed to choose what is in their best interest. Anti-choice is limiting to some women while Pro-choice lets women decide for themselves. These are our bodies and they do not belong to politicians and strangers who have no place in our lives.
Abbott, Elizabeth. 2011. A History of Marriage: from same sex unions to private vows and
common law, the surprising diversity of a tradition. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Baumeister, Roy. 2010. Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gaskin, Ina May. 2011. Birth Matters: a midwife’s manifesta. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Trevathan, Wenda. 2010. Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives: How Evolution Has Shaped Women’s
Health. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tyler May, Elaine. 2010. America and The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic Books.