Nation Topics - Gender Issues
News and Features
The inclusion of women in peace negotiations would go a long way toward addressing their exploitation and abuse in war-torn areas.
Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.
Should the question of personhood at the embryo stage really be decided by politicians?
Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two
cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the
Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of
human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning
stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since
both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who
have done nothing for women's health or rights in their entire lives,
I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition
supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (the producers
of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara
Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at
www.ourbodiesourselves.org/clone3.htm). Are feminists so worried about "creating a
duplicate human" that they would ban potentially useful medical
research? Isn't that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block
research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro
My antennae go up when people start talking about
threats to "human individuality and dignity"--that's a harrumph, not
an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however,
that hasn't gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on
trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation--implanting
clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till
birth--would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of
severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the
outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards,
and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That's good
reason to go slow on human research--especially when you consider
that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the
UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of
Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described "cowboy" of assisted reproduction
who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other
Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard
time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone
else--the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a
break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress
against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in
which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another
adult--a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or
maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and
playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart's clone would
be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would
have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal
environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century
America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century
Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone
might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard,
but he couldn't compose Figaro. Someone already did
People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New
World dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces
inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the
trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America
right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good
luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they
are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and
slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit.
Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm
bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners' semen--a tiny fraction, I'll
bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance
from Dr. Jack Daniel's.
Similarly, cloning raises fears of
do-it-yourself eugenics--designer babies "enhanced" through gene
manipulation. It's hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all
pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning
for "perfect" babies today--preparing for conception by giving up
cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their
fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually
do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a
nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are
already the "genetic elite"--white, with lots of family money. What
do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they're perfect
Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions
that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence,
talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays,
for example, worry that discovery of a "gay gene" will permit
selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it's obvious that
same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of
Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn't
the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to
understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities
are--after all, women are always being told anatomy is their
There's a strain of feminism that comes out of the
women's health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of
reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro
fertilization and other innovations commodify women's bodies, are
subtly coercive and increase women's anxieties, while moving us
steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal,
natural processes. There's some truth to that, butwhat about the side
of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women?
Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy
children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite
disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did
in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first "test tube
baby." Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of
for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities,
given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions
worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that
the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be
better used on something else? But the same can be said of every
aspect of American life. The enemy isn't the research, it's
The state's justice system crushes poor people like Ernestina Rodriguez.
Memo to editors of campus papers: When the next right-wing ideologue shows up with an ad full of nonsense, just take the money and print it. That way, they will not be able to pose as the victim of "political correctness," they will not get millions of dollars' worth of free publicity and their ideas will not acquire the glamour of the forbidden. By the same token, you will not look afraid of debate and controversy, nor will you have to explain why you rejected their ad while printing something equally false, offensive or stupid on some previous occasion.
Never mind that the people accusing you of censorship practice it themselves: In an amusing riposte to David Horowitz's flamethrower ad opposing reparations for slavery, Salon's David Mazel proved unable to place an enthusiastically pro-abortion ad in papers on conservative campuses; and as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out, the Boston Globe, which editorialized against students who rejected the Horowitz ad, itself rejected an ad criticizing Staples, a major advertiser, for using old-growth forest pulp in its typing paper. So there, and so there! But you're in a better place to make such arguments stick if you can stand--however cynically and self-servingly--on the high ground of free speech yourself.
Just as Horowitz faded, having shot himself in the foot by refusing to pay the Daily Princetonian after it printed his ad but editorialized against it, up comes the soi-disant Independent Women's Forum--you know, that intrepid band of far-right free spirits funded by the ultraconservative Sarah Scaife Foundation--with an ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin and Yale Daily News urging students to "Take Back the Campus!" and "Combat the radical feminist assault on Truth." The IWF charges "campus feminism" with being "a kind of cult" in which "students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the 'capitalist patriarchal hegemony,'" a fount of "Ms./Information," "male-bashing and victimology." Brainwashing isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of the revolution in scholarship that has produced such celebrated historians as Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Joan Scott, Rickie Solinger, Leslie Reagan and Kathy Peiss. The sweeping, paranoiac language gives it away--this is IWF member Christina Hoff Sommers speaking from her perch at that noted institution of higher learning, the American Enterprise Institute.
The bulk of the ad consists of a list of "the ten most common feminist myths" and the "facts" that supposedly prove them false. Much of this is lifted from Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?, a book that attempted to deploy a few gotchas against hyperbolic statistics and questionable studies to deny the significance of violence, sexism and discrimination in women's lives. I mean, how important is it that "rule of thumb" may not derive, as some feminist activists believe and some newspapers have printed, from an old legal rule permitting husbands to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb (Myth #4)? Feminists did not make this folk etymology up out of nothing--actually, according to Sharon Fenick of the University of Chicago, writing on the Urban Legends website, it probably goes back to the eighteenth century, when the respected English judge, Francis Buller, earned the nickname "Judge Thumb," for declaring such "correction" permissible. That it was legal for premodern English husbands to beat their wives within limits is not in dispute (in her book, Sommers obscures this fact by omitting the Latin phrases from a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries); nor is the fact that wife-beating, regardless of the law, was, and sometimes still is, treated lightly by the legal system under the rubric of marital privacy. Thus, in 1910 the Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Thompson, barred wives from suing husbands for "injuries to person or property as though they were strangers." (I learned this, and much else relating to the history of American marriage, from Yale feminist historian Nancy Cott's fascinating Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.)
And what about Myth #2, "Women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns." That doesn't come from some man-bashing fabulator squirreled away in a women's studies department. It comes from the US government! The IWF argues that the disparity disappears when you take education, training, occupation, continuity of employment, motherhood and other factors into account--but even if that were true, which it isn't, to overlook all those things is itself advocacy, a politicized way of defining sex discrimination in order to minimize it.
And then there's #1, the mother of all myths: "One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." The IWF debunks this number, which comes from the research of Mary Koss, by citing the low numbers of reported rapes on college campuses, but the one-in-four figure includes off-campus and pre-college rapes and rape attempts. Are Koss's numbers the last word? Of course not. In 1998 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among all women, one in five had experienced a rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. In January the Justice Department released a report claiming that 3 percent of college women experience rape or attempted rape per school year, which does add up over four years.
Does irresponsible, lax or even slanted use of facts and figures exist in "campus feminism"? Sure--and out of it, too. (Try economics.) But what does that have to do with women's studies, a very large, very lively interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, in which many of the supposed verities of contemporary feminism are hotly contested? The real debate isn't over the merits of this study or that--in social science "results" are always provisional. Now that the IWF has thrown down the gauntlet, feminist scholars should call for that real debate--Resolved: Women's lives were more seriously studied and accurately understood when almost no tenured professors were female. Or, Resolved: Violence against women is not a major social problem. Or, Resolved: If women aren't equal, it's their own darn fault.
They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.
Once in a while you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work. The author, Andrea Tone, associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, belongs to a small band of new historians who are reassessing the lives of nineteenth-century women through attention to their personal (and I do mean very personal) health aids. An earlier example would be Rachel Maines's The Technology of Orgasm, published by Johns Hopkins in 1999, which describes and illustrates the 1880s-style vibrators that doctors freely used in their offices--and women in their homes--for relief of pelvic congestion and the female "hysteria" associated with it.
Devices and Desires opens in 1873 when, through the machinations of Anthony Comstock--star agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)--Congress unexpectedly voted to make contraceptives illegal. Many Americans disapproved, and when the news reached Ireland, George Bernard Shaw coined the word "Comstockery," which, he predicted, would become "the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."
It may be that talk of the new law made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before. It may be that, as with Eve's forbidden fruit, the ban made pregnancy prevention seem more alluring or naughty--or more fun. Then too, the "bootleg" business environment that ensued was relatively welcoming to entrepreneurial immigrants, smart single mothers with families to support and other ambitious "outsiders." "As with condoms," Tone observes, "creating diaphragms was easy and inexpensive, an ideal venture for those with little money and a penchant for risk." In any case the business of contraception flourished in the Comstock era, embracing scores of diverse devices and spermicides for women and men. Hundreds if not thousands of small entrepreneurs and distributors profited, as did as an impressive handful of industrial giants, including the arch-hypocrite Samuel Colgate, millionaire heir to the New Jersey-based soap firm, who served as president of Comstock's NYSSV while openly promoting Vaseline to "destroy spermatozoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina."
Other well-established companies that made, distributed and freely advertised contraceptives--ranging from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to vaginal pessaries (appliances intended to support the uterus that could also prevent the passage of sperm), and from douching syringes, suppositories and foaming tablets to sponges and male caps--included some still familiar names: B.F. Goodrich, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear. "The B.F. Goodrich Company," notes Tone, "manufactured three soft-rubber IUDs--one pear- and two donut-shaped, each available in five sizes--and twelve hard-rubber models. Two of the latter models were one-size-fits-all rings." Physicians were leading players in the commercialization of mass-produced IUDs--constructed from rubber, metal, ivory and even wood--although some models were promoted for do-it-yourself insertion.
Tone's exhaustive research led her--like an ace detective or shoe-leather crime reporter--through an eight-year coast-to-coast investigation of Post Office Department records, Federal Trade Commission transcripts (some with decaying diaphragms and condoms glued to the pages), American Medical Association (AMA) Health Fraud Archives, records of the NYSSV, credit reports from nineteenth-century Dun and Co. collections, patents, love letters, arrest records, trial records, advertisements and trade catalogues--as well as "entrapment" letters, some drafted by Comstock himself. (He or another agent would pose as being in desperate need of birth control, get the goods and make the arrest.) Established companies, Tone discovered, run by "honest, brave men" who supported Comstock and NYSSV, were never targets for such treatment, which was reserved for smaller entrepreneurs--especially immigrants ("sly" Jews) and women ("old she villains").
Even so, many of those arrested were let off or punished lightly, while the entrapping agents and prosecutors ran the risk of being scolded and humiliated by judges and juries who doubted the advisability, and constitutionality, of such far-reaching Congressional interference into personal matters. Over time, what Tone calls a "zone of tolerance" was created to buffer the flourishing contraceptives trade and its practitioners. In fact, Shaw's prediction that Comstockery would become a "standing joke" was soon realized here in the United States, even, it would seem, in Congress itself.
The hugely ambitious Comstock Act, however, was hardly about contraceptives alone. It stated:
No obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed to be intended for the prevention of conception or the inducing of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things mentioned may be obtained or made...shall be carried in the mail.
You do the math. A small army of Post Office inspectors (known as special agents) were required to enforce such an effort. But Congress refused to drum up a serious budget for the measure when Comstock went into effect and made light of the ambitious national program by raising the number of inspectors--nationwide--from fifty-nine to only sixty-three. Looking at the postal arrest figures from May 1875 through April 1876, Tone counted a total of 410 apprehensions, of which only twenty-seven were for violations of the Comstock law.
Nonetheless, in later generations we took it for granted that from passage of the Comstock Act until the post-World War I rise of Margaret Sanger, the average American had little or no access to what we now call "family planning" (a term, Tone informs us, suggested in the 1960s by Malcolm X--"because Negroes [are] more willing to plan than to be controlled"). And while it's true that some of the contraceptives available at the time were ineffective, dangerous or both, others, including condoms, cervical caps (apt to be euphemistically advertised as pessaries in the Comstock era), diaphragms, sponges and some spermicides were often pretty good and relatively inexpensive. Tone notes that in this sea of alternatives many determined wives and husbands doubled, tripled or quadrupled on protection. Given this environment, it's not surprising that after 1880 the national fertility rates for both white and black women declined rapidly, reaching an all-time low in 1940--twenty years before Enovid, the first birth-control pill, came to market and only three years after the AMA's 1937 resolution to "endorse" contraception and recommend it for inclusion in the standard medical school curriculum.
Between 1880 and 1940 the average fertility rate of whites dropped from 4.4 children per woman to 2.1. For blacks it dropped from 7.5 children to 3. Given these incontrovertible facts--a flourishing contraceptives industry paired with a steady decline in births--how could we have come to believe otherwise, that our great and great-great grandmothers were, so to speak, up the fertility creek without a paddle?
Some of the historical distortion must be attributed to the work of Margaret Sanger, who originally dreamed of female empowerment through woman-oriented contraceptive technologies. She viewed birth control as a woman's right and responsibility, and wrote in 1922 that "the question of bearing and rearing children is the concern of the mother and potential mother.... No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body." Condoms "compromised this objective by placing women's procreative destiny in men's hands." Until her death in 1966 Sanger promoted the manufacture first of diaphragms and later the pill, never quite answering objections from other feminists--in the 1920s and again in the 1960s--that this transferred power over women's bodies to doctors who were overwhelmingly (in the case of gynecologists, 97 percent) male. Sanger came to believe so strongly in medically controlled contraception that in a 1952 letter she stated that her greatest achievement had been "to keep the movement strictly and sanely under medical auspices."
This was an about-face from her earlier position. In her extraordinary 1915 pamphlet, Family Limitation, a home guide to contraception, Sanger, as Tone explains, "envisioned a world of grassroots birth control where women from all walks of life could use contraceptives without reliance on doctors, a populist approach she would soon abandon." Family Limitation discussed douches, condoms and cervical caps. (The essential difference between a pessary or cap and a diaphragm is that the generally thimble-shaped caps fit over the cervix by suction and are less likely to be displaced. The diaphragm, however, more or less divides the vagina vertically into two compartments, protecting the cervix from the arena where sperm is deposited. Both methods can benefit from outside help with fitting and correct technique, but the cap has a better record of over-the-counter success, and was long distributed by this means in France, England and the United States.) Sanger ultimately recommended caps, which she felt could be most easily and discreetly used and controlled by women. She distributed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet, imploring women to learn how to insert caps into their own bodies and then to "teach each other" how to as well.
When Sanger and her sister Ethel opened their first clinic in 1916 they instructed women, eight at a time, on how to use over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptives, including condoms, suppositories and rubber pessaries. When police, inevitably, raided the clinic, they found boxes of Mizpah pessaries. An effective OTC contraceptive, this flexible rubber cap was sold by druggists and mail-order vendors for the alleged purpose of treating such medical conditions as a displaced (or prolapsed) uterus. But as Tone writes: "Family Limitation got Sanger into more trouble. In 1915, she found herself back in Europe dodging American law while continuing her contraceptive education.... The trip across the Atlantic was risky. War had broken out." Back home, her husband, William Sanger, had his own problems. And as fate would have it, so did Anthony Comstock. William Sanger had been arrested by Comstock for distributing Family Limitation. And Comstock, who caught a cold in the courtroom during the trial, died soon after of pneumonia.
After her divorce from William, Margaret admitted she was looking for "a widower with money." James Noah Henry Slee, twenty years her senior, was "a well-heeled member of Manhattan's business elite...part of the same establishment Sanger had vilified in her younger, more radical years." They married in 1922 and with his backing, Tone explains,
Sanger embarked on a new chapter of her career, one that distanced the birth control movement from its radical origins and placed it on a more conservative path.... She recognized...that medical science enjoyed increasing prestige and political clout...she sought birth control allies through an ideology that trumpeted women's health over their civil liberties and cast doctors, not patients, as agents of contraceptive choice.
Sanger switched her preference to the diaphragm, particularly the Holland-Rantos brand, which sold exclusively to doctors. (This company, established in 1925, was funded by none other than Mr. Margaret Sanger, James Noah Henry Slee.) Sanger next prevailed on her besotted bridegroom to hire a distinguished, high-salaried doctor to promote their new company:
1925 is to be the big year for the break in birth control...the medical profession will take up the work...I shall feel that I have made my contribution to the cause and...I can withdraw from full-time activity.... If I am able to accomplish this victory...I shall bless my adorable husband, JNH Slee, and retire with him to the garden of love.
Sanger did not retire. In the following years she worked ceaselessly toward her goal of getting the AMA to endorse birth control. Her "signature" story, often bringing audiences to tears, concerned Sadie Sachs, a young immigrant mother of three, married to Jake, a truck driver. When Sadie begged a doctor to give her birth control he cruelly retorted, "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sadie later died of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. Sanger was now in the business of helping the public forget that some of the widely available OTC methods worked very well for many people. As Tone points out, if Sadie could afford a physician visit, she could surely afford the far lower price of a contraceptive.
In addition to the move toward medicalization, our collective memory may have been dealt a brainwashing by panic-driven "eugenicists." As Sanger moved up socially she supported birth control for some elitist reasons, such as "the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." But this was mild compared with the phobic reasoning of some of our greatest national leaders, who also feared the newcomers from Europe. Falling birthrates among our native born and the widespread immigration of foreigners from southern and eastern Europe (over 23 million people arrived on America's shores between 1880 and 1920) led Teddy Roosevelt to warn in 1912 that if middle-class American women used fertility control it "means racial death." In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, our great champion of civil liberties, stunned many of his admirers when, in Buck v. Bell, he agreed to uphold a Virginia eugenics statute legalizing the coerced sterilization of "socially inadequate persons." Carrie Buck, the plaintiff, was young, single and white, the "daughter of an imbecile," the mother of an "illegitimate feeble minded child." Holmes agreed to the cutting of Buck's fallopian tubes, proclaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Tone adds that during the Nuremberg trials following World War II, accused Nazi war criminals cited Buck v. Bell to justify the forced sterilization of some 2 million Germans.
Here in the United States, the eugenics and population control movements promoted--and continue to promote--the need to develop contraceptives that take prescription (and often removal) out of the woman's hands. For example, in interviews with 686 low-income users of Norplant--a hormonal contraceptive, intended to last for five years, that consists of six matchstick-sized capsules implanted in a woman's arm--researchers at Columbia University's Center for Population and Family Health learned that 40 percent anticipated or experienced "cost barriers" that could impede the removal of Norplant. They urge that family-planning clinics "follow a policy of Norplant removal on demand, regardless of the patient's ability to pay." Some feminists charge that the effectiveness of OTC methods (carefully used) is still downplayed in quasi-official figures, a dangerous public health mistake in this age of galloping STDs.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of doctor-controlled methods has been exaggerated, as the FDA has acknowledged. Previously, it gave out "ideal" figures for oral-contraceptive effectiveness, in contrast to discouraging clinic "use" figures for barrier methods. In the new round of product labeling this has been partially corrected; actual-use figures for the Pill are placed in a truthful range of 92-95 percent, not at the falsely optimistic 99 percent-plus.
Devices and Desires is replete with riveting histories of women and men who labored--legally and illegally--in the ever-challenging arena of conception control, from the Comstock era through today, and includes portraits of the men who developed Enovid, the first pill, as well as those behind the notorious IUD, the Dalkon shield. Those who read this fascinating book will have a far keener and more credible sense of what has happened and where we are now. Most women are still unsatisfied with their contraceptive choices, and as Tone concludes,
It is ironic that in a post-Roe v. Wade world that celebrates reproductive choice, the most frequently used contraceptive in the country--by a wide-margin--is female sterilization. In a very real sense Americans are still waiting for the heralded "second contraceptive revolution" to arrive.... In the absence of universal health care or prescription drug coverage, one way out of the contraceptive conundrum may be the development of more affordable over-the-counter methods, which would increase men's and women's options without tethering contraceptives to the medical marketplace from which millions are excluded.... Today to meet the needs of women and men who lack sufficient resources, we must supplement reliable medical methods with inexpensive over-the-counter options.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the Pill, revival of the ever-treacherous IUD and "stealth sterilization" of welfare moms--whose tubes were tied, without permission, after giving birth--placed contraception still more firmly in doctors' hands. In the parlance of that decade the "greasy kid stuff," including condoms, was left in the dust. Because of overpopulation fears, the new technologies enjoyed a diplomatic immunity--at women's expense. At an annual meeting of medical school deans, Nobel laureate Dr. Frederick Robbins declared, "The dangers of overpopulation are so great that we may have to use certain techniques of conception control that may entail considerable risk to the individual woman." Original Pills contained 150 micrograms of estrogen; today we know that 20 suffices. Millions of women served as guinea pigs for high-dose pills and IUDs, and thousands died. In 1970, at Senate hearings, Dr. Louis Hellman, chairman of the FDA advisory committee that twice declared the Pill safe, admitted that in his equation of benefit versus risk he "put population first, before benefits to the individual woman's health."
As women demanded to "take our bodies back" from deceitful doctors, the spirit of Comstock rose up again. In 1973 Our Bodies, Ourselves, Ellen Frankfort's Vaginal Politics and my book Free and Female were banned in Cleveland and Washington, DC. In 1979 shipments of cervical caps that independent women's self-help clinics imported from England were seized by FDA agents. Senator Ted Kennedy helped to get the caps released, but the FDA restricted their use to "investigational device" (ludicrous--the same caps had been in continuous use in England for a century), thus subverting the grassroots revival of the cap. Who can say who put the FDA up to this, but perhaps some future Andrea Tone-type women's history sleuth will get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, one of my hopes for Tone's extraordinary book is that it might encourage many people--men as well as women--to reconsider the barrier methods, respect them more and possibly learn to enjoy them, as some say they do. In contrast to the steady decline of teenage pregnancy, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in young adults is increasing at a truly alarming rate. For example, estimates are that 46 percent of female college students are now infected with human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause both genital warts and cervical cancer. Are student health services reliably advising their clients of this? My informants say no.
Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.
Facebook Like Box