Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 12/1/2010

Reproductive Rights: The Stuff That Got Left Out In School

This year in school, I’m taking an elective called Gender, Culture, Power (pretty badass, right?). We’ve covered all kinds of feminist topics from gender stereotypes to domestic violence to sex trafficking to reading about rape as a war crime in the Lynn Nottage play Ruined. It’s been a pretty enlightening experience, but when the time to choose our final projects rolled around, I knew what had been missing from the course and what I was eager to look into further: reproductive rights.

Knowing about our bodies should be such a basic thing — something our parents, schools and even the government should make sure that teens are well informed about. And yet today we are not only ignorant in many ways about our bodies, but we seriously take our rights involving them for granted. Maybe we’re not all scouting out a Girls Gone Wild camera crew to exploit ourselves or signing up for the long-lasting career of upscale prostitution, but by and large teen girls today don’t have respect for or an understanding about the trials our moms and grandmas had to go through so that we have what to us seem like the basic rights of being able to control and make choices about our bodies.

Now, I don’t think this is entirely the fault of a generation that’s being painted as total self-obsessed brats (a lot of us are, a lot of us aren’t, that’s the way it generally goes). I think a lot of the blame can be put on our schools. When I took AP U.S. History we spent maybe a week total on women’s rights and the feminist movement. As far as reproductive rights go, Margaret Sanger was mentioned, and then we moved on. And I go to a pretty liberal, open-minded school. Not to mention that I personally have no recollection of ever taking a sex ed course at my school (my friends tell me that one day in our freshman health class we were warned against STDs but I must have been zoning out for those 30 seconds). At least I didn’t have the abstinence clown (which, because I live in Ohio, was a real possibility).

On the FBomb, we spend a lot of time talking about feminism as it relates to us personally, in pop culture and in current events, which is awesome. But I think there’s probably room to fill in for the education we’re apparently not getting in school. For my GCP class, I made a pretty intense timeline about the history of the American reproductive rights movement. I’ve reproduced some entries from it below. Hopefully this will help at least a few people realize that the rights we have over our bodies are fairly recent and also potentially easy enough to lose tomorrow.


1870’s: The Comstock Laws are passed, making contraception illegal and declaring that all attempts to make contraception and family planning available are, “obscene.” These laws resulted in a lot of unwanted pregnancies, and increasing poverty because families of lower classes often had more children than they could support. The Comstock Laws led to illegal abortions. While wealthy women could find a way to obtain safer abortions under the radar, poor women had to resort to causing themselves extreme physical strain or inserting sharp devices (like clothes hangers) into themselves. Such methods commonly resulted in, “cervical wounds, serious bleeding, infections, shock and death.”

1879: Margaret Sanger is born. She was the first one out there on the lines for protection, in a time (early 20th century) where sex was seriously shameful and taboo to talk about.

Sanger wrote that in women’s fight for liberty, voluntary motherhood was truly the key to autonomy and equality. Humanity comes back to reproduction, she argued, and if society can’t address something as base as that, women will never be liberated. Motherhood in general forces women to be subservient, and letting women control their bodies opens up every other avenue. She also identified ignorance as a blockade to liberation; the general population needed better sex education. She felt that mothers also needed unions, so that their work would be considered socially important rather than a gender role, and needed health benefits. She also wanted to do away with marriage.

1916: Margaret Sanger opens the first ever birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. Despite common social beliefs that only “loose” women would seek birth control, when Sanger opened the clinic virtually all the women who came were “working women’s wives. All had children. No unmarried girls came at all” clearly proving that birth control had greater societal implications than promiscuity. A police raid soon shut down the clinic.

1936: Sanger is arrested when postal authorities find that she is illegally ordering contraception. Her case was reviewed by Judge Augustus Hand, writing for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, how overrode the Comstock Laws, and ruled that contraception could no longer be considered obscene. The ruling applies to New York, Connecticut and Vermont. It isn’t until the 1960’s that married couples in the United States can obtain contraceptives from licensed physicians.

1948: Research biologist Gregory Pincus receives a grant from Planned Parenthood to research the development of the birth control pill, based on previous findings that progesterone would act as an inhibitor ovulation.

1960: The FDA approves the sale of oral pills for contraception and the pill in an enormous success.

1967-1970: Colorado becomes the first state to liberalize abortion laws by developing the “Model Penal Code on Abortion” which advocated for legal abortion in cases of “rape, incest, severe fetal defects, and when the women’s life or health was at risk.” Hawaii (which made abortion totally legal), New York (which allowed abortion through the 24th week of pregnancy if the procedure was preformed by a licensed physician), Alaska and Washington soon followed.

1973: Roe v. Wade – this landmark Supreme Court case legalized abortion on a federal level. Before, abortion had been handled on a state-by-state basis, but the court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy gave women the right to seek an abortion safely and legally at any point during the first six months of pregnancy in the entire United States.

1980: Ronald Reagan is elected. He is the first president to blatantly oppose abortion and ignores violent attacks against family planning providers. He also attempts to pass legislation that would make it nearly impossible for minors to obtain birth control without parental consent, and requiring doctors to violate the confidentiality of their patients.

1993: Clinton, a pro-choice candidate is elected. He repeals the Title X gag rule and the global gag rule in the same day, and eventually vetoes two federal abortion bans.

2009: Dr. George Tiller is murdered because of his standing as one of the few doctors in the United States to perform late-term abortions. His murder came after years of threatened violence, witnessing his clinic being bombed, being shot in both arms and facing multiple law suits against his operation.

For a more comprehensive timeline check out Planned Parenthood’s website.

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  • Katherine C. @ at 12:05 pm, December 1st, 2010

    YAY!!!!! *applause*

    I am a huge fan of women’s history and you would not believe (or, actually, you probably would) the crap I take for it in history class. Brava!

  • Zoe @ at 1:36 pm, December 1st, 2010

    Cool and informative. Thanks!

  • Think You Know Your Reproductive Rights History? » A Usable Past @ at 2:14 pm, December 1st, 2010

    […] out the whole post here!   « Lincoln: A Nutmeg Dealer | […]

  • Bri @ at 3:17 pm, December 1st, 2010

    Wow. It really shows you how recent all of that is. Contaraception was illegal in 1936. That wasn’t very long ago at all and Roe V Wade was 1973, my mother was already a young girl at that time.
    In one way it’s disturbing how slow the process has been and makes me think of how long a way we have to go, but there is also hope. We may be moving slowly, but we’re moving.

  • Liza @ at 3:34 pm, December 1st, 2010

    You think your school is bad?
    My school brags about being open minded and diverse, yet we have no GCP class or anything similar to it, nor have I ever heard of reproductive rights until I read this article. We seem to live in a society that applauds people if they are against racism and pro-gay; anyone who supports something different is a freak.

  • Marisol @ at 5:10 pm, December 1st, 2010

    Oh my gosh, that is SO cool that you have a class like that at your high school! :D I wish my school had one like that but you know, these parents down here get riled up if they see something remotely liberal/pro-gay/feminist/pro-minority/pro-choice in our curricula. Sucks, no?

  • Marisol @ at 5:12 pm, December 1st, 2010

    Oh and almost forgot! Awesome timeline :) You know, I’ve never actually heard of Margaret Sanger before now (yes, I stay awake in history class; she’s just not in our curricula at all). But she sounds like a badass that I need to find out more about!

  • A @ at 5:17 pm, December 1st, 2010

    I was assigned a HUGE project last year to study Margaret Sanger’s whole life, so I am pleased to say that I was aware of most of those things though, to my knowledge, only I have covered them in school so far.

    @Katherine C.- me too!! No one is specifically mean about it, but I get laughed at quite a bit for the way I work women’s rights, gender roles, or the patriarchy into every discussion we have.

  • Nano Muse @ at 9:11 pm, December 1st, 2010

    I am always horrified by what I hear about blocking of information like this in other schools.

    At my school, health teachers spend weeks on accurate protection against pregnancy and STD’s, some even giving their students an assignment to go to the nearest pharmacy and find out what’s offered there.

    My AP U.S. history teacher never left out feminism – he went through era by era, and always included feminist movements, big or small, alongside everything else, even remarking that when the Civil War was over, only a difference of a few words in the 15th Amendment cost women another 50 years until getting the vote (the original draft of the 15th Amendment included “or gender”, but it was crossed out ToT).

    Also, he taught us about Margaret Sanger, her background, and her work, and taught us about Roe vs Wade extensively, both as a legal/court case and as a civil rights issue. God, I loved this teacher. :) He even covers gay rights! From what I’ve heard, most other history teachers pretend gay rights don’t exist. \o/

    I’m sorry to see you and so many others facing this lack of education, and I applaud you for your research and your project – hopefully, others around you can learn from you.

  • JJ @ at 1:18 am, December 2nd, 2010

    What I usually like to do is read a variety of writing about a topic, and about Margaret Sanger…
    I think it’s amazing that she’s done so much in terms of family planning and the pill, but what’s interesting (from the book When Abortion Was a Crime) is that the ‘family planning’ groups for a while diverged from the abortion movement, concentrating solely on the aspect of family planning…
    There’s also a part that she played in the eugenics movement in the U.S. with her birth control…
    There’s a really interesting bit dedicated to just her and her work in a book about eugenics by Edwin Black.
    Just a little input for the discussion..

  • Natalia @ at 1:49 am, December 2nd, 2010

    For one of my drama classes, we had to do a speech and I chose one by Margaret Sanger! I was the only one who had a speech related to a women’s rights issue. I love how she constructed her speeches.

  • Cait @ at 5:52 am, December 2nd, 2010

    this is a really good read, thank you for posting it.

  • NWOslave @ at 10:13 pm, December 4th, 2010

    Im guessing this class would only pertain to women since men have no rights to reproduction.

    Natalia you said…Natalia @ at 1:49 am, December 2nd, 2010

    For one of my drama classes, we had to do a speech and I chose one by Margaret Sanger! I was the only one who had a speech related to a women’s rights issue. I love how she constructed her speeches.

    Margaret Sanger was a racist who wanted to exterminate all black people. Did you include that little tidbit in your speech?

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