Revolution #202, May 30, 2010
The Pill: 50 Years Later
Throughout most of human history, if a woman had sex with a man, getting pregnant was always possible; the woman had virtually no control over that. In 1960 the FDA approved the birth control pill. For the first time, the act of sex could be deliberately and reliably separated from procreation. The Pill was a historic scientific development that meant millions of women could have control over whether or not they became pregnant. Since then hundreds of millions of women around the world have used the Pill to prevent pregnancy.
It’s hard for people now to remember what it was like before the Pill. For unmarried women who were having sex there was that feeling of terror in the pit of the stomach if a menstrual period was late. For married women, being pregnant constantly and having a new baby every year or two—that was a married woman’s role and her future.
This was not simply because effective contraception had not yet been developed. The social morés that are romanticized in the 50s TV shows: Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver—cover over the suffocation and brutality of the time. The Catholic Church in Boston taught married women that if they were practicing birth control—using a diaphragm or condoms or spermicidal creams—the faces of their unborn children would haunt them on their deathbeds and they would burn in hellfire for eternity.1 There was no such thing as marital rape, a man could force his wife to submit to sex whenever he wanted. Women were wives and mothers—period. In Connecticut and Massachusetts it was a crime for even married couples to use birth control and 22 other states had similar restrictions.
It wasn’t until 1965, in the court case Griswold v. Connecticut, that the Supreme Court overturned those laws that limited the distribution of contraceptives and ruled that the right to privacy gave married couples throughout the U.S. the right to use contraceptives.
The birth control pill would have been a controversial medical breakthrough in any society where patriarchal relations reign, but the Pill made its appearance at a time when throughout society social conventions, politics as usual and cultural traditions (and what had been the traditional morality) were coming under assault. The civil rights movement—and the more rebellious and revolutionary movements against national oppression that followed; the movement against the Vietnam War; the revolutions in Third World countries, many inspired by the revolution in China led by Mao Tsetung; the many forms of counter-culture: music, movies, new forms of art—that flowed, bubbled and exploded in the sixties, gave impetus to and interpenetrated with tremendous upheavals in social relations that existed between women and men and among people generally. The Pill allowed women greater freedom to jump in to these movements with two feet. There was more basis to question and resist the double-standards that governed the roles of men and women in society, and to experiment in many different realms. Many women and men were demanding equality for women in society, in the streets and in the bedroom. Women together with many men fought and won the right to abortion; they challenged the stigma and shame that hung over women’s sexuality. The “sexual revolution,” as it has been called, had many positive aspects—fostering healthy openness about women’s sexuality, women’s bodies, homosexuality, and even the right for women to openly enjoy sex and explore one’s sexuality without being demeaned for it.
Fast Forward to 2010
Fast forward to 2010—50 years after the Pill. All of that heady freedom has been distorted and twisted by the dominant patriarchal and capitalist relations into today’s mainstreaming of pornography featured regularly on TV programs and other forms of “popular culture” as well as the more hard core display of women in a degraded state for the titillation of viewers—including grotesque brutality and violence against women involved in much of this. This sadly gives rise to many women seeing themselves as a commodity that can be sold or rented by the highest bidder.
The movements of the ’60s, including some with a revolutionary thrust, had the initiative for a period, but there was no revolution, no overthrow of the ruling class that could bring a fundamental change to the social relations in society, the class divisions that underlie it and the production relations that gave rise to those classes. And internationally, the revolution was set back with the counter-revolutionary coup in China which instituted a capitalist, exploitative society, even as it retained the name socialist.
And then the “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s unleashed a reactionary right-wing backlash against all the progressive accomplishments brought into being by the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. For the rulers in the U.S., the reassertion of the “traditional family” and “family values” has become essential to reasserting patriarchy and stitching back together the reactionary fabric of society that had been significantly frayed.
Christian fascists have been unleashed and supported by important sections of the ruling class to spearhead this movement back to traditional values. A key lever to accomplishing that is the anti-abortion movement. Make no mistake, these people who say they are “protecting the unborn” clearly want to re-establish a traditional patriarchal society, where women have no rights to control their reproduction or sexuality. Having succeeded in sharply curtailing access to abortion, the Christian fascists are now turning their sights on contraception. “We see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion,” says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an organization that has battled abortion for 27 years but that, like others, now has a larger mission. “The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an anti-child mind-set,…So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception.”2
Democratic Party and the Official Women’s Movement
The Democratic Party, which claims to be the party that supports abortion rights is itself supporting the reimposition of “family values” by accepting the terms set by the anti-abortion movement. Obama himself has moved far away from defending women’s rights, saying “abortion is never good” and seeking to find “common ground” with the fascists. Sunsara Taylor wrote on the occasion of Obama’s graduation speech that focused on abortion at Notre Dame in May 2009, “What ‘common ground’ can there be between Christian fascists—who have never given a damn about the sentimentalized ‘value’ of fetal life, but have only ever been motivated by an arcane biblical mandate to forcibly subjugate women and reduce them to breeders—and those who insist that women are human beings capable and worthy of participating in every realm of society?!?!?!
“In reality, when there are two completely antagonistic views, ‘common ground’ can only exist if one side capitulates to the other. This is exactly the dynamic at play in the ‘new era’ of Obama around abortion and women’s basic rights.”3
With the official women’s movement tied to the tail of the Democrat donkey, the fight to protect the right to abortion has been subordinated to the needs of electoral politics. So instead of fully unleashing women and men in the fight for reproductive rights as abortion doctors are murdered, pharmacists are legally allowed to deny prescriptions for birth control and several states are moving to give personhood to a fertilized egg, we instead get Gloria Steinem on the 50th anniversary of the Pill quoted in Time Magazine as saying the importance of the pill is “overrated”4; the refusal of the leaders of the mainstream women’s rights movement, NARAL, NOW, and the Feminist Majority, to attend Dr. Tiller’s funeral; in 2006, when South Dakota banned abortion, the leaders of the official women’s movement didn’t condemn it, but said it went too far by failing to make exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman; and when the Stupak amendment to the recent health care bill came up for a vote in Congress NARAL, Planned Parenthood, NOW and the Feminist Majority cancelled a “Day of Action” in favor of calling people out to lobby.
The birth control pill was a scientific breakthrough of historic proportions. For the first time in the history of humanity it gave women effective control over when and if they will have babies. The question is what will humanity do with that science, and within what kind of society will that medical breakthrough be used? The Pill, as part of a whole societal upheaval created tremendous freedom for women in the ’60s. But women are still not liberated. Patriarchal relations—in the form of the burkha or the thong, as A Declaration for the Liberation of Women succinctly put it—still characterize the world as well as U.S. society. Now with not only abortion, but birth control itself coming under assault by the Christian fascists and their ruling class backers, the question is whether there will be a real two-sided battle to defend the right of women to control their reproduction or whether this society will head backwards to a time when women’s role and sexuality were confined and subordinated to home and husband.
If we are envisioning a world in which all of humanity is emancipated—and we are—then women’s control of their reproduction through contraception and abortion is fundamental and any attempt to limit that must be aggressively opposed as part of building an overall movement for revolution.
2. "Contra Contraception" New York Times Magazine, 5/7/2006 [back]
3. Revolution #165, May 24, 2009 [back]
4. "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox" Time, April 22, 2010 [back]
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