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The Pill and Female Chauvinism: Part I
July 7, 2004
by K. C. Wilson

PBS just ran a very good program on The Pill (birth control), and the social context and controversies of its time, the 1950s. While I always knew the Catholic stand against contraception, I didn't know that, in the 1950s US, all contraception was illegal. Condoms, diaphragms, and anything else -- used for thousands of years in various forms -- could not be manufactured, sold, given away, or counseled.

Interesting though the program was, and important though contraception is for couples to better control when they have how many children, The Pill is commonly attributed with things well beyond its actual impact. This "American Experience" program presented that image of "sudden miracle."

Further, though the program was objective and relatively clean of gender politics, that very fact allowed many common, underlying female biases to show. Ones beyond those attributable to feminism. So I'll use that program to show what I see as both the excess hype about The Pill, and common female chauvinism. It will take two columns.

One interviewee made the common claim, "Suddenly, women had far more [career, or life] choices than ever before in history." There is some truth to this, but greatly exaggerated by ignoring two other things.

In the mid 1800s, my great-great-great aunt established and ran her own business in downtown Philadelphia. In 1903, Maggie Walker founded a bank in Richmond, Virginia. The first women (17 of them) attended MIT in 1871, and in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was America's first woman with a medical degree at a time when medical degrees were being invented.

How did it take until the 1950s and a pill for women to "suddenly" have more choices than ever before? This is a big exaggeration, often used to "prove" prior oppression of women. It is simply untrue, and degrades the many strong, independent women who existed well before, not to mention the fairness of men.

It might be more accurate to say that more, both men and women, felt more willing to make those choices since some of the risks and trade- offs were reduced. Even more accurate may be that more women were feeling compelled to make those choices as the meaningfulness of traditional roles were increasingly undermined by industrialization.

But you cannot tell me that all the same options did not previously exist. Only that more women took them.

The second problem with asserting suddenly increased options for women is that the increases in life choices for everyone is the story of advancing industrialization, not contraception. Progress in contraception is but one footnote. For hundreds of years the European caste system limited personal choices, and how many "careers" exist in an agrarian society, especially careers that don't require being born into them?

Few had many choices, even until the 1950s. Why would women be any different? But the women interviewed thought it was all about only them, not them as part of a society changing in many ways in any case and happening to all.

The very fact a program on The Pill was only about what it (seemed to) mean to women displays female chauvinism. Was there no impact on men?

For decades we've heard feminists insist that women have always been omitted from society. (Which says this vast, complex, wealthy society -- which gives feminists the comfort from which to whine -- was solely created by men. Women made no contribution. I have problems with that image of women.) To then say that women, as though only them, suddenly had choices they'd never had before is now saying that society is only comprised of them.

They could at least make up their minds.

Copyright © 2004 K.C.Wilson. K.C. Wilson is the author of Co-parenting for Everyone, Male Nurturing, and other books on family and men's issues, available as e-books at http://harbpress.com.

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