Alison Channon – San Francisco, CA
Over the course of its hundred year history, Planned Parenthood has become synonymous with the fight for women’s rights. Birth control and abortion are the proxy for our society’s fight over women’s autonomy and the role of gender in modern society.
Today, we understand the same deep truth that Margaret Sanger understood 100 years ago – a woman cannot be free unless she has the fundamental right to bodily autonomy—final say of our own bodies. For us, in 2016, birth control and abortion are part and parcel of that fundamental right. But it wasn’t always so.
Once upon a time, before Margaret Sanger was arrested for providing contraceptives at a clinic in Brooklyn, there were many women’s rights leaders who were deeply suspicious of artificial contraceptives, but not for the reasons anti-choice group, Susan B. Anthony List, would like you to believe. Their skepticism of artificial contraception originated with the same belief in women’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy that Sanger advanced.Let’s rewind to the mid-nineteenth century. The abolition movement was in full swing, and white women were major players. The language of slavery gave white women’s rights leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull a frame to talk about their own form of subjugation in American society – marriage and sex. At this time, legal code held that marriage constituted perpetual consent to sexual activity. In other words, saying “I do” meant a wife could never say “I don’t” consent to sex. There was no such thing as marital rape (Side note: marital rape wasn’t illegal in all 50 states until 1993).
This perpetual right to sex is, of course, a deep violation of a woman’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy. And these women were committed to upending the belief in men’s perpetual sexual rights to their wives. They aimed to reform marriage from a relationship of submission to a relationship of equality, wherein women were the masters of their own bodies and marital rape could not continue.
Their tactics played on the prevailing sexual beliefs of the day – that men were sexually passionate and women were passionless. Their argument in favor of women’s bodily autonomy rested on the belief that unchecked male lust was a danger to their wives.
Herein lies the opposition to artificial contraception. Artificial contraception would do nothing to curb men’s “aggressive sexuality.” In fact, it might even empower it. These women fighting for wives’ freedom from “sexual slavery” feared that removing the threat of pregnancy from sexual activity would undermine one of the few strategies women had to decline their husbands’ sexual advances.
Rather than endorsing contraception, women’s rights advocates held that a woman should only have sex with her husband when she wanted to become pregnant. Implicit in this statement is that a husband does not have perpetual access to his wife’s sexuality and she has the right to bodily autonomy. This radical idea that women should have autonomy over their bodies and sexuality was called Voluntary Motherhood.
This belief system that rejected birth control in the nineteenth century was the precursor to the twentieth century birth control movement and Planned Parenthood. On the surface this is a paradox. How could a movement that rejected birth control begin the modern day birth control movement? The answer again, is bodily autonomy. At the core of women’s fight against men’s sexual rights in marriage was the fight for women’s bodily autonomy. Their stance on artificial contraception was grounded in that belief.
Today, as we wage our modern day fight for birth control and abortion rights (along with our fight against sexual harassment and assault), it’s crucial that we never lose sight of the core of what we’re seeking. Just like the women two centuries ago, when we fight against TRAP laws or against Hobby Lobby, we are fighting for our right to be regarded as autonomous human beings, with the full fundamental rights of controlling our own bodies and determining our own destinies.