This date--June 4--is the 91st anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The first election, then, in which women were allowed to vote was the national election of November 1920 when Warren G. Harding, who was from Marion, Ohio, beat Ohio Governor James Cox. It has been opined that part of what helped Harding win was his good looks, and women voters who were swayed to pick him. No one seems to have considered that women may also have been moved by the fact that Harding supported women's suffrage.
Well! An inauspicious beginning for more than half the population having the basic right in the U.S. to vote.
This anniversary seems like as good a time as any to ruminate of the state of women in the 21st century. Relax--I have no intention of tackling the sweep of challenging issues today. I guess I am in a somewhat saddened and reflective mood. Last week, our local paper ran an editorial--one of those "my turn" type--entitled "The Pill: Are women really better off with it?" The writer suggested that birth control has several adverse effects on culture. To support her premise, she cites a particular study. Her support points are three-fold: contraception leads to more divorce; contraception leads to more infidelity; and contraception leads to more abortion.
Oh my. I won't try to tell you how she (or the study she cites) reaches those conclusions. It is enough for me to rue the fact that as we forget where we came from, we will risk losing all the advantages we have gained. We, incidentally, means women AND men.
I wonder how many people know that it was not until 1965 that birth control was declared to be legal, within the privacy of marriage. Certainly there were many methods for birth control, particularly with the development of vulcanizing rubber (making condom development possible) as far back at the early 1800s. But such birth control devices were no sooner developed than they were declared to be illegal.
One of the issues the early feminists focused on, in addition to securing the vote for women, was birth control. It is difficult to control your life when you can't even control what happens to your own body. One of the real heroes of this early era was Margaret Sanger. When she disseminated information about birth control (a term she coined) by sending it through the mail, she was charged with violating obscenity laws. She opened the first ever family planning clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days after it was opened, the police raided it and Sanger went to jail. So, when was birth control declared legal? Not until 1965 did the Supreme Court finally decide, in the seminal case of Griswold v. Connecticut, that using birth control was a right that was protected by "marital privacy." (This right to privacy has been the hook upon which other subsequent Supreme Court cases have been decided, most particularly abortion which the court ruled should be a PRIVATE decision between a woman and her doctor.) If you are now 45 or older, when you were born, birth control was NOT a right for your parents. The 45 years between 1965 and now is a whisper of a blink in the recorded history of humanity.
If you think we can't or won't go back, think again. There are people today actively working to once again deny women the right to control their bodies and what happens to them. Goodness, might "they" even decide women should not have the right to vote?
I think I once met one of "them." This incident in my life counts as one of the stranger conversations I have had. At the time, I was working for the state medical association. I had been assigned to staff the newly created Committee on Bioethics. I loved this assignment, and eagerly looked forward to meeting with the physician chairman and crafting the agenda we would have for our first meeting. I drove to Philadelphia to meet with him--he was a radiologist working in one of the many suburban Philadelphia hospitals.
As we walked through the halls of the hospital, we got to talking. We discovered that we were both Presbyterian. Upon that revelation, I told him that I was, in fact, an elder (in the Presbyterian church, elders constitute the governing body for the church). He stopped, and looked at me. Then, he said--I've never met a real life woman elder. I was stunned. I asked if his church didn't have any. No, he said, they did not. Then I asked, how did they meet the national church body's requirement to have a governing body that reflected the general composition of the congregation? Well, he said, they didn't.
Well, why not? I asked. Well, he said, Jesus picked only men disciples. And, further, he asked, how did I answer the fact that the Bible always referred to God as Father. With that, I gave him my final response. I said--I don't think the term Father for God means that God has a penis. And, further, I don't think a person needs to have a penis to be an elder.
The halls of the hospital went totally quiet. The radiologist said no more. Either I had just revealed something unimaginable to him, or I had doomed our working relationship before it even began.
I am so grateful that I know many men who do not think as that physician thought. But I worry when young women think as the editorial writer did. No, birth control did NOT set back women. The right to vote, and contraception--two hallmarks in the universal struggle for women to be valued.
June 4 may not rank up there with July 4, but for women it is every bit as important.