Pro-Choice Feminism in the Twentieth Century

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Many unwanted pregnancies happen because women and men are caught up in the heat of the moment. They do not think about the consequences and even if they do, they do not care about them. Sanger states that it is immoral to give in to these desires without considering the question of “do I actually want a baby if it were to come because of this moment?” The belief that women will not engage in sexual actions if they do not want a baby is ridiculous. Also, if women are subject to whatever their husband desires of them as a societal norm of this time, they could be forced into this sexual act. All of these reasons, and many more, are the root cause of unwanted pregnancies. Sanger believes that Birth Control would eliminate unwanted pregnancies, considering the success rate of these methods.

Sanger’s speech was extremely powerful. From what was read, there were certain statements that stuck out more than others. One of the most significant that I discovered while researching was this:

“Our first step is to have the backing of the medical profession so that our laws may be changed, so that motherhood may be the function of dignity and choice, rather than one of ignorance and chance.”

Motherhood is supposed to be one of the most beautiful things in the world. At this time, women were taught at a young age that they should desire to be a mother. They should not aspire to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or anything other than a mother. So why should motherhood, one of the most important thing in a woman’s life, be up to chance? A woman should have dignity with motherhood, and if she became pregnant out of wedlock or “too soon” for societal norms, she would be shamed. Women that were not of Christian faith do not have the same beliefs that they should wait for marriage to have sexual relations. They should be allowed to have whatever type of relationship that they want without having to worry about pregnancy and being shamed. Motherhood should be the function of dignity and choice.

Another aspect of this statement that was important to Sanger was the backing of medical professionals. Sanger was an educated nurse that was attempting to spread awareness to women and men about properly taking care of their sexual health and was not only shut down, but also arrested. Each time she, as a nurse, tried to help others, she was opposed with such great force. Respecting and allowing these professionals to speak out about the health of others and how to prevent the spread of diseases and reduce unwanted pregnancies should be a given, there never should have been a debate about it and this was one of Sangers firmest beliefs. This is one of the reasons that this statement was so powerful.

“Control of conception is a subject taught in classes throughout the country, and American women and men take for granted the fact that contraceptives are sold in drugstores and are easily obtained from physicians. As a result of the achievements of Sanger, control of contraception has become a reality for many women throughout the world.”

We take for granted that feminists from the past were so active in fighting for the rights of all women. Without women like Sanger, birth control and the rights for women to control their own reproductive systems, which was a strong belief of hers, may not have been a reality.

Another powerful feminist of the Second Wave was Betty Friedan, born Betty Goldstein, on February 4, 1921 in Illinois. Friedan’s mother was very supportive of her going to school and furthering her education which seemed to be because her mother was never much of a career woman, even though she held the intelligence level to do so. Friedan’s mother decided to fulfill her gender role of the time which was to be a wife and a mother. She did not want that same life for her daughter if at all possible.

Friedan ended up pursuing journalism, and even getting a “man’s job” during World War II while the men were away at war. She wrote weekly reports for a newspaper called U.E News. However, she was demoted when the veterans came back and needed jobs. Men having jobs were more important to employers, instead of allowing the women that had been working these jobs for years prior and gaining experience to continue working. Friedan got demoted to researcher, where she was gathering all of the information and writing large portions of the weekly reports, only to have the man above her put his name on the article and take all of the credit. This was reality for many intelligent women of this time, and this was only if women were allowed to work. Many places did not want women working for them because they believed their role was in the home, and that women did not have the intellectual capacity to handle men’s work.

Friedan eventually, like many other intelligent women of her time and the time before her, attempted the domestic life. Marriage, family, and house work, while also attempting to keep her job. This became an issue when those employing her believed that she could not do both roles completely, firing her after she requested her second maternity leave. Friedan wanted to make sure that future generations were not stuck to these roles of domestication, or if employed, given typical “women’s jobs.”

“A popular topic in the media of the postwar period was the idea that women’s education was not preparing them adequately for their roles as women. That is, women went to colleges where they received educations they would never be able to apply in careers, since their proper role as women was to be housewives. Too much education was making them discontent with this role in life.”

This quote stood out. Women were known to get the “Mrs. Degree” from colleges; this meant that they went to college to find a husband. Women did not go to college to better themselves or to gain knowledge about a subject that interested them, their parents paid for them to go to college to meet a man. Postwar women in America were never expected to make a career out of their degree. Men became dissatisfied when they realized that educating women made them unhappy in typical gender roles. Imagine going to school for 4 years or more, learning about a subject that excites you and fuels a passion, only for you to be told you are not as capable or intelligent as a man is, to be told that you must become a mother and take care of the children, the home, and to cater to your husband’s every whim. This was no life for a woman, and feminists like Friedan desperately desired to change this.

Friedan attempted to post multiple articles about her studies on women and education. A not surprising result: they were rejected from many different magazines. She now believed that the only way that her voice would be heard would be if she published her own book. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote and Published The Feminine Mystique which has been claimed by many feminists to have sparked the Second Wave feminist movement because so many women related to the feeling Friedan described throughout. Friedan believed that women should break free of the gender roles of what was expected of them because they were capable of so much more than what society told them they should be doing.

Friedan became an activist and stood up for women that could not stand up for themselves. She did so not only with her writing, but she also did so by creating various organizations for women. One of which she was best known for was called the National Organization for Women, or NOW as many referred to it. This was a group, to which Friedan was the President from 1966 until 1970, which fought for local and state governments to listen to the concerns of these women. Not only did she help organize this group, but she also helped to organize the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, where she voiced her concerns about women’s reproductive rights and abortion rights.

This leads into one of her speeches to which she titled “Abortion: A Woman’s Civil Right.” This speech was delivered on February 14, 1969 at the First National Conference for Repeal of Abortion Laws in Chicago. This speech was very radical for this time, considering abortion was still a state issue until the 7-2 Supreme Court decision in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade.

Friedan opens her speech with power and fury that displays to the audience that she is passionate about what she is saying, and that others should be too.

“There is no freedom, no equality, no full human dignity and personhood possible for women until we assert and demand control over our own bodies, over our own reproductive processes. Then and only then will women move out of their enforced passivity, their enforced denigration, their definition as sex objects, as things, to human personhood, to self-determination, to human dignity.”

Men were in control of America at the time of this speech, there is no denying that. Men made the decisions for their wives and families. Men decided when and whether or not they would engage in sexual relations. Men provided for the family while women stayed at home to cook, clean, and take care of the children, one boy and one girl, the American Dream. Women had little to no right over anything, let alone their own bodies, at this time and Friedan makes it clear that this is the most important thing on her mind right now. Friedan saw that women were not considered full people, they were people without the right to choose a life for themselves.

If women do not have control over their own bodies, how will they be considered people? She desired for women to want more, to demand that they should have control over their reproductive systems. It is clear that Friedan thinks it is ridiculous that women are considered objects to men, and even more devastating that many women are okay with this role. Friedan seems to realize that not all women agree that they are things or sex objects to their husbands, however, she realizes that not all women are comfortable about speaking out. This is why Friedan says what she does at the beginning. To make sure that women know that they are not alone. It is normal to want more out of life, and normal to want control over their reproductive systems and control over whether they should become a mother or not.

Friedan also discusses her views on how men interpret the messages she sends through her speeches about women’s reproductive rights. “Don’t talk to me about abortion reform. Reform is something dreamed up by men. Maybe good-hearted men, but they can only think from their point of view as men.” Friedan explains to the audience that men have no way of understanding what women go through. There are certainly men out there with good hearts that try to empathize with women, but they will never be able to completely understand.

Men have their own underlying bias, either believing that women do not deserve equality, or they do not understand why it is so difficult for them to achieve it. It came easy to men, why can’t women, with a little more effort, achieve the same things as men? Men will never understand what it would be like to have a baby developing inside of them that they do not want. They will never understand the emotional and mature decision women have to make when they choose to have an abortion. It is completely different for men, and some may try to understand, but Friedan believes men do not understand how it feels to be a woman in a dominantly male society, and should not have a say when it comes to female reproductive choice.

Friedan then goes on from the previous statement to say:

“Women are the passive objects that must somehow be regulated; let them have abortions for thalidomide, rape, incest. What right have they to say? This is a woman’s right and not a technical question needing the sanction of the state, or to be debated in terms of technicalities—they are irrelevant.”

What Freidan is trying to explain is that the government should have no say in what circumstances it is “okay” to have an abortion. Women should never have to justify the reasons they have for making this decision. There are no technicalities, no case by case circumstances, no “perfect reason,” for a woman to make this choice for herself. Her body should be her own, even if nothing else is. Going back to the previous quote, men should not have a say, and at this time most of government workers that decided on these laws were men. How can they understand a woman’s perspective to the point that they would be able to pass safe and fair legislation? Women are not objects for men, and the state, to do with as they please. They are full humans and deserve dignity.

“women, almost to the degree that they’re almost too visible as sex objects in this country today, are invisible people… Women, above all, to say what their own lives are going to be, what their own personalities are going to be, and no longer listen to or even permit male experts to define what “feminine” is or isn’t or should be.”

Sex sells. Men will buy products if there is an attractive woman on the add convincing them that they are more attractive if they buy this product. Women will flock to you if you are seen wearing these sunglasses or driving this car. This is all women are good for, their reproductive organs and their bodies. Women still did not have the ability to completely control their reproductive systems. They were not allowed to decide if they wanted to continue their pregnancies, in certain states they just had to. Women’s struggles with their bodies were pushed under the rug and invisible.

Women are not heard. No matter how loud they make their voices, they are not heard. What Friedan encourages women to do is to not listen to what men tell them they should do. They should not be okay with society seeing them only as sexual objects. Being seen as a sexual object does not have to mean that they are feminine. Women should do what they personally feel is feminine. It does not have to be cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids. It can mean having control over your body and deciding what is right for you. It can mean working a full-time job. It can mean having your own voice. Being submissive to the male dominated society is not feminine. Being a strong woman is feminine.

After discussing how women should not be comfortable with the expected roles of society, especially the expectancy to be a mother, Friedan decided to explain that having the right to choose if you should be a mother does not mean you should not be a mother to be a feminist.

Cite this paper

Pro-Choice Feminism in the Twentieth Century. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/pro-choice-feminism-in-the-twentieth-century/

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