Here’s a thing about my students: they cannot imagine a world without birth control. Or rather, it does not occur to them that a world without birth control is something that needs to be imagined.
The young women I teach are all on birth control. All the women they know are on birth control, or have been at some point. And yet, somehow, access to birth control seems non-urgent to them; it seems inevitable. My students take birth control like they take aspirin, like they go to the drinking fountain: they take it like you can press a button and the ability to regulate your reproductive life will flow, cleanly, forever.
I don’t think they get how wrong they are.
I think, when my students look at the past, they see women who were limited by bad ideas. Those women in the past! They had bad ideas about sex — they were repressed! They had bad ideas about work–they didn’t believe they could do it! And — bless them — my students think that because that their lives are different than their ancestors’ because their ideas are better.
My students’ ideas are better, in that they have the idea they are entitled to life with a vibrant sexuality, meaningful work, and authentic choices. I like that idea, too.
But I think it’s worth it, in this election season, to cut to the chase: my students’ lives are better not because of their ideas, but because of their birth control. Birth control — insivible to them as it might be — is the single idea that makes all their other ideas thinkable.
So in honor of the moment, let’s pause and look at some women in the past who had very good ideas. And let’s think about how their lives might have been different, if they’d had the birth control my students now take for granted: if they had not paid the physical, emotional, relational toll of a lifetime of unregulated pregnancy. Let’s look at some ladies who could have used Obamacare’s birth control mandate.
1: Ma Ingalls
(Five Children, Twelve Years)
Did you know Laura had a brother never described in the books? She did. That makes five little kids on the prairie. That is a lot! And, you know, I imagine that Ma was pretty okay with Carrie, but I suspect that Ma was pretty over it by the time Grace, the fourth daughter, rolled around. I mean, seriously: the fourth set of prairie diapers, the fourth little prairie menstruator. I love Pa, we all do, but dude was gone a lot and I do not think he helped wash whatever they were using as tampons. I truly cannot imagine poor Ma dragging four daughters with their needs and fluids across all those states, and doing all that crap then having your daughter write all these books about how Pa was the fun one.
2: Angelina Grimke
(Three Children, Five Years)
Angelina Grimke was an early feminist and anti-slavery activist. She was born in 1805 and wanted to have a career in political life—her husband, Theodore Weld, wanted that for her too. Let’s be clear that Angelina had very good ideas. But after her third pregnancy her uterus prolapsed, effectively ending her career, because of pain and leakyness. I still cannot get over how sad I think this is. When I first learned about Angelina’s uterus, I was talking with Sarah B. and she noted that I probably took it so hard because Angelina’s story, was, and I quote, “compounded by a jillion other sad stories just like it of awesome women and how fucked over they got.” Another word for “fucked” here would be “pregnant.”
3: Virginia Woolf
(No Children, Bless Her)
My students are always really cute and think that they need a room of their own to write in. And I’m like: well, yes. You do. But let’s also look at what Virginia Woolf, childless, knew:
“Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children—no human being could stand it. Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets.”
We should remember here that Virginia’s account of motherhood remains, even today, the heart of an insane juggling act carried out by every mother I know (most fathers, too, except they do not have to manage pelvic floor issues on top of the other stuff). Virginia’s reckoning of the sheer time required by mothering forces us to cast the “room of one’s own” a little differently. It makes us remember that at least one crucial thing Virginia meant by that room is a private bedroom, where you could protect yourself from the (to Virginia) horrifically time-sucking consequences of your husband’s impregnating dick. Five years is a lot of time, if you’re Virginia Woolf, and even if you’re not, to not spend writing your amazing fucking books.
4: Hester Prynne. Charlotte Temple. Eliza Wharton.
(One out-of-wedlock imaginary baby each)
I am putting them all together, those poor awesome ladies. Sometimes I like to imagine what each of them would have said, after their affairs, if they had been able to conduct them with the benefit of birth control. I imagine them all saying to their girlfriends, “Like, whoah, so glad I didn’t get knocked up by that loser.”
5: Kate Chopin
(Six Children, Twelve Years)
Kate Chopin never wrote anything until her husband died. Widowhood is one kind of birth control, I guess? It is not one I would prefer. I’m sure the six children were all great but personally I’m really sorry she couldn’t have swapped out two or three of them for another The Awakening.
6: Queen Victoria
(Nine Children, Seventeen Years)
Actually Queen Victoria seems to have done mostly okay. I insert her as proof that you could have an active sex life and a public career without birth control, as long as you were the Queen of England. [Edited to add: I once had a student who was totally dismissive of Victoria’s “I hate prengnancy, it sucks” letters–of which there are many–and this dude said, he totally said, “well, if she didn’t want to get pregnant so often, she should have nursed her children longer.” HE. SAID. THAT, that ignorant CHILD.]
7: My Great-Grandmother, Odessa Lewis Derry
(Six Children, Fourteen Years)
My great grandmother Odessa Lewis Derry had no birth control, no room of her own, and six children. Keeping them fed and clothed is pretty much what she did. The next three generation of women in my family all went on to get advanced degrees. My great-grandmother is widely acknowledged, in the family, to have been something of a bitch. When I think about her six children and her preoccupied brain, I think I know why. What could my great grandmother have done, had she had a little bit of agency over her own reproductive life? What about your great grandmother? How many kids did she have?
I myself have had two children, under about the best conditions possible: my pregnancies were healthy, I chose—mostly—when I wanted my children to be born. I enjoyed being pregnant. But nothing has made me value birth control more than the experience of having two beloved kids.
This spring, my students jumped to the defense of Planned Parenthood; they were outraged when Rush Limbaugh went after Sandra Fluke. But even as we all jumped to defend Fluke’s right to the sex life she preferred, there was surprisingly little push back on the idea at the heart of Rush’s comment: that birth control is something you need for those wild and crazy early years, and not something that you need for your whole life.
Indeed, you need birth control to have a life. And not only a life of the mind, a life you can structure and define to your will. Birth control means a longer, healthier physical life, by any measure: and to see this, all you need to do is to look at women’s health in the many parts of the world where women don’t have widespread access to the birth control they deserve.
This Tuesday, when we vote, we will be making a choice between a candidate who seems to recognize that access to birth control is essential to women’s lives, and a candidate who is willing to give up that mandate in the name of dogma disguised as “freedom.” And I cannot tell my students who they should pick, so I will say it here, in the strongest possible terms: choose the one who will give you choices. Choose the one who will protect birth control, because — even you they don’t see it — the birth control access you save might be your own.
Sarah Mesle: A little judgy.
also, if i were that “forgotten” ingalls brother, i’d be pissed.
Truly I talked myself into such a frenzy thinking about poor Ma that I could give a rat’s ass about the brother. Just another, like, DUDE.
no, i know. also that whole issue of slaving over your children and then having your husband be “the fun one” RANKLES!
that beard and fiddle went a long way.
I have to say that I love that you included Queen Victoria in here…I skimmed to see if you did before I read the whole thing! And though she did well enough (!), she also hated being pregnant and resented having to be pregnant so often. Such a good read!
No Klara Hitler? C’mon, Mesle, the #1 rule of “if only we could go back in time…” exercises is that first you have to take out Hitler, then you’re free to do whatever you wish.
Christie L. Harner, I KNOW. I actually went back and added a smidge more about Victoria because, man, that INSANELY PREGNANT LADY.
My great-grandma, born in Newcastle sometime around 1890, had three daughters, one of whom was my maternal grandma, born in Grimsby in 1915. But she herself was one of sixteen. My grandad, born in mid-Wales in 1905, was one of eight, and went on to have two children with my grandma.
I always wonder what changed in northeast England in the 1900s and in rural Wales a little bit later that allowed my great-grandma and my grandma to control their fertility so much better. Condoms from the barbers? Husbands who respected “not tonight, dear”? Something must have made a huge difference. I did ask my grandma once, but she just looked baffled and vague and gave off tremendous “we do NOT talk about that omg” vibes.
This is not AT ALL your point, I realize, but the Ingalls boy died when he was still a baby: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Ingalls (scroll to Freddie Ingalls.) Great post.
oh, Courtney, I know! As I was just saying on twitter: this post really emphasizes the exhaustion and leakiness aspects of uncontrolled pregnancy, and so it sort of leaves out the *sorrow.*
I hear you! I would also love to read a post re: how there’s no evidence that moms “back then” who lost a lot of kids mourned their deaths any less than we do now. Because that is a weird and confusing conclusion to draw, that a high infant mortality rate means that parents are less emotionally invested in their offspring.
The post above reminds me of hunting through genealogy records as a teenager, only to find that one great-great-grandfather had SEVENTEEN children over the course of 2 wives. Some of the children even had the same first name. That’s how stressful having that many kids was.
Brian Forrest: Klara Hitler: six children, 11 years. Plus two step children. And four of the children died before age ten.
The importance of birth control might be more visible to female students if they really compare themselves to the women here. Not just by assuming they’re so different than the tragic fictional characters (“oh, I’d never let myself get into that situation,”) but by REALLY comparing themselves to women who didn’t/don’t have access to birth control: “Like, whoah, what if I HAD gotten knocked up by that loser?!”
Love this piece. Can you do a sequel about vasectomies?
Great Post! I’d like to add Margery Kempe, a medieval woman who lived in England. Margery had 14 kids. Her first birth was so traumatic, that she believed she was going mad–and being punished for what we would now diagnosis as Post-partum depression. Her priest, of course, confirmed her fears. She went on to have 13 more pregnancies. And guess what? She had a kind of revelation that God required her to give up sex (which she seems to have liked despite her Catholic guilt). so sad.
Nice, Sarah. I especially like the general point about “better ideas” vs. changed material conditions. Confusion of the two (or forgetting the causal origin of the former) applies to so many other things, too.
Clara Schumann (wife of Robert Schumann). Eight children, family breadwinner (giving concerts, often far from home). Even raised some of her grandchildren. You can find her writings discussing the challenges of raising children and doing music. I wonder how much she would have surpassed her husband in accomplishments and fame without the challenges on the home front
In all fairness, Robert went insane in mid-life and died in a mental institution. This is not to take away from Clara’s amazing accomplishments as a pianist, mother, and general caretaker for everyone, including Robert.
I feel I should myself point out the major flaw with this list, which is that it is all white ladies. And friends: this list would get a whole lot longer, and the stakes even higher, if I’d taken a broader view of the subject.
YES. The economic system of chattel slavery depended upon preventing enslaved women from controlling their own reproduction. And think of Harriet Jacobs! Or Margaret Garner!!
I love this piece!
[…] Mesle’s piece “Top Seven Ladies Who Could Have Used Obamacare’s Birth Control Mandate” has me thinking about the importance of birth control, and the absurdity that its importance to the […]
As usual, Sarah Mesle’s comments change not only the way that I teach but also the way that I think. Thank you for this!
And, my favorite line: “It makes us remember that at least one crucial thing Virginia meant by that room is a private bedroom, where you could protect yourself from the (to Virginia) horrifically time-sucking consequences of your husband’s impregnating dick. “