The Abortion Battlefield

Ken Light/Contact Press Images
The Women’s March, Washington, D.C., January 2017

If anyone thought that Donald Trump’s manifold inconsistencies might more or less randomly offer women some protection from the Mike Pence wing of the Republican Party—after all, Trump once said of himself, “I’m very pro-choice”—they were wrong. Trump, who was once in thrall to his resident misogynist Steve Bannon, remains dependent on Pence, his omnipresent minder, and women’s reproductive rights are in his sights.

Women have always been subject to male domination, sometimes almost completely. Even in as enlightened a country as the United States, men created the laws under which women lived well into the twentieth century, and they ensured that women had an inferior status. Shirley Chisholm, the African-American congresswoman who ran for president in 1972, famously said that of her two handicaps—being black and being a woman—“I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black, in the field of politics.”

Women couldn’t vote in the United States until 1920 (fifty years after African-American men), and until 1936 they could lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner and lived abroad. As for their children, citizenship was conferred by the father, not the mother. Until 1968, job ads could specify whether men or women would be hired, and that year women were paid on average 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Remarkably, women could be denied credit without a man’s signature until 1974, and until 1978 they could be fired from their jobs if they became pregnant.

Not surprisingly, controlling sexuality and reproduction was central to keeping women in their place. For most of the country’s history, motherhood was considered women’s highest calling. They were expected to submit to their husbands sexually, and marital rape did not become a crime in all states until 1993. Abortion was illegal in most of the country for most of its history. Desperate women would take various folk remedies to end a pregnancy, try to end it themselves with some contrived implement, or find an illegal abortionist—all risky. There are no reliable figures for how many women died from illegal abortions but almost certainly there were many.

Until 1960, abstinence was expected for single women, and if that didn’t suit them, they were pretty much on their own. Getting fitted for a diaphragm was a ritual mainly for women engaged to be married. The only other forms of contraception were withdrawal, abstinence during the likely time of ovulation, and condoms; late menstrual periods could be terrifying. If a single woman did become pregnant, then what? Single motherhood was seldom contemplated, at least for a middle-class woman. Instead she might hope that her partner would marry her quickly, or she might try to get an illegal abortion. (The language of those days was appropriately evocative—“back-alley abortions” and “shotgun marriages.”) Often,…


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