Shaping a New America

57b. The Fight for Reproductive Rights

Birth control pills
Introduced in 1960, birth control pills gave women the opportunity to choose to deter pregnancy.

The consequences of sexual relations between women and men simply were not fair.

An old double standard dictated that men were rewarded for sexual prowess and women suffered a damaged reputation. Males were encouraged to "sow a few wild oats" while women were told "good girls don't."

Most of all, if a relationship resulted in pregnancy, it was the woman who was left with the responsibility. For decades, pioneers like Margaret Sanger fought for contraceptives that women would control. With the introduction of the birth control pill to the market in 1960, women could for the first time deter pregnancy by their own choice.

The fight for reproductive freedoms was intense. Organized religions such as the Roman Catholic Church stood firm on their principles that artificial contraceptives were sinful. Many states in the early 1960s prohibited the sale of contraceptives — even to married couples.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger was a pioneer in the struggle for a woman's right to birth control in an era when it was illegal to discuss the topic. She was arrested or charged with lawlessness many times for both her publications and her New York City clinics.

In a landmark decision, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court ruled such laws were unconstitutional. Setting a precedent, the Court determined that a fundamental right to privacy exists between the lines of the Constitution. Laws prohibiting contraceptive choice violated this sacred right. The ban of prohibitive laws was extended to unmarried couples in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972). A federal judge imparted the right to purchase contraceptives to unmarried minors in 1974.

The pill made it finally possible for American women to separate sexuality and childbearing. Masters and Johnson, a pioneering research team in the field of human sexuality, challenged entrenched beliefs that women did not enjoy sex and were merely passive partners.

Reports of premarital sex increased dramatically as the "sexual revolution" spread across America. Young couples began cohabiting — living together before marriage — in greater and greater numbers. Critics denounced the tremendous change in lifestyle.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
With the advent of the "sexual revolution" during the late 60s and early 70s, American culture began to create new boundaries of what was and was not acceptable. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film to win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Director and Picture.

But those in favor of this new trend maintained that young people were simply more open and honest about activities that had traditionally transpired behind closed doors and shielded from public scrutiny. As attitudes toward sexuality relaxed, the entertainment industry rode the wave. Courts were more permissive with pornographic materials and the movies and television pressed new boundaries with controversially suggestive content. "R-rated" and even "X-rated" films became commonplace.

Inevitably the reproductive struggle took aim at laws that restricted abortion. Throughout the 1960s, there was no national standard on abortion regulations, and many states had outlawed the practice. Feminist groups claimed that illegality led many women to seek black market abortions by unlicensed physicians or to brutally perform the procedure on themselves.

In 1973, the Supreme Court heard the case of the anonymous Jane Roe, an unmarried Texas mother who claimed the state violated her constitutional rights by banning the practice. By a 7-2 vote, the Court agreed. Since Roe v. Wade, the battle lines have been drawn between pro-choice supporters of abortion rights and pro-life opponents who seek to chisel away at the Roe decision.

On the Web
The Woman Rebel
Margaret Sanger was a mother, a wife, a nurse and a radical. She demanded that women be provided with information on birth control. She was convinced that women should be in charge of social and economic change. Read this brief essay to learn about Sanger and her heroic acts of feminine rebellion.
Freedom of Choice Act of 1993
Actual text of the bill presented to Congress in 1993 to protect the reproductive rights of women, and for other purposes. This bill represents one of the most recent legislative acts regarding reproductive freedom.
Sojourner Truth: Ain't I A Woman
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!
-Sojourner Truth, in a speech at the Women's Convention, 1851.
Griswold v. Connecticut
Court is in session! Listen to the arguments before the Supreme Court in the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut reproductive rights case.
A Connecticut statute makes it a crime for any person to use any drug or article to prevent conception. Appellants claimed that the accessory statute as applied violated the Fourteenth Amendment. -Read the Supreme Court's ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut
Learn More...

If you like our content, please share it on social media!

Facebook reddit