Tag Archives: reproductive autonomy

The Essence Of The Argument

Okay–back to basics.

Morton Marcus and I are currently working on a book examining the causes and effects of women’s legal and social equality.

We understand that the movement toward equality is still a work in progress. We are also well aware that women’s progress has engendered considerable resistance–and that, in a very real way, that progress will be on the ballot November 8th.

As we approach a midterm election that will be crucial for women–not to mention American democracy– it seems appropriate to share some of that book’s relevant analysis.  What follows is long, despite the fact that I am breaking those arguments into three posts, and you may wish to skip or skim it, but it represents my understanding of the barriers  to women’s equality erected and defended by paternalism, religion and culture.

On November 8th, we will be voting on whether to keep or dismantle those barriers.

I have omitted the footnotes; if you want citations, ask me.


Let’s begin with the obvious: there are genuine biological differences between men and women, and those differences profoundly and understandably shaped human cultures for thousands of years. Over time, science and technology have operated to minimize the social impact of those differences, although the differences themselves remain. In addition to changes in the job market that have made physical strength less important and inventions that significantly reduced the time spent on housework, women can now plan, defer or abstain from procreation without the necessity of celibacy, a reality that allows females to pursue educational and career choices that used to be available exclusively to males. Those choices have facilitated their ability to participate more fully in civic and political life.

Despite those advances, the drive for gender equity in the workplace and polity continues to be hindered by the persistence of attitudes and traditions more appropriate to bygone generations, and especially by religious beliefs that powerfully influence the country’s politics and culture. As the second section of this chapter will explain, a number of religious denominations work assiduously to impose their doctrinal beliefs about women (and what they believe to be the proper, subordinate place of females in society) through legislation applicable to everyone. Those theological positions support and strengthen a cultural patriarchy rooted in history, politics and privilege. As we will see, religious arguments are used to justify the still- significant resistance to women’s personal autonomy—and to motivate the increasingly frantic efforts of the political Right to reverse women’s social, legal and economic progress.

                                                                    Biology and Destiny
For generations, there have been two major biological impediments to women’s equal participation in society and especially in the workforce: women’s relative lack of physical strength vis a vis their male counterparts, and the fact that women get pregnant. Those two realities have exerted a major effect on cultural attitudes about men and women. For a very long time, most jobs required manual labor—and often, brute strength—and most (although not all) females were physically unable to undertake such tasks. Over the years, as technology has improved, the job market has also changed and fewer jobs today require physical strength. An increasing number instead require education, intellect and/or particular skills, qualifications that are more evenly distributed between the genders and even, in some cases, are more likely to be possessed by women.

In 2020, Janet Yellen authored a report for the Brookings Institution that focused on the prior century’s history of women’s employment. As she noted, early in the 20th century, most women in the United States didn’t work outside the home, and the few who did were primarily young and unmarried. A mere 20 percent of all women were “gainful workers,” and only 5 percent of those were married. (Yellen did point out that those statistics understated the economic contributions of married women who worked from home in family businesses and/or in the home production of goods for sale. The statistics also obscured racial difference—African-American women were about twice as likely to participate in the labor force as White women at the time, and were more likely to remain in the labor force after marriage.) When women did work outside the home, it was often taken as evidence that the husband was unwilling or unable to support the household. As a result, men tended to view a wife’s paid employment as a shameful statement on the husband’s role as a breadwinner. As Yellen wrote,

The fact that many women left work upon marriage reflected cultural norms, the nature of the work available to them, and legal strictures. The occupational choices of those young women who did work were severely circumscribed. Most women lacked significant education—and women with little education mostly toiled as piece workers in factories or as domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe. Educated women were scarce. Fewer than 2 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in an institution of higher education, and just one-third of those were women. Such women did not have to perform manual labor, but their choices were likewise constrained.

As a result, as Yellen notes and many of us vividly remember, there was widespread sentiment against women, especially married women, working outside the home. Even in the face of severely limited opportunities, however, increasing numbers of women did continue to enter the labor force during this period. As a result, some 50 percent of single women worked by 1930, as did nearly 12 percent of married women. Mores and social attitudes were slowly changing, partly as a result of what is often referred to as the “first wave” of the women’s movement, which focused on suffrage and (to a lesser extent) temperance, and which culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

Between the 1930s and mid-1970s, women’s participation in the economy—especially the participation of married women–continued to rise, spurred by several social changes. The growth of mass high school education was accompanied by a similar rise in graduation rates. New technologies led to an increased demand for clerical workers, and clerical jobs were seen as appropriate for women, because they tended to be cleaner and safer. And while there were still bizarre rules that kept many women out of the labor force—for example, female librarians in most cities could not be married, and female school teachers who became pregnant were dismissed once they “showed”—these restrictions were gradually removed following World War II, although it wasn’t until 1986 that United Airlines was ordered to pay $33 million in back pay and to reinstate 475 flight attendants who had been forced to quit in the mid-1960s because of a no-marriage rule.
By far the most consequential change, however—the development that eliminated the major impediment to women’s full participation in economic and civic life—was the introduction of reliable contraception, primarily although not exclusively the birth control pill.

Before the advent of reliable birth control, every sexual encounter carried the risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy generally meant the end of a woman’s economic independence. A pregnant woman was almost always unemployable; for that matter, a married woman in her childbearing years was similarly unemployable, since there was always the possibility of pregnancy and the resulting need to care for offspring, seen as a uniquely female responsibility. Most women were therefore economically dependent upon the men to whom they were married. (Refusing to marry was no panacea: unmarried women were routinely labeled “old maids,” and were objects of pity and/or derision.) If her marriage was unhappy, or worse, violent, a woman with children was literally enslaved; given the barriers she faced to participation in the workforce and her resulting inability to support herself and her offspring, she usually couldn’t leave. Absent charitable intervention or inherited wealth—or friends or relatives willing to house and feed her and her children—she was totally dependent on her husband’s earnings.

Access to reliable contraception –and in situations where that contraception failed, abortion—was thus absolutely essential to women’s independence. If women could plan when to procreate, they could also plan when not to procreate. They could choose to schedule or defer motherhood in order to pursue education and career opportunities. The availability of the birth control pill didn’t simply liberate millions of women, opening possibilities that had been foreclosed by reasons of biology, its availability and widespread use triggered enormous changes in social attitudes that in turn opened the door to legislation that advanced both females’ economic independence and women’s ability to more fully participate in the civic life of the nation.

A 2010 article in Forbes marking the fiftieth anniversary of the pill acknowledged its immense significance. The article began by noting the then-current workforce status of women:

For the first time in U.S. history, women have overtaken men in the workplace. More specifically, they’ve overtaken men in professional roles. As of 2009, women represented half of all U.S. workers and are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American households. That’s a far cry from 1967, when women made up only one-third of all U.S. workers.

Without the birth control pill, women would almost certainly not have made it into powerful senior positions. While the political and social will to bring a critical mass of women into the workplace was certainly there–the advent of the birth control pill coincided with the second wave of feminism and the fight for equal rights–the pill gave women a tangible tool to level the playing field with men. They no longer had to be mothers first and careerists second. The pill allowed for both their entrance–and ascendance–in the workplace.

To be sure, there’s no denying the pill triggered the sexual revolution for women as well. Because they no longer had to worry about getting pregnant, it freed them up to have sex outside of marriage. But it was the workplace where the pill made its most lasting impact.
Together with women’s new prominence in political and economic life, that sexual revolution, such as it was (the punditry continues to argue about its nature, extent and consequences) ran headlong into what is perhaps the most regressive element of American culture: fundamentalist religion.

Tomorrow: religion and women’s rights