April 15, 2014
Book Club: Woman Rebel – The Margaret Sanger Story

Now that comic books have become the source material for blockbuster movies, the oft-told story of the maligned and misunderstood superhero should be a familiar one, even to many who have never read a comic. Think Professor Xavier’s cohort in the X-Men movies or Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. They’re extraordinary. They’re also flawed, often unable to shake the ghosts of an uneasy past. But their powers, not their shortcomings, are the reason they’re so maligned. No matter their good intentions, they challenge what is known and established, earning them fear and distrust.

Given that trope, maybe it wasn’t such an odd idea to give the comic book treatment to the life of Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood. Writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, a veteran of alternative comics, does just that in Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). The outcome is a graphic novel that doesn’t let exaggerated expressions, vivid colors, and terse speech bubbles derail an intelligent and sensitive retelling of Sanger’s life.

Comparing Sanger to a superhero might be hyperbole, but Sanger’s trailblazing work not only created the movement to advocate for birth control but also spurred the development of the oral contraceptive, or “the Pill.” She had the drive and the know-how to contribute to the movement as an author, editor, lecturer, and founder of a reproductive health clinic. Along the way, Sanger helped change the laws that stood in the way of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, while rubbing shoulders (and sometimes developing romances) with many luminaries of her time, from novelists to political agitators to wealthy industrialists. March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment — a theme perfect for someone of Sanger’s stature. Sanger’s visionary efforts earned her many accolades — as well as a campaign of character assassination that has called her everything from a fascist to a proponent of genocide. Continue reading

February 28, 2014
Today: 8th Anniversary of Scheidler v. NOW

This month marks the anniversaries of two of the three Supreme Court decisions in the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy.”

You remember those cases, right? Of course you do. Well, unless you’re in what is probably the majority of people who tend to remember only the more famous names of sexual and reproductive justice-related Supreme Court cases. Roe v. Wade? Of course. Lawrence v. Texas? Sure. Griswold v. Connecticut? Probably. But, get to any cases with fewer public discourse references and less name recognition, and the response is far more likely to be, “What?”

For most people, the Scheidler v. NOW saga almost certainly falls into “What?” territory. However, in a climate where many abortion providers risk being targets of violence and harassment and where some state governments are systemically working to functionally eliminate abortion access, perhaps the Scheidler cases merit being more well known in public conversation.


Background of the cases: Throughout the 1980s, anti-abortion activists became increasingly violent in their tactics. The Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), a group founded by Joseph Scheidler and alternately known as the Pro-Life Action League, participated in a number of clinic attacks, some including vandalism and assault. In 1989, the National Organization for Women filed suit, arguing that PLAN’s actions amounted to extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Why RICO matters: In this particular case, private parties seeking monetary relief under RICO may receive triple the amount of damages they incurred. While this is certainly nice in itself, it may also be a more effective deterrent — compared to state prosecution alone — for parties engaging in crimes such as extortion. Continue reading

December 15, 2013
Today: 40th Anniversary of American Psychiatric Association's Declassification of Homosexuality as a "Mental Illness"

It wasn’t his high blood pressure or high cholesterol that caught Matthew Moore by surprise when he went to his new physician earlier this year. Moore, a Southern California man in his mid-40s, described those conditions as “normal for me.” Nor was Moore, who is openly gay, shocked to see that his doctor noted his sexual orientation on his medical paperwork — until he saw the way that she noted it.

Listed as a chronic condition, Moore noticed “homosexual behavior” on his paperwork, followed by the medical code 302.0. As unsettling as the notation already was, Moore decided to research what the code meant, and he was left wondering how the diagnosis could happen today: “When I look[ed] up code 302.0 [I learned that it meant] sexual deviancy or mental illness, and that code has been removed or suggested heavily not to be used since 1973.”

“My jaw was on the floor,” Moore recounted. “At first, I kind of laughed, [and then] I thought, ‘Here’s another way that gay people are lessened and made to feel less-than,’ and then as I thought about it and as I dealt with it, it angered me,” he told a local news station.

Moore complained to his physician, and, dissatisfied with her response when she defended the diagnosis, he wrote a letter to the parent company of the Manhattan Beach office where his physician practiced medicine. Moore received a written apology and a refund of his co-pay.

Moore’s story made the news earlier this year because of how anomalous — and appalling — it was. But prior to 1973, Moore’s experience would have been almost inevitable, unless he took precautions to keep his sexual orientation as private and secret as possible.

Until a decision by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) changed the course of history 40 years ago this Sunday, on December 15, 1973, gay and lesbian people couldn’t escape the perception that their sexuality was a sickness. Continue reading

June 12, 2013
The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 6: Los Campesinos

Welcome to the final installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In earlier installments, we learned how chemists were able to extract a chemical from a wild yam called barbasco and convert it into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.

In 1960, the FDA approved oral contraceptives for marketing. At this time, more than 2 million Americans were already using the Pill — and more than 100,000 Mexican campesinos (a Spanish word for peasants) were harvesting barbasco, the wild yam necessary for its production. By 1974, 125,000 Mexicans were collecting and selling barbasco. Every week, during the barbasco trade’s peak, an excess of 10 tons of the plant were removed from tropical Mexico.

Though they were paid subsistence-level wages for their labors (half a peso per kilo of dried root), and the work itself was dangerous and backbreaking, they were putting Mexico on the map in the scientific community. After establishing a hormone synthesis industry in Mexico, the European stranglehold on hormones was loosened and the price of progesterone plummeted from $80 per gram to less than a dollar per gram. By 1954, Syntex, a Mexican laboratory, was the largest producer of steroids in the world, having usurped Europe’s monopoly.

Scientists depended on the campesinos’ knowledge of soil conditions and growth cycles, as well as their ability to differentiate between different species of yams. The campesinos relied on their knowledge of weather patterns, differences in root coloration, and size variations to determine when they could dig up roots with the highest concentrations of sapogenin, the chemical that was converted into progesterone in the laboratory. Over the decades, the campesinos slowly gained an education in organic chemistry. Continue reading

May 26, 2013
Today Is the 19th Anniversary of the FACE Act

Serving as the medical director of a reproductive health clinic made Dr. George Tiller a lightning rod for constant vitriol — and more than once a target of violence. Picketers routinely gathered outside his clinic in Wichita, Kansas, a site of their protests because it provided abortions, including late-term abortions. In 1986, Tiller saw the clinic firebombed. Seven years later, in 1993, he suffered bullet wounds to his arms when an anti-abortion extremist fired on him outside the property. Finally, in 2009, he was fatally shot while attending worship services at a Wichita church.

In the wake of Dr. Tiller’s death, many reproductive rights advocates argued that his assassination could have been avoided. The shooting was not the first time his murderer, 51-year-old Scott Roeder, broke the law.

Roeder could have been stopped prior to the shooting under a federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which was enacted in 1994 — 19 years ago this Sunday — to protect the exercise of reproductive health choices. The FACE Act makes it a federal crime to intimidate or injure a person who is trying to access a reproductive health clinic. It also makes it unlawful to vandalize or otherwise intentionally damage a facility that provides reproductive health care.

Roeder’s ideology was the root of his criminality. Roeder subscribed to a magazine, Prayer and Action News, that posited that killing abortion providers was “justifiable homicide.” Roeder also had ties to a right-wing extremist movement that claimed exemption from U.S. laws and the legal system. Continue reading

May 14, 2013
The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 5: Clinical Trials

Welcome to the fifth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick envisioned and bankrolled the development of the birth control pill. Now it had to be tested in large-scale trials.

John Rock, Gregory Pincus, and Min-Chueh Chang had collaborated in the Pill’s development; now it was time to conduct clinical trials. The first study observed 60 women, some of whom were infertility patients while others were nurses. These small trials involved daily temperature readings, vaginal smears, and urine samples, as well as monthly endometrial biopsies. Although the initial results seemed promising, the sample size was small and few of the subjects complied with the protocol.

More test subjects were needed. At this point, historians’ accounts differ. Elaine Tyler May claims that, unable to locate an acceptable pool of volunteers, the researchers tested the Pill on subjects who could not give their consent, such as psychiatric patients. According to Bernard Asbell, however, Rock was scrupulous when it came to informed consent, despite it not being a legal requirement — or even much of a concept at all at this time in history.

Willing participants notwithstanding, conducting such trials in the United States posed a challenge, due to laws against contraception. So the first large-scale clinical trials were conducted in Puerto Rico in 1956. Puerto Rico was densely populated and there was a high demand for alternatives to permanent sterilization, which was widespread on the island due to funding from a wealthy eugenicist named Clarence Gamble, who advocated sterilization for the world’s poor. The clinical trials in Puerto Rico were conducted by Drs. Edris Rice-Wray and Adaline Sattherthwaite; the brand of birth control pill tested was named Enovid. Volunteers were so easy to come by that some clinics had waiting lists. Continue reading

April 12, 2013
The History of the Birth Control Pill: Margaret Sanger’s “Magic Pill”

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, progesterone, the birth control pill’s active ingredient, could only be administered intravenously. Scientists working in Mexico figured out how to alter its chemical structure so that progesterone would be active when taken orally.

Katharine McCormick was born into a moneyed family and was, in 1904, the second female graduated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her degree in biology, she married a wealthy man, but shortly into the marriage she gained control of her husband’s estate due to his illness. She put a lot of this money to good use: In the 1920s, she aided Margaret Sanger’s efforts to smuggle diaphragms into the country.

Her involvement with Sanger didn’t end there; indeed, both Sanger and McCormick had a lot in common, despite Sanger’s working-class childhood and McCormick’s privileged upbringing. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, McCormick and Sanger both had “a tremendous faith in the possibility of science,” and Sanger “believed that science held the key to contraception and to women’s emancipation.” Back in the ’20s, Sanger wrote:

Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

In 1950, McCormick again joined forces with Sanger. In the mid-’40s, after a countrywide tour of family-planning clinics, Sanger had come to the conclusion that the diaphragm was not an adequate form of birth control, revitalizing her hope for a “magic pill.” Neither pharmaceutical companies nor the government wanted to invest in contraceptive research, considering it a “disreputable” area of study, so Sanger hatched a scheme to bankroll the independent development of an oral contraceptive. At Sanger’s behest, McCormick provided the lion’s share of funding for the project — more than $2 million (compared to the value of a dollar in the year 2000, that would be about the equivalent of $12 million). Sanger and McCormick tapped Gregory Pincus to conduct the research. McCormick, thanks to her education in biology, oversaw the research in addition to funding it. Continue reading

March 22, 2013
Unmarried? Use Birth Control? It's the 41st anniversary of your right to do that.

Recent controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate has served as a reminder of how shaky our rights to contraception can be. Although 99 percent of women have used contraception at some point in their lives, access to contraception is still subject to challenges. Section 2713 of the Affordable Care Act mandated that employers’ health plans include coverage for contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles. Critics attacked the law as unfair to religious institutions that oppose the use of contraceptives. Responding to pressure, the Obama White House offered a compromise that shifted the responsibility for coverage from any religious institution opposed to the mandate to the employees’ health insurance.

Our rights to contraception are not only shaky at times, but also not long established. When people think of celebrities like Marlon Wayans, Cameron Diaz, or Maya Rudolph, old age is probably not what comes to mind. However, what they have in common is that they were each born in 1972, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Eisenstadt v. Baird (405 U.S. 438), a landmark decision that guaranteed unmarried couples the same access to birth control as married couples. March 22 marks the anniversary of this court victory for reproductive rights activist Bill Baird, and for the reproductive freedoms he defended in the U.S. Supreme Court. Continue reading

March 18, 2013
The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 3: From Injection to Ingestion

Welcome to the third installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, we learned about the iconoclastic chemist Russell Marker, who figured out how to synthesize large quantities of progesterone — the birth control pill’s active ingredient — from a yam called barbasco that grew wild in Mexico.

In 1949, Russell Marker dropped out of science — “I considered all chemists to be crooks,” he bitterly opined — and a scientist named Carl Djerassi was hired to head the lab at Syntex, the hormone-synthesizing laboratory in Mexico that Marker had co-founded in 1944. Within a few years, Syntex was a major player on the synthetic-hormone scene in Europe and the Americas.

Although progesterone could be manufactured in large quantities at this time, it could only be given intravenously. Progesterone was being used therapeutically to prevent miscarriage and treat excessively heavy menstrual periods. The lack of alternatives to injections represented a problem for these people — a daily pill would be easier and more convenient than frequent injections. In 1950, Syntex set their sights on the development of a synthetic form of progesterone that was more effective in smaller doses and could be administered orally rather than by intravenous injections. Such a development would be necessary before Margaret Sanger’s dream of a “magic pill” could come true. Continue reading

March 15, 2013
The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Part 2

Last month we featured Part 1 of our interview with historian Stephanie Coontz about her book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012). A Strange Stirring looks at the history of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has been widely regarded as one of the most influential books of the last century.

Published 50 years ago in February of 1963, The Feminine Mystique was Friedan’s response to the unease and dissatisfaction that she learned was common among American housewives at the time. Friedan hypothesized that the root of their unhappiness was their confinement to domestic roles, which prevented them from finding meaning and identity outside of their roles as homemakers, partners, and caregivers. Entering the workforce and professions, Friedan believed, would provide them the fulfillment they were missing.

Although social conservatives blamed The Feminine Mystique for sowing marital discontent, that was never Friedan’s intention. As Stephanie Coontz explained in A Strange Stirring, Friedan’s book “made a point of not criticizing husbands for their wives’ unhappiness.” Instead, it suggested that “marriages would be happier when women no longer tried to meet all their needs through their assigned roles as wives and mothers.” In Part 1 of our interview, Coontz discussed the accuracy of Friedan’s insight, noting that “today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where the highest percentage of wives are in the labor force. Marriages where men and women voluntarily share breadwinning and caregiving tend to be very high quality.” Continue reading

February 27, 2013
The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.

What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.” Continue reading

February 26, 2013
The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview With Stephanie Coontz, Part 1

Award-winning author Stephanie Coontz has published a long list of books and articles about the history of family and marriage. She has written about the evolution of those two institutions from prehistory to today, in works that have been widely praised for their intelligence, wit, and insight. In her most recent book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012), Coontz takes us back 50 years to a breakthrough that changed the role of women in American households.

In 1963 it was clear that a revolution was beginning. After its approval by the FDA at the beginning of the decade, 2.3 million American women were using the birth control pill, the oral contraceptive that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in pioneering. And on February 19, 1963, 50 years ago today, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that sold millions of copies in its first three years. It quickly became the object of both derision and acclaim for awakening women to aspirations beyond what discrimination and prejudice had long defined for them. If oral contraceptives were the breakthrough in medicine that finally enabled women to plan their reproductive lives around their educational and career goals, Friedan’s landmark book was the breakthrough in consciousness that gave many the resolve to do it.

Friedan was a magazine writer whose experience surveying women at a college reunion was the spark that drove her to uncover “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the dissatisfaction and depression she found widespread among housewives, not just at the reunion but in many other encounters she had with them as a writer. Convinced that it would help married women — and their marriages — if they sought their own identities outside of the home, Friedan synthesized a wealth of research to make her case in The Feminine Mystique. Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring is a social history of The Feminine Mystique that takes readers from an era of far-reaching sex discrimination in the early 1960s when Friedan made her breakthrough, to the contemporary era when many of Friedan’s appeals have been realized but new challenges hinder equality. Continue reading

January 8, 2013
The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 1: Hormones, Our “Chemical Messengers”

Welcome to the first installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill, from our discovery of how hormones work, to the synthesis of these hormones from an inedible wild Mexican yam, to the creation of a pill that changed the world.

Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses. Indigenous people used it as a fish poison, and traditional Mesoamerican healers used it to treat rheumatism, snakebites, muscular pain, and skin conditions. When the root was fermented in alcohol and put on aching joints, it was believed to work as a pain reliever.

Barbasco’s medicinal uses might not be surprising, given that scientists derived a chemical from the yam that led to the development of cortisone and oral contraceptives, both of which had sizable impacts on medicine and society. Oral contraceptives would not have been possible without a cheap and abundant source of progesterone, which was easily synthesized from the root after an American chemist, Russell Marker, discovered a process for converting a cholesterol found in barbasco’s roots to progesterone, a key ingredient in the Pill.

In the decades before this chemist’s excursion to Mexico, first-wave feminism was brewing in turn-of-the-century United States, and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger demanded access to contraception — in 1915, she invented the term “birth control,” and as early as 1912, the idea of a birth control pill had been envisioned — again, by Sanger, who wrote of her hope for a “magic pill.” A nurse, Sanger was spurred to action by the horror of watching women die prematurely after having too many children, while other women died from botched abortions. Continue reading

December 5, 2012
Book Club: Outlaw Marriages

Sally Ride, the famous astronaut who passed away in July from pancreatic cancer, left an unexpected gift to America’s youth. In her obituary, it was revealed that Ride, the first American woman to travel into outer space, had been in a committed, same-sex relationship for 27 years with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Having quietly come out, she now serves as an important, high-profile role model for LGBTQ youth.

Although it became public knowledge too recently to be included, Ride’s story mirrors those found in a recently published collective biography by Rodger StreitmatterOutlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press, 2012) visits the topic of same-sex marriage in the United States, covering 140 years of history in 15 marriages, from 1865 to 2005.

Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., profiles the marriages of luminaries ranging from poet Walt Whitman to screen star Greta Garbo, bringing his subjects to life in stories that can be fascinating, poignant, and even humorous. The 15 marriages he chronicles were “outlaw marriages,” because “each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.” Continue reading

November 16, 2012
“I Didn’t Want to Believe It”: Lessons from Tuskegee 40 Years Later

Located among longleaf pine and hardwood trees, low ridges, and broad floodplains, Tuskegee, Alabama, is a small town that’s been a big part of American history. Despite a modest population of less than 10,000 people, Tuskegee has been able to boast many notable residents who have made names for themselves in everything from sports to the arts. Among them have been the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Air Force unit, which served during World War II, and Rosa Parks, the icon of the civil rights movement, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

Tuskegee, though, is also remembered for one of the worst chapters in the history of medical research. Forty years ago, in 1972, newspapers revealed the story of a syphilis study that was callous in its deception of research participants, and damaging, even today, in the distrust it sowed among black Americans. The study had started another 40 years prior, in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) needed to rescue a financially troubled syphilis intervention in Macon County, Alabama. The intervention was first established in partnership with a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, but its future was uncertain when the organization’s funds dried up during the Great Depression.

Syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was the subject of conflicting scientific hypotheses at the time, including the hypothesis that the disease behaved differently in blacks and whites. Interested in testing those hypotheses and faced with disappearing funds for treatment, the USPHS turned its project into a study of untreated syphilis. Also influencing the decision was the fact that the USPHS was discouraged by the low cure rate of the treatments at the time, mercury and bismuth. But by the mid-1940s, penicillin was in use as a proven treatment for syphilis. In spite of that medical advance, the USPHS withheld treatment from a total of 399 infected patients by the time the study ended in 1972. Continue reading

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