Women today are not surprised by attacks on their autonomy. It’s nothing new. Our great-great grandmothers knew this: a medical guide published in 1849 concluded women are 'weak, fragile, and childlike' and prone to hysteria – cured by marriage or by the 'rest cure' of complete isolation. Surgical cures in 1858 included clitoridectomies and/or removal of ovaries.
Assertive women were 'mad,' and could be committed to an asylum on the husband’s request. Women were, by nature, submissive and if not, they must be insane, author Kate Moore wrote for time.com. Strong independent women demonstrated 'eccentricity of conduct.' (Ibid.) Absence of birth control combined with absolute dominion of men over wives led to serial pregnancies. Pregnancy, menstrual or post-partum depression, and, later, menopause dominated a woman’s life. In the early 1800s, surgical experiments by the 'Father of Gynecology,' James Sims, were performed on enslaved women without anesthesia. He believed Black people did not feel pain, according to an article at history.com.
Then there’s our great grandmothers’ world: in 1927, Carrie Buck, a white woman, was sterilized in Virginia under a new law. Her mother had been institutionalized and sterilized because she was 'feeble-minded' and 'promiscuous.' After Carrie gave birth, she too was sterilized: It was believed she inherited her mother’s traits. Brought to the Supreme Court, this law was approved, Justice Holmes writing, 'Three generations of imbeciles are enough.' The decision 'led to the sterilization of 65,000 women from the 1920s to the 70s,' according to PBS’ 'Independent Lens.'
Then there’s our grandmothers’ world, the post-war return to 'normal.' After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, minorities still suffered at the hands of threatened whites. Coerced sterilizations were supported by federal funding; some Black women were 'were threatened with denial of medical care or termination of welfare benefits if they did not undergo sterilization.' Black women and poor whites suffered unintentional abortions as a result of an experimental super coil, a device that caused uncontrollable bleeding and, in some cases, hysterectomies, abdominal pain and anemia. Medical students also practiced performing hysterectomies on many Black women, according to an article in the journal Health Equity.
Nor were Native American women spared, as seen on the TV series 'Dark Winds.' 'Over the six-year period that had followed the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, physicians sterilized perhaps 25% of Native American women of childbearing age' sometimes without the woman’s knowledge, an article at time.com says. 'The law subsidized sterilizations for patients who received their health care through the Indian Health Service and for Medicaid patients, and black and Latina women were also targets of coercive sterilization in these years.'
This is the world that shaped today’s grandmothers and prepared them for today when they would have to march in the streets to protect their daughters and granddaughters, and their grandsons who now share their cause.
Because it also was the world of back-alley abortions.
The growing ability of women to become independent did not extend to their bodies, not even to their right to purchase condoms or access the new birth control pill, not even the right to say no to a demanding husband. Hospitals set aside private rooms for women to die in after failed abortions. 'Methods that hospitals reported women used to induce abortion included: coat hangers, knitting needles, turpentine, bleach, acid, sticks, ball-point pens, chicken bones, and trauma (caused by actions like jumping from the top of the stairs or roof),' a 2018 report by the National Women’s Law Center says.
Pregnancy was still the woman’s fault, and among the guys some women were gossiped about as 'good but not nice' wink, wink. Boys will be boys. It was understood rape victims couldn’t be impregnated if they 'didn’t enjoy it.' The male-dominated medical profession continued to treat women as flighty and emotional (think thalidomide); and the male-dominated political and legal system did the same.
Row v. Wade saved countless lives and liberated countless others.
Women stand today on the shoulders of our grandmothers, our great grandmothers. We honor them and march in their memory, and we protest for and with our daughters and granddaughters – and our sons and grandsons.
Sharon Kourous is a retired teacher and member of Stronger Together Huddle, a group engaged in supporting and promoting the common good. She resides in Monroe and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.