Yep, We Are Still Thinking Like Medieval Men!

I am pleased to welcome back Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of The Medieval Vagina and the hugely popular post Menses Madness: Menstruation Myths and the Medieval Mindset. They are with us today to address the question “Are we making progress, or is it true that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’”?

flow3On March 4, we presented a book signing followed by a discussion at Trident Booksellers in Boston. One of the questions that an audience member asked us concerned parallels between women’s issues today and during the Middle Ages. Admittedly, women’s issues were deeply entwined with patriarchy and a number of them have been resolved as women have gained more rights and powers. Sadly, we are still grappling with two important issues facing women…800-plus years after the end of the medieval era. These are rape culture/victim blaming and birth control freedoms.

Rape is a crime that transcends time and culture. In the Middle Ages, rape was viewed as a sexual attack, with the perpetrator so filled with lust that he could not control his actions. Today, we know that rape has less to do with sex than it does with power and dominance and terrorization. What hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages is victim blaming. The male perpetrator was driven to act on his out-of-control lust because of something his victim did. Perhaps she was too pretty or her actions or attire were seductive or flirtatious. Whatever the reason, one thing was clear. It was the woman’s fault. This vile attitude continues to repeat itself. There have been countless court cases in which the rape victim herself was raked across the coals, watching her reputation be torn to threads, while character witness after character witness testified to the saintliness of her attacker. Have we all not heard stories of college girls who were raped being told with disclaimers such as “she shouldn’t have drank so much” or “she shouldn’t have walked home alone” or “what did she expect to happen when she wore those shorts”? Society still looks to the victim when a rape occurs, trying to find exactly what she did wrong to bring this attack upon herself. Centuries have passed since the Middle Ages and still this medieval mindset exists.

Rape culture and victim blaming has been deeply engrained in our societies and manifests in laws, policies, rules, and regulations, all telling women what they need to do to avoid unwanted advances of men. Little, however, is done to teach boys to change their behavior, to not advance those unwanted advances. Take school dress codes for example. Most are designed to restrict what the female students can wear so that they do not create a “distraction” for the male students. Just last week, top students at Downing High School in Iowa were sent letters inviting them to attend an awards ceremony. The letter included a dress code for the ceremony…two lines of rules for the boys to follow and FOUR PARAGRAPHS for the girls, including the line “Choose an outfit that is pretty enough to show you are a woman and covered enough to show you are a lady.” What this, and other female-specific dress codes, are really doing is reinforcing the idea that women are to blame if men are sexually aroused by them. Instead, schools should teach boys to respect girls and women no matter their attire so they won’t turn into young men who think it is okay to have sex with a woman who is passed out drunk or who refuse to take “no” for an answer from a girl in a tank top and mini skirt.

Getting birth control is so complicated!

Getting birth control can be so complicated!

Next, we will look at the second issue facing medieval women that is still prevalent today: birth control. In the Middle Ages, birth control was not just a woman’s issue. It involved the patriarchy…husbands, the crown, the church. As a second-class citizen, a woman was not free to make her own decisions about her reproductive rights. All decisions were made for her. Sound familiar? Even today, a woman’s uterus is the subject of legislation, laws, and religious debate. Remember Hobby Lobby? Remember the University of Notre Dame? No other part of a woman’s body is being regulated and controlled by outside entities, yet it is still believed that a woman is not capable of making all her own decisions regarding her womb. She needs help and guidance, so some still think, or else she may make the “wrong” decision. How archaic is this mindset?

Thankfully, much has changed since the Middle Ages and woman have come a long way, baby. But clearly, there is more work to be done. Banishing victim blaming and removing reproductive rights from the court system will both go a long way to removing the medieval mindset that we still see today.

The Medieval Vagina

 

Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety are the authors of The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.

What do you think? Are we making progress? Leave us your thoughts and comments.

Jezebel and Asherah: Controlling a Culture by Slut Shaming the Queen

Today I am pleased to welcome Kyra Kramer, author of “The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters.”

Jezebel, the Painted Queen, is one of the most notorious women to have ever lived. Her name has come to literally mean a woman who uses sex to corrupt men and tempt them into sin. She is the ultimate trollop and has been slut shamed longer and more fiercely than any other woman in history. But why? Did she really lead her husband, King Ahab, astray from the paths of righteousness? Did she really use her womanly wiles as a weapon to destroy God’s chosen prophets? History and archeology suggest not. It seems as if Jezebel’s real “crime” was to embrace the Hebrew religion a little too well. Could she have been maligned not for turning Ahab away from Yahweh, but for keeping him loyal to Yahweh’s feminine side?

ezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Most people don’t know it but Yahweh (AKA Jehovah or God or Allah) had a goddess consort named Asherah for thousands of years. In fact, Asherah may have been more than a consort. Just as a coin has two sides but is a single object, or like the Holy Trinity represents a single deity, Asherah may have been God’s female ‘face’ — the female hypostasis of God. This means that to venerate Asherah was not necessarily a distinct form of worship, but rather would have been an official part of the Hebrew religion itself.

Asherah disappeared from official Judeo-Christian dogma roughly three thousand years ago, but archeological evidence shows her presence throughout Israel and the ancient Near East for millennia before that. In several instances her name is directly linked with Yahweh. An archeological site in eastern Sinai, called Ajrud, found inscriptions on ancient Israelite stelae that decree, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah/asherah”, “by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”, and “I bless you by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”.

Evidence of Asherah also lingers in the written historical record of Judaism, if you know how to spot it. Asherah was associated with trees and groves, and was often symbolized by a wooden pole or tree. She was so strongly connected to trees and tree images (especially oak, palm, tamarisks, almond, terebinthes, and poplar) that Biblical mentions of planting trees near altars, shrines, or holy places are forgotten references to her. Furthermore, the multiple mention of burials of holy men and women taking place near (or under) sacred trees are also contextual remnants of her worship.

Several passages in the Bible suggest miracles Asherah wrought via her sacred trees. For example, when Jacob’s father-in-law tried to trick him after promising him every spotted member of his flock:

“Jacob … took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted” (Genesis, 30:37-39). Why would Jacob use poles made from poplar and almond trees to facilitate this miracle if it were not to call on Asherah, the feminine half of the God of Abraham, for aid? Additionally, when Joshua reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews, he recorded it “in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. 27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God” (Joshua, 24:26-27).

An oak tree in the sacred place of Yahweh was almost certainly a symbol of God’s feminine aspect, Asherah.

Acceptance for Asherah worship was also implied by what wasn’t said in sacred text. When Jehu overthrew Ahab’s son and became the unlawful king of Israel, his excuse was that God commanded him to purify Yahwehism. Nevertheless, Jehu didn’t tear down or desecrate a religious structure built by Ahab to honor Asherah, which suggests Asherah WAS a part of orthodox Yahwism. In 1 Kings Chapter 18, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were slaughtered in Kishon Valley because they worshiped a false god, but there is no mention of an execution for the four hundred prophets of Asherah that had accompanied Baal’s priests. Why would the prophets of Asherah be spared if they were not legitimate practitioners of Yahwism? Finally, devotion to Asherah was not explicitly condemned in the earliest books of the Hebrews and seldom even in the later works. If her worship was so closely connected to that of Baal, why was her veneration treated with kid gloves? The lack of prophetic criticism for the worship of Asherah is a strong indication that devotion to her was once a normal part of Yahwistic piety.

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah’s legitimate status among Hebrew practitioners opens up the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jezebel acted as a priestess of Asherah as part of her responsibilities as queen of Israel. As an official part of Yahwism, the goddess Asherah would have doubtlessly had state celebrations and rituals in her honor that would have been overseen or implemented by the highest ranking woman in the nation, which was obviously the wife of the king. Jezebel is mostly connected to Baal in popular culture, but it is practically a given that she was a follower of Asherah. Not only did four hundred prophets of Asherah “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), her father was recorded historically as being a priest of Astarte [Asherah] or a priest of the Goddess. That means that Jezebel would have been, at least in practice, a pluralistic Yahwist who venerated Asherah along with her Hebrew husband.

Of course, we know in hindsight that the fundamentalist arm of the Jewish religion was victorious in the end. The Hebrew conservatives, known as the deuteronomists, eventually eradicated almost all evidence – even the memory – of Asherah as a part of the Yahwistic godhead or consort to God. One of the ways this happened was with creative editing of the early Hebrew texts. The veneration of Asherah was repackaged as having always been counter to the will of Yahweh and having never been an acceptable part of Yahwism. Although the idea of an exclusively masculine God only became significant during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, the deuteronomists rewrote the earlier records and cleared out as many direct references to Asherah as they could. Over time, the people forgot that there had ever BEEN any other form of Judaism. The idea that God has both a male and a female aspect was not just removed from the orthodox belief system; the very concept of it was lost to believers because it never existed in the first place.

This was not an overnight process. It took hundreds of years to remove Asherah from the state cult and codified texts, and even then she remained in Jewish rituals long after she had ceased to be formally acknowledged as a part of Yahwism. Nor has Asherah disappeared entirely even in modern times. The menorah — the seven-branched candlestick used during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – appears to be modeled after the seven-branched stylized “Tree of Life” that represented Asherah and thus serves as an unrecognized and unspoken testament to Yahweh’s female aspect.

There are several biblical records of direct conflicts between those who still wanted to co-worship Asherah and those who wanted Yahweh to stand alone. The prophet Jeremiah told Jews living in Egypt that if they did not stop their reverence for Asherah then God would punish them. Defying the prophet, the people resisted this command:

15 Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, 16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” 19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Jeremiah 44:15-19

Likewise, the prophet Hosea was in despair because the Israelites “consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant. Therefore your daughters turn to prostitution and your daughters-in-law to adultery” (Hosea 4:12-13). The prostitution and adultery Hosea speaks of is the continued worship of Asherah in her sacred groves, which was described by deuteronomists as “harlotry” because it was “cheating” on Yahweh — failing to maintain Yahwistic purity — in their opinion.

Clearly, the conservatives faced an uphill battle in eradicating Asherah from Judaism, even centuries after the death of Ahab and the establishment of deuteronomistic authority. The situation must have seemed especially dire for fundamentalists during Ahab’s reign. The deuteronomists of Jezebel’s time couldn’t have known that their version of the Lord would become the orthodox version of the Hebrew religion. For the contemporary conservatives, Jezebel’s worship of Asherah (which would have been seen as a righteous act by the majority of the Israeli populace) was terrifically problematic. As the queen of Israel, Jezebel’s influence would have been seen as a formidable obstacle for the fundamentalist cause to overcome because she promoted and participated in the populist worship of Asherah. With the queen bolstering the goddess, it would be even more difficult for Jewish extremists to convince the Hebrew people that Yahweh had no consort.

From a deuteronomistic perspective, Jezebel had to die and her death had to be seen as a punishment from God to undermine those who considered Asherah to be a part of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the queen’s murder was portrayed.

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

According to Biblical text, Jezebel died after being thrown out of a window at the behest of the God-sent usurper Jehu. In Canaanite royal society, the “lady-in-the-window” motif was a common way to represent many goddesses throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Asherah. For Yahwistic fundamentalists the act of looking out of the window would have been symbolically linked with the “harlotry” of goddess worship. If Jezebel, looking out of the window, was the representation of Asherah, then having the queen thrown down from the window served a twofold purpose. It wasn’t just the queen who died. Jezebel’s fall symbolically represented the destruction of Asherah worship in Yahwism.

Okay, but why did Jezebel get slut shamed? Asherah worship did not indicate unfaithfulness to Ahab, her husband. Nor are there Biblical texts indicating Jezebel had sex with anyone else. If she committed no sexual infidelities or transgressions, how did she become remembered as a strumpet? Well, it comes back to the fact that devotion to Asherah was seen as the worst kind of “harlotry” by the conservatives. Jezebel’s harlotry was particularly bad because it served as an example and support for others who wanted the continuation of Asherah in official Yawheism. Over time, Jezebel’s polyamorous spirituality became confused and conflated with the physical act of intercourse. Thus, Jezebel the harlot who worshiped Asherah became Jezebel the slut.

By recasting Jezebel from a devout queen to an evil slut, those Hebrews who supported Asherah worship – especially the women – could be implicated for immorality because they followed in Jezebel’s footsteps. Women would have their honor and reputation denigrated if they were found to venerate Asherah, making women less likely to risk private rituals or pass that knowledge on to their children. Public rituals would become a source of shame, something ‘good girls’ didn’t do. Worshiping Asherah had come to mean that a woman was like Jezebel, and no one wanted to be an evil slut in the eyes of her people. The flame of Asherah was rapidly snuffed out after her followers were branded de facto sluts.

Jezebel was slut shamed in order to control an entire culture and eradicate the last traces of Asherah.

*****

Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

The Jezebel Effect book coverHave you heard that Catherine the Great died having sex with her horse? Or perhaps you prefer the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers and slept with her brother? Or that Kathryn Howard slept with so many members of the Tudor court that they couldn’t keep track of them all? As juicy and titillating as the tales might be, they are all, patently untrue.

Modern PR firms may claim that no publicity is bad publicity, but that, too, is untrue. The fact that Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft, and that Jezebel is remembered as a painted trollop rather than a faithful wife and religiously devout queen, isn’t a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it’s a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability. This is The Jezebel Effect.

Bibliography:

Ackerman, Susan. (1993) “The Queen Mother and the cult in ancient Israel” Journal of Biblical Literature p. 385-401.
Cohen, Daniel. (2010) “Asherah: Hidden Goddess of the Bible” in Goddesses in World Culture
Dever, William G. (2012) The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
Kein, Jenny. (2000) Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism
Hadley, Judith M. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess
McKinlay, Judith E. (2004) Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus
Moascati, Sabitino. (2001) The Phoenicians
Seeman, Don. (2004) “The Watcher at the Window: Cultural Poetics of a Biblical Motif” In Prooftexts 24:1
Silver, Morris. (1995) Economic Structures of Antiquity
Yee, Gale A. (2003) Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible

Biblical quotes are from The New International Version (NIV).

Menses Madness: Menstruation Myths and the Medieval Mindset

Today, I am pleased to welcome Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of “The Medieval Vagina: An Hysterical and Historical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.”

Beware the woman in red.

Beware the woman in red.

Blood, which the warrior/hunter man of ancient times associated with injury and death, took on a paradoxical quality in women. This blood meant life, though this may not have been widely known in medieval times. What was known was that menstrual blood was a powerful and toxic substance, laden with an evil, magical quality. As with many other aspects of life, the object of a society’s fear and ignorance became the subject of myths and legends which, of course, did nothing to advance scientific and medical inquiry. These stories and legends served only to perpetuate the idea that womanly blood held sinister magic, thus reinforcing the wide held belief that all females should be handled with suspicion and kept in a subservient role.

We can trace back much of the misconceptions about menstrual blood back to the first century writings of Pliny the Elder, a man who claimed to have a deep understanding of the female body. His ideas, as crazy as they seem today, were viewed as indisputable facts for centuries. He claimed that contact with menstrual blood could wreak all sorts of havoc including cause rust on bronze and iron objects, drive dogs mad, turn wine sour, kill off hives of bees, cause unripe fruit to fall from the trees, turn sharp blades dull, and shrivel seedlings.

Always an enterprising philosopher, Pliny even proposed harnessing the poisonous power of female menses for the greater good. He suggested that menstruating women stroll around the farmers’ field stark naked, using their evil, bloody power to kill off the destructive worms, beetles, mice, and moths. This idea, he claimed, was taken from unnamed ancient writings he once read in which plagues of insects were banished by hordes of menstruating women who did nothing more than walk through the streets with their skirts hiked up to their waists.

Pliny the Elder can’t be blamed for all of the falsehoods that surrounded menstruating women in medieval times. There were certainly plenty of other myths and rumors circulating that supported the idea that menstrual blood was powerful magic. Menstrual blood was thought to be corrosive in nature; therefore it could eat through a man’s penis if he were tempted to engage in sexual intercourse at an inappropriate time of the month. Another popularly held belief was that if a couple had sex while the woman was on her period, the resulting child would be dim-witted, puny and red-headed. Menstruating women were blamed for cases of medieval Sudden Infant Death Syndrome for it was thought they could poison a sleeping infant with just their mere proximity.

Working in the fields takes on a very different meaning after reading Pliny.

Working in the fields takes on a very different meaning after reading Pliny.

Medieval medical lore was concerned not only with the existence of menstrual discharge but the quantity of it as well. Too much or too little monthly flow was to blame for a range of problems. A heavy flow, for example, could drown a man’s seed and lead to stillborn babies or malformed fetuses. Light or absent periods could cause a woman to become too masculine, flat-chested and barren. This was seen as such a pressing problem that numerous medical texts of the Middle Ages devoted pages to remedies that could bring on menstrual bleeding, although some scholars contend that these recipes could also be viewed as euphemisms for contraception or drug-induced abortions. If a medieval woman sought to induce menstruation, she was advised to drink any one of a variety of concoctions such as rue, savin and hyssop, figs, garlic seeds, St. John’s wort, myrrh, Shepard’s purse, or Bishop’s weed. If that didn’t work, these same ingredients could be made into a pessary and inserted into the vagina. Saffron and hazelnuts were also used to make pessaries. With all of these, very specific directions were carefully outlined to ensure success. Rue, for example, could be safely consumed in the evening but could be deadly if drank in the morning.

Monthly bleed, at least from a Christian standpoint, was seen as a curse bestowed on all females as punishment for Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Every drop of menstrual blood was a reminder that all women, beginning with the very first woman, are untrustworthy, manipulative liars. The folklore and myths that sprang forth from this attitude only served to foster the misogynistic beliefs of the day.

Men have always been rather skittish when it comes to womanly bleeding and this is especially true of the medieval man. Menstruation was eyed with fear and disgust and these attitudes transformed into myths and misconceptions. And in keeping with the prevailing beliefs of the time, these misconceptions contained more than a hint of misogyny. Menstruation, rather than being viewed as a requirement for procreation or tangible proof of fertility, was seen as a byproduct of the sinister, evil ways of the woman.

*****

Karen Harris is a college instructor by day and a writer by night. Writing offers Karen a chance to dabble in her other areas of interest, including history and science. She has written numerous freelance articles and feature stories for publication. She is a hobby farmer, environmental volunteer, and advocate for volunteer firefighters.

Lori Caskey-Sigety started writing in 1991. She hasn’t stopped. Her writing includes blogs, book reviews, essays, lyrics, plays, poems, and puppet shows. Lori has authored two poetry books, and her other works have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Orlo, Indiana Libraries, and Public Libraries. She is an artist, college instructor, librarian, and musician.

The Medieval VaginaIn the Middle Ages much like today, the vagina conjured fear and repulsion, yet it held an undeniable allure. In the Medieval Vagina, the authors explore this paradox while unearthing medieval myths, attitudes and contradictions surrounding this uniquely feminine and deeply mysterious organ.

What euphemisms did medieval people have for the vagina? Did medieval women use birth control? How was rape viewed in the Middle Ages? How was the vagina incorporated into literature, poetry, music, and art? How did medieval women cope with menstruation? The Medieval Vagina delves into these topics, and others, while introducing the reader to a collection of fascinating medieval women – Pope Joan, Lady Frances Howard, Margery Kempe, Sister Benedetta Carlini, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – who all shaped our view of the medieval vagina.

The Medieval Vagina takes a quick-paced, humorous peek into the medieval world; a time when religious authority combined with newly emerging science and medicine, classic literature, and folklore to form a deeply patriarchal society. It may have been a man’s world, but the vagina triumphed over oppression and misogyny.

You can find more information about the book, interviews and guest blog posts at Snark Publishing and the book itself on Amazon. Interested in the Kindle version, click here?

 

Margaret Sanger – Mother of Modern Contraception

I am very excited to welcome guest blogger Tami Stout. She is currently studying political science and women and gender studies and has kindly offered to give us her insight about Margaret Sanger. Thank you Tami!

margaret-sanger-1-sizedMargaret Louise Higgins Sanger (1879 – 1966) was an American activist born in 1879 in Corning, New York.  Sanger was one of eleven children born to an Irish-Catholic immigrant working class family.  Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins died of tuberculosis and cervical cancer at the age of 50 having born the strain of 11 pregnancies and seven stillbirths.  As the story goes, Margaret lashed out at her father over her mother’s coffin that he was responsible for Anne’s death due to so many pregnancies.

Margaret was determined to have a different future.  She left Corning to attend nursing school in the Catskills.  Margaret married William Sanger in 1902 and had three children of her own.  In 1910, the Sangers moved to New York City and settled in Greenwich Village.  The area was known as being bohemian and supported the more radical politics of the time.

Margaret returned to New York City to work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East side.  Here was where she saw the lives of poor immigrant women.  Without effective contraceptives many of these women, when faced with another unwanted pregnancy, resorted to five-dollar back-alley abortions or attempted to self-terminate their pregnancies.  After botched abortions Margaret was called in to care for the women.  After watching the suffering and trauma so many women experienced, Sanger began to shift her attention away from nursing to the need for better contraceptives.  Sanger objected to the suffering and fought to make birth control information and contraceptives available.  She began dreaming of a “magic pill” to be used to control pregnancy.  “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother,” Sanger said.

Indicted under Comstock Laws for sending diaphragms through the mail and arrested in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the country, which was only open for nine days before she was arrested, Margaret Sanger would not take no for an answer.  In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, the forerunner to Planned Parenthood and she spent the next thirty years trying to bring safe and effective birth control to the American woman.

Gregory Pincus

Gregory Pincus

By the 1950’s, although Sanger had many victories, she was far from finished.  Frustrated with limited birth control options on the market, Margaret still was in search of the “magic pill”.  No longer a young woman and in failing health, she was not ready to give up and made it her mission to find someone to complete her vision of a contraceptive pill as easy to take as an aspirin, inexpensive, safe, and effective.  In 1951 Sanger met Gregory Pincus, an expert in human reproduction.  Now all she needed was the money to make her vision happen and she found that in heiress Katherine McCormick.  Pincus partnered with Dr. John Rock and the collaboration led to the FDA approval of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive in 1960.

Katherine McCormick

Katherine McCormick

There were of course bumps in the road on the way to an effective contraceptive available to the masses.  Pill trials in Puerto Rico did cause health problems and deaths due to extremely high levels of hormones.  Sanger also faced controversy over her association with eugenics.  Sanger’s grandson, Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood stated that his grandmother “believed that women wanted their children to be free of poverty and disease, that women were natural eugenicists, and that birth control was the panacea to accomplish this.”

With the invention of the “magic pill” Margaret Sanger accomplished her life-long goal of bringing safe, affordable, and effective contraception to the masses.  Not only did she see the pill realized, but four years later, at the age of 81, Margaret Sanger witnessed the undoing of Comstock Laws.  In the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the court ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right.  When Sanger passed away a year later, after more than half a century of fighting for the rights of women to control their own fertility, she died knowing she had done what she set out to do.

Margaret Sanger was a champion of women and by giving women the right to control their own fertility, she gave them the right to control their lives.  No longer held hostage by your body, you have the right to seek education, employment, and a rich and fulfilled life whether that involves children or not.

 

Sanger's Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau operated from this New York building from 1930 to 1973. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau operated from this New York building from 1930 to 1973. It is now a National Historic Landmark.