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.

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.