Earth Day and the Pill

As many of you know, today is the 40th anniversary of  Earth Day. Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the contraceptive Pill in the United States.  This afternoon, I’m giving a paper at a conference celebrating 40 years of coeducation at Trinity College in Hartford (conference logo at left) that ties the two stories together.   My talk is adapted from my chapter in this book with some additional material on Connecticut incorporated.  I start with Gloria Steinem’s claim that the “contraceptive revolution” started on college campuses in 1962.  This certainly wasn’t true in Connecticut, where it was illegal for married persons to get contraception.  Even after the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965, individual states did not guarantee that the right to privacy extended to married persons.  The state of Massachusetts explicitly outlawed giving contraceptives to unmarried minors, and Bill Baird was arrested for “crimes against chastity” for giving contraceptive foam to an unmarried students following a lecture at Boston University in 1967.

My paper contrasts the situation at Trinity with that at Yale University, which also went coed in 1969 (actually the undergraduate college went coed; the graduate school already admitted women).  The Yale Student Health Service hired a gynecologist shortly before the college admitted women, out of fears that “that all the young girls descending on campus would get pregnant,” [this quote comes from an interview by Judy Klemesbud, “Yale Students Have Own ‘Masters and Johnson,” in the New York Times April 28, 1971]. Trinity College, however, did not hire a gynecologist but instead sent students to Planned Parenthood or local hospitals.  Female students didn’t like this situation, of course, and formed the Trinity Women’s Organization and organized a women’s week in 1972 to express their concerns that the college was not doing enough to accommodate women.  According to one of the women’s organization’s founding members, sophomore Sara Throne, many women “came here feeling like invaders in a foreign land” since. no one had done anything to make welcoming to women. Male professors trivialized women’s intelligence, there was no gynecologist or woman counselor on campus, no feminist literature in the library, no woman in the athletic department. Instead, said Throne, “We’re expected to fit ourselves into what’s already here.” [this comes from an article by Linda Greenhouse, “Problems Seen in Women’s Bias Fight,” in the Hartford Courant February 13, 1972]

At the same time that Yale and Trinity were going coed, the organization Zero Population Growth was sponsoring teach-ins on college campuses emphasizing the “catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere.” The first Earth Day celebration in 1970 made U.S. human population limitation a major theme. ZPG started a regional group in Connecticut in 1972 in order to lobby for better family planning services in the state and removal of state laws prohibiting abortion. The group actively recruited students at Trinity, University of Connecticut, Connecticut College, and other colleges around the state.

Even though some student organizers emphasized that the baby boom among middle-class Americans was the main cause of “overpopulation” in the United States, the alliance between birth control advocates and ZPG was an uneasy one. Officials at Planned Parenthood Federation of America were especially cautious about the appeal of ZPG on college campuses. Dan Pellegrom, Director of Planned Parenthood’s Program of Student Community Action, told University of Connecticut Biology Professor Nancy Clark, that given the controversial nature of ZPG, and population groups more generally, it was “essential” that Planned Parenthood provide leadership at the ZPG’s teach-ins, and use it as a way to increase student interest in forming campus chapters of PPFA. Pellegrom warned of the dangers of affiliating with ZPG, however. Based on his experience working with black community groups, he had “personal problems” with ZPG, “one, because their rhetoric could be taken by the black communities as genocidal and two, because they seem to be often politically in adept.” [this comes from a letter in the PPFA archives at Smith College]

Planned Parenthood leaders recognized that enlisting the support of black students was essential in establishing the legitimacy of birth control among the African American community, both on and off campus.  One of the earliest college chapters was at Hampton Institute, a historically black college in Virginia.

So, I’m concluding that the “contraceptive revolution” didn’t just happen because the Pill was invented:  students had to organize and demand reproductive health services be provided on campus.  This work continues with Planned Parenthood’s Vox program.

1 thought on “Earth Day and the Pill

  1. Pingback: Around the Maypole at the History Carnival | The Vapour Trail

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