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.

Our Bodies, Ourselves Author Coming to CCSU

Hey folks,

One of my women’s history heroines is coming to my campus.  Since this year’s theme is “Writing Women Back Into History,” it’s fitting that we have booked a noted woman author.  Here’s more information:

The Ruthe Boyea Women’s Center and the Committee on the Concerns of Women invites you to purchase your ticket to attend….

The 2010 Women’s History Month Luncheon

Keynote Speaker

Judy Norsigian

co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves

“Women’s Health and the Media: Sorting Fact from Fiction”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Memorial Hall, Connecticut Room

Ticket Cost: $20.00. To purchase your ticket, contact CENTix at 860- 832-1989.

Meal choices: Beef Tenderloin Gratin, Pan Seared Salmon, Chicken Francais or Vegetarian Tart



Lecture, Free and Open to the Public

Memorial Hall, Constitution Room

Speaker: Judy Norsigian

The Women’s Health Movement: Accurate, Accessible Information on Health, Sexuality, and Reproduction”

Booksigning after lecture. Books can be purchased at the CCSU Bookstore or at the event.


Judy Norsigian Bio: Co-founder of the BWHBC and co-author of all editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Judy is a graduate of Radcliffe College and an internationally renowned speaker and writer on a wide range of women’s health concerns.  Her interests include national health care reform, tobacco and women, midwifery advocacy, reproductive health, genetic technologies, and contraceptive research.  She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including Oprah, Donahue, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

New Emergency Contraception Drug

via Our Bodies Our Blog.  They report, “A recent ABC news piece and two new journal articles (in The Lancet and Obstetrics and Gynecology) have drawn attention to an emergency contraception drug that is not currently available in the U.S. but apparently has been submitted to the FDA for review.”

I need to figure out how to fit this in the book project, but first I need to look up ulipristal acetate.

Knitting Clio has been busy blogging elsewhere

This blog has been quiet lately since I maintain two other blogs.  One is the course blog for my graduate digital history seminar. The other is Women Historians of Medicine, where we are having a lively discussion about suggestions for an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of the Pill that Suzanne Junod at the FDA History Office is putting together.

Since I’m an expert on the history of college health, no discussion of the history of the Pill would be complete without mentioning that female students’ access to the Pill was recently weakened by changes in Medicaid pricing rules. Prior to 2005, pharmaceutical companies were able to provide Title X clinics and college health centers with birth control pills at a substantial discount.  In 2005, these rules changed, and in 2007 the price of birth control pills for women who came to these clinics skyrocketed, going from $10 to as much as $50 per package. The Feminist Majority Foundation Campus Program worked hard to change this, and in 2009 Congress reversed this and once again made low-cost birth control clinics available to student health centers and clinics for low-income women.  Yet some student health centers still don’t offer discounted pills.  So, to ensure access, please do the following:

  1. Go to your Student Health Center and make sure birth control and emergency contraception is offered and its given a discounted price.
  2. If you can’t access birth control on campus, start a petition, write op-eds in your student newspaper, present resolutions to student government and administration.
  3. Encourage the Health Center to be on your side.
  4. Plug into FMF’s Birth Control Access Campaign action kit to disseminate information on campus.

Blog for Choice Day 2010

via NARAL Blog for Choice

This is NARAL’s 5th annual Blog for Choice Day, which falls on the 37th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.  In honor of the late Dr. George Tiller, who often wore a button that simply read, “Trust Women,” this year’s Blog for Choice Day question is: What does Trust Women mean to you?

Followers of this blog know that I’m currently working on a book on the history of the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP), aka the “morning-after pill” for the series Critical Issues in Health and Medicine for Rutgers University Press.   [please take the survey by clicking at the link at the bottom of this blog]

Right now, I’m working on Chapter 5, which looks at feminist activism to raise awareness about and convince the FDA to approve a dedicated ECP product.  Some of the leaders of this endeavor were also prominent in NARAL, so covering the history of this organization is important to my work. In her essay, “Toward Coalition: The Reproductive Health Technologies Project,” from Abortion Wars, edited by Rickie Solinger, Marie Bass describes how RHTP arose out of her work as political action director for NARAL.  Bass found her experience unsatisfying because of the way in which the abortion issue “had been appropriated by shallow, insensitive, and opportunistic politicians.” She found that congressional candidates — “usually male, but not always” — formed their position on abortion according to “how the political winds in their state or district were blowing.”  She found the politicians who claimed to be pro-choice to be the most frustrating. Even though public opinion polls indicated that the majority of Americans were pro-choice, these politicians would give torturous “non-answers” to the question “are you pro-choice”.  Even more disturbing for Bass was the fate of former congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro during her historic run for vice-president in 1984, who was “brutally assaulted for her audacity, as a Catholic woman, to espouse a position on abortion that contradicted the Church.”  Meanwhile, pro-choice Catholic men (e.g. Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy) were given a pass.  “Evidently, men could be indulged in a little waywardness, but a Catholic woman — never!”

Around the same time, Bass heard about a new drug called RU-486, which would terminate an early pregnancy.  Bass’ first thought was maybe “this was a way out of the quagmire of the abortion issue” since it would take abortion “out of the political arena and put the decision back in the hands of women and medical practitioners, where it belonged.”  She joined with other activists from NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations — including Joanne Howes, Nanette Falkenberg, and Sharon Camp — to work on bringing RU-486 to market in the United States.   When they called the first meeting of what would become RHTP in 1988, Bass and her “small cabal of collaborators” assumed that opposition would come solely from anti-choice individuals and organizations.   They were quite surprised to find that while everyone at the table was pro-choice, they had widely divergent opinions about RU-486 and reproductive technologies in general.  Consumer advocates, such as Judy Norsigian from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, “introduced concerns about whether the drug affected white women and women of color differently and about access to hospital care in the event of emergencies such as prolonged bleeding.” Others called attention to the ways in which technologies had been used coercively to control reproduction among poor women of color “at the expense of women’s autonomy and health.”  Some recalled how drugs or devices such as DES and the Dalkon Shield, once touted as wonders, “had turned into disasters for women.”

Therefore, before RHTP could get anywhere with RU-486 or anything else, they had to build trust among various activists, especially women of color: “No matter how well-meaning we may have been, as white middle-class women, we simply could not represent the interests of women from other groups.”

So, this is what “trust women” means to me — building coalitions around the common issue of abortion and reproductive rights more generally, while respecting diversity — whether this be race, class, age, sexuality, disability status, or political affiliation [on this last note, this would mean supporting pro-choice Republican women over anti-choice Democratic men or women].

Finally, on the issue of blogging more generally, I’d like to address an article from Newsweek, entitled “Who’s Missing at the ‘Roe v. Wade’ Anniversary Demonstrations: Young Women.”  According to Kristy Maddux, assistant professor of Communication at the University of Maryland, who specializes in historical feminism, young women are still concerned about reproductive rights, “but they’re not trained to go out and protest.” Instead of marching in the streets, young women are writing on their blogs or social network sites.  “I don’t want to frame young women as lazy, ” says Maddux, “but they don’t have any reason to believe that it matters if they go out and protest. Instead, they talk about their positions to friends and neighbors.”

Excuse me, but what the heck is wrong with blogging?!  [and why isn’t a scholar in the field of Communication paying attention to the impact of social media on feminist activism]?  Get with the program, sister, and  blog for choice [or tweet or whatever] yourself!

Health Care Reform: Where Are the Students?

Via Inside Higher Ed.  This could be the theme of the keynote I’ve been invited to give at the American College Health Association meeting in Philadelphia this summer.

This subject certainly is of great interest to the students in my honors class this semester.  Several of the final projects addressed health reform.  More were against the public option than were for it, although perhaps if they had more information on how much health insurance would cost under the health bills now being considered by Congress, they might  change their minds.

Sex and “Mad Men”

mad_menvia  Historiann, who asks what we think about the portrayal of sex on “Mad Men.”  Historiann observes that this is the era of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) — so where’s all the fun?  Well, my first reaction is that Brown’s main message was that because women were at a disadvantage economically, they needed to use their sex appeal to get ahead. I also find a lot of similarities between “Mad Men” and the classic Billy Wilder film, The Apartment (1960).  The key difference is that the film’s hero, Bud Baxter, is a mensch who actually respects women.  So far, there aren’t any of those in “Mad Men.”  [maybe they are hidden in the mail room with the token Jewish guy from Season One).

In addition, as a historian of sexuality and contraception, I need to deflate some myths about sex in the 1960s.  Here are some thoughts, from Chapter 7 of my recent book, Student Bodies, and my current project on the history of emergency contraception, complete with footnotes!

One of the most intractable historical myths about the contraceptive pill is the claim that this discovery caused the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Carl Djerassi, one of the chemists who worked on synthesizing the chemical components of the Pill, recalled that he had “no regrets that the Pill contributed to the sexual revolution of our time and possibly expedited it.”[i] Yet Alfred Kinsey’s surveys of sexual behavior indicated that a sexual revolution was underway well before the Pill arrived on the market. His Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) disclosed that over 50 percent of the women in his sample had engaged in premarital sex.[ii] Kinsey’s findings were accompanied by the somewhat reassuring fact that the percentage of married teenaged girls increased markedly. By 1959, 47% of all brides had married before the age of nineteen, and the percentage of girls married between fourteen and seventeen had grown by one-third since 1940.[iii]

Commentaries written in the early 1960s reinforced the link between the sexual revolution and a contraceptive revolution. However, access to the Pill and other forms of contraception remained far from universal. Prior to the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision of 1965, many states banned birth control even for married persons. Furthermore, Griswold only established the right to marital privacy. Few states allowed single women to obtain birth control, and those that did only allowed them to do so if they had reached the age of majority, which most states set at age 21. Some women were able to circumvent the law by convincing sympathetic physicians to prescribe the Pill for gynecological disorders. Even in areas where providing contraceptives for single women were not forbidden by law, physicians were often unwilling to contribute to “sexual immorality” by prescribing the pill to young unmarried women. When single women did manage to get a prescription there was no guarantee that they would find a pharmacist willing to fill it.[iv]

During season one of “Mad Men,” Joan Holloway gives Peggy Olson the name of a doctor who will prescribe the pill to unmarried women.  The scene between Peggy and the doctor is probably typical — he gives Peggy a prescription, but only after lecturing her about the irresponsibility of intercourse outside of marriage.  The show’s writers reinforce this moral framework with Peggy’s pregnancy and delivery at the end of Season One.

Let’s also not forget that Mad Men is set long before Roe v. Wade.  When Betty Draper finds herself pregnant at the end of Season Two, she tells her doctor that this is bad timing because her marriage is on the rocks.  The doctor is sympathetic and knows of doctors who will perform the procedure sub rosa, but says that the option of termination is really meant for young, single women who are “in trouble.”

In short, I think the show does capture fairly accurately the problems of this transitional period in the history of sexuality in the U.S.  Women were told to be sexy, but if you got pregnant (or raped), it was your own fault for “tempting” men.

Also, there is more continuity between the allegedly “repressed” 1950s and the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s — as demonstrated in work by Beth Bailey.

[i] Carl Djerassi, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004),  95.


[ii]Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia:  Saunders, 1953).

[iii] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 43.

[iv] Beth Bailey, “Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America’s Heartland, Journal of Social History 30 (1997): 827-856; Heather Munro Prescott, A Doctor of Their Own: The History of Adolescent Medicine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Prescott, Student Bodies: The Impact of Student Health on American Society and Medicine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

Sloppy Medical History Reporting at NPR

This is in reply to the story “Accidents of History Created U.S. Health System” on yesterday’s All Things Considered:

I’m a medical historian and find several historical inaccuracies in this report. The first and most egregious is the claim that early twentieth century medicine was “medieval.” This was hardly the case — by this point there were vaccines and treatments for a number of major contagious diseases, including diptheria, syphillis and typhoid fever. Surgery had also made great advances with the advent of sterile surgical procedures.
Yes, “quack” medicines still continued but the FDA (created in 1906) helped to quell some of the most outrageous medical claims.

The report also ignores other major developments in providing affordable medical care, such as the growth of managed care plans. Among the first was Kaiser-Permanente, developed during the Second World War.

To answer other commentors’ questions about why the U.S. doesn’t have a single-payer universal health plan — this is because every attempt to develop one (starting with initiatives during the New Deal era) was fiercely opposed by the American Medical Association and other powerful lobbying groups who called any government intrusion into health care “socialized medicine.” The same argument was made against Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s.


I ran out of space in the comments section.  The authors of this report are clearly lazy and/or misinformed.  I also hated the smart-assed way in which they commented on early twentieth century medical care.

There’s nothing like an epidemic to remind folks of the importance of campus health services

prescott_frontAs I say in my latest article at History News Network. [thanks again for publishing my writing, and promoting my book.]

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on the CDC’s latest recommendations for colleges and universities.  Brainstorm blogger Gene C. Fant wonders what impact the epidemic will have on faculty hiring.

Meanwhile, Inside Higher Education talks about the flu waiting game, and has some tips on how to teach students who have to miss classes because of the flu.  How are folks out there adapting their syllabi to address the possibility of absences due to flu?  What about faculty who need to take sick days — is there a plan to make sure classes get covered?

New Emergency Contraception Survey

backupyourbirthcontrol button Since the Center for History and New Media is no longer supporting Survey Builder, I have transferred my emergency contraception survey on Survey Monkey.

Please help me spread the word about it.  While I’m covering the entire history of emergency contraception, my replies thus far have mostly been from women and men whose experience with ECP has been very recent.  Therefore,  I’m especially  interested in getting responses from the earlier history of emergency contraception (aka the “morning-after-pill”) in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (yes the technology has been around that long).