Recent economic downturns have
moved the punditry moving right past the soft word "recession" to openly invoking a word with stronger connotations–"depression."
Most of us living have no experience with the kind of hard times that
we are likely facing, and so we glance back into history for some idea
of what might come next. Most people conjure up grainy black
and white footage of soup lines or Henry Fonda looking
torn by despair. The common assumption is that people back then were
more conservative, or as the far right likes to euphemize, more "traditional."
Not quite. After all,
in the 30s, there was an actual Communist party in the U.S., and the
discovery that she voted for them in 1936 almost got Lucille Ball
The Great Depression completely remade the operation of the federal government, and the neoconservative project of privatization has largely been a
decades-long backlash. But attitudinal differences extended into
the bedroom as well, as has been amply documented in Leslie Reagan’s
must-read book When Abortion
Was A Crime.
Prior to the Great Depression, both contraceptive methods and abortion
were illegal and stigmatized. But by the 1930s attitudes changed.
Margaret Sanger, who had to flee the country in the 1910s because she
kept getting arrested for distributing birth control, was able in the
1920s to operate somewhat freely to teach women how to avoid unplanned
Attitudes about abortion and
contraception are inextricably linked, of course, so as attitudes about
contraception relaxed, so did social attitudes about abortion.
From the 19th century up until the 1930s, documents Reagan,
prosecuting abortion was a high priority for law enforcement.
The Great Depression almost abruptly changed that. Abortion didn’t
become legal, but it was far more accessible and safe than it had been
before, and many doctors provided abortion and abortion referrals somewhat
openly. The invention of the legal therapeutic abortion made this
easier. The plausibility of legalizing abortion entered the public conversation.
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Reagan focused most of her attention on the city of Chicago, which has been a reliable microcosm of the United States,
especially so in the mid-20th century.
She documented her evidence by piecing together newspaper reports,
doctors’ records, and court transcripts.
The changes in abortion access in the 1930s are nothing short of
remarkable. Before this era, most
abortion providers were midwives or freelance workers with no formal
training. In the 1930s, Reagan found
that doctors openly provided referrals to abortion providers who were also
licensed physicians – the first time in history this happened. Physicians who provided abortion services became so
open with it that they printed up business cards so other physicians could
refer easily, and they kept records of their patients. Reagan doesn’t argue
that it was all roses — many physicians hid the actual place they performed
abortions as a precaution, or paid off law enforcement. But still, it was a unique moment in time. Prior to the 1930s, physicians
didn’t perform abortions. After the
1930s, they did but had to be more covert about it, as law enforcement began
There’s very little doubt
that these liberalized attitudes towards sex had everything to do with
the economy. Reagan speaks plainly on this topic:
The Depression years make
vivid the relationship between economics and reproduction. Women
had abortions on a massive scale. Married women with children
found it impossible to bear the expense of another, and unmarried women
could not afford to marry. As young working-class women and men
put off marriage during the Depression to support their families or
to save money for a wedding, marriage rates fell drastically.
Yet while they waited to wed, couples engaged in sexual relations, and
women became pregnant. Many had abortions.
The effect that the economy
had on the birthrate was dramatic, as this chart shows. And society began to realize that women had very good reasons to
control their fertility and plan their families. I can’t help but wonder if a nation
that had real problems, like a broken economy, realized that moralizing
about sex is piddly stuff in comparison. One way or another, the
suffering brought on this country by the Depression increased the empathy society had for women and the tough decisions they sometimes
have to make.
It’s not time to pat ourselves
on the back and assume we’ll react to this economic downturn with
the empathy and maturity our predecessors had. There’s no guarantee,
of course, that society will react as a whole with more understanding when
faced with hard times. The wind can easily blow in the other direction,
and society can start hunting for scapegoats, and rebellious women are
a perennial favorite. Fascism rose in Europe at the
same time that Americans were liberalizing, and fascists were
right-wing right into the bedroom, of course. In the conflict
between allowing women more freedom to make their own choices in hard
times or idealizing the obedient and fertile mother, the Nazis picked
the latter with gusto, going so far as to bribe women considered
racially pure to have lots of children. That we have politicians in our country espousing similar
beliefs should be a cause for concern.
Nor is there any reason to suspect that Americans’ inherent
national character will make the liberalizing attitudes towards
women seen during the Great Depression come automatically. As Susan Faludi demonstrated in her book The
Terror Dream, Americans can
easily react to hard times by ramping up the misogyny. In fact, that’s precisely what’s happened in
the years after 9/11–and that’s how the Bush administration presided over the
biggest rollback to women’s rights since the feminist victories in the 60s and
70s. Clearly, a great national trauma
could send the nation in either direction on the subject of women’s rights.
Stressful, hard times are ahead, and there is no quick fix that will make everything right,
as the plummeting Dow demonstrates. We may have a limited ability
to prevent or control what comes next, but we do have a chance to control how we react
as a nation, starting with how we react to the choices each individual makes. And how we treat women–as breeding machines or as people who have
a series of influences that legitimately influence their decision-making–will
indicate on the whole the levels of maturity and empathy we will access
when confronting our economic crisis.