Spartacists: The war for women’s rights and sexual liberation — How a revolutionary Marxist program is critical in the struggle to defend women’s right to birth control and abortion and to end women’s oppression — Part 3

[This entry was initially posted to the original Red Keyhole blog on 7 July 2011.]

As this blog has previously warned,

Particularly in the USA, women’s rights – and sexual freedoms, especially for gays and youths – are under increasingly ferocious attack by the capitalist ruling class and their authorities and shock troops at all levels. At the center of their target sights is women’s right to abortion – i.e., the right to control their own bodies and decide for themselves whether they want to undergo full-term pregnancy and childbirth.

That posting further warned that “…the attack on abortion rights is only the leading edge of a campaign to fortify capitalism’s traditional-family-based morality system, and represents a more comprehensive assault on a wide array of sexual freedoms.”

Subsequently, Red Keyhole observed that “In the USA, the war against women’s rights, sexual freedom, and especially the sexual rights of youth, is becoming increasingly vicious, violent, and more ferocious.”

Indeed, this steadily mounting assault – spearheaded by the reactionary Tea Party fringe-right movement, but facilitated by political authorities of American capitalism, both Republican and Democrat – quite likely represents the most ferocious attack on the rights of American women in the entirety of American history.

In November 2010, Workers Vanguard, biweekly paper of the Spartacist League, US section of the International Communist League, published in its Women and Revolution pages an excellent analysis of these developments, linking such critical elements as women’s struggle for the right to contraception and abortion, the role of the nuclear family in maintaining capitalism’s efforts to control social and sexual behavior, and an array of related issues, including why feminism actually derails an effective struggle for women’s liberation, and underscoring the critical role of the revolutionary Marxist program and a revolutionary working-class party in spearheading the campaign for authentic women’s liberation and sexual freedom.

Because of the urgency of this issue and the value of this analysis, the Red Keyhole blog is posting the Women and Revolution article in its entirety; it’s being posted in several parts because of its length. This posting is Part 3 of this series.

The original text has been slightly annotated and edited, mainly for clarification as needed, and to improve readability in a Webpage format. Red Keyhole has also highlighted facts and segments of the text that are perceived to convey particularly important information and arguments.

For more comprehensive information on these and other related social, political, and economic issues – and to acquire greater understanding of the crucial role of revolutionary Marxism in the struggle for woman’s liberation and the emancipation of the entire working class – this blog strongly recommends subscribing to Workers Vanguard.

Some History of Birth Control

In Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Harvard University Press, 1994), John M. Riddle explores the ways that pre-industrial people might have tried to enjoy sex without the consequence of procreation. Nobody knows if the methods he documents had much effect on the birth rates, but they certainly show intent. One city in Northern Africa, Cyrene, is believed to have made its name and its fortune from a wild giant fennel that grew nearby, which people believed to have abortifacient effects. Its use became so widespread that it was harvested to extinction.

Peter Fryer, in his witty and erudite book The Birth Controllers, documents that ancient Egyptians used crocodile-dung pessaries (vaginal suppositories) and other dubious methods to control fertility. The Christian Bible’s story of Onan is only the most well known of a long-practiced method (withdrawal), a story used for centuries to put the terror of hell into countless adolescents for masturbation. Some historians believe that the tens of thousands of women who were executed as witches in early modern Europe may have been abortionists and birth control practitioners. In 20th-century America, before the Pill, housewives often resorted to the dangerous practice of douching with Lysol.

In the 1830s, a Massachusetts doctor named Charles Knowlton was the first person in the history of birth control to be sent to prison for advocating it. The United States also has the dubious honor of passing the first nationwide laws prohibiting the dissemination of birth-control methods. In 1873 Congress passed the Comstock Act, named for its sponsor, Postmaster General Anthony Comstock. It outlawed the circulation of contraceptive information and devices through the U.S. postal service as “pornography.” In 1915 Comstock boasted that he had convicted enough people of “sexual misconduct” to fill a 60-car passenger train.

One of Comstock’s prominent targets in later years was Margaret Sanger. Sanger, who would go on to found Planned Parenthood, began her political life as a member of the Socialist Party, working on the party’s women’s committee. She was working as a nurse, visiting immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side, where she saw firsthand the suffering of women whose health had been ruined by too many pregnancies, who were struggling to feed children they could not afford to support, who all too often ended up butchered by some back-alley abortionist. Soon she began writing about sex education and health for the party’s women’s page under the heading, “What Every Girl Should Know.” In early 1913 Comstock banned the column, and the paper ran in its place a box titled “What Every Girl Should Know—Nothing; by order of the U.S. Post Office.”

Sanger soon left the Socialist Party to focus single-mindedly on fighting for birth control, a term that she herself invented. A courageous woman, Sanger set up the first birth control clinic in the country and endured arrests and imprisonment as she sought to overturn the Comstock Law and to educate women and doctors in birth control methods. She traveled to Europe to research the latest techniques and wrote a sex manual in 1926 where she describes the act of sex in ecstatic, uplifting terms.


Margaret Sanger, protesting gag rule against birth control advocacy in Boston, 1929.

Seeking to promote the cause of birth control among the wealthy and influential, she steered her movement away from the socialist movement. Sanger, a bourgeois feminist, was willing to make any political compromise she saw as necessary to win advocates to her side and thus embraced some ugly arguments popular among bourgeois reformers of the time, such as endorsing eugenics, including the call to bar immigration for the “feebleminded.” While the eugenics movement, which stigmatized the poor for their own oppression, was at the time not yet associated with the genocidal movement that would emerge in Nazi Germany, it was widely opposed by socialists. American socialist and birth control pioneer Antoinette Konikow denounced the presence of eugenicists at a 1921 New York City conference on birth control, declaring that the working-class mothers she represented “are often considered to be not fit” by such forces.

The “Population Bomb”

Behind the scenes (or not), people have always struggled to control fertility for their own private reasons. But there is also a longstanding chain of argument in favor of population control on the part of bourgeois ideologues. The most notorious of these was made by Church of England parson Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population predicted unrelenting misery on account of population growth that would, he claimed, inevitably outstrip available resources. Writing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Malthus proposed two solutions: leave the poor to die of their misery (he opposed poor relief) and postpone the age of marriage so as to reduce the number of children per couple (that is, “abstinence” as birth control).

Malthusianism was, as Friedrich Engels characterized it in The Condition of the Working-Class in England, “the most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat.” Lenin, too, denounced Malthusianism in a short 1913 article, “The Working Class and Neomalthusianism.” At the same time, he noted, “It goes without saying that this does not by any means prevent us from demanding the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortions or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures, etc.” Lenin called for “freedom for medical propaganda and the protection of the elementary democratic rights of citizens, men and women.”

The corollary of Malthusianism, eugenics, with its calls for compulsory sterilization and forced abortions, has its contemporary advocates, including Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren. In 1977, Holdren co-authored Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment with the (now largely discredited) population “experts” Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Dripping with contempt, Holdren et al. wrote: “If some individuals contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children…they can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility.” Such “reproductive responsibility” laws could include “compulsory abortion,” “adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods,” “sterilizing women after their second or third child” and other “involuntary fertility control” methods that would be implemented by a “Planetary Regime,” which “might be given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world.” The ravings of Holdren and the Ehrlichs are worthy of the genocidal Nazi eugenics movement.

Marxists are of course not indifferent to the problem of rapid population growth. But our starting point is the fight for socialist revolution to open the widest vista of human freedom. As we wrote in part two of “Capitalism and Global Warming” (WV No. 966, 8 October):

“Only a society that can raise the standard of living worldwide can provide the conditions for a natural decline in reproductive rates….

“Under communism, human beings will have far greater mastery over their natural and social environments. Both the division between town and country and economic dependence on the family will be overcome. The time when people were compelled to have more children in order to ensure enough manpower to work the land or to care for the elderly will have long passed.”

Genesis of the Pill

Margaret Sanger first had the idea of a “magic pill” to prevent conception in 1912, but the scientific knowledge to create it did not exist. By the end of World War II, decades of research into human reproductive biology had revealed the crucial role of hormones in conception and pregnancy.

In 1953 Sanger, accompanied by International Harvester heiress Katherine McCormick, paid a visit to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, where Gregory Pincus, who in the 1930s engineered the first in vitro fertilization (a rabbit embryo), conducted his privately funded research. Pincus’s early work had been cited as a great scientific achievement, but the storm of media condemnation over “babies in test tubes” led to him being denied tenure by Harvard University and all but driven from mainstream research as a “mad scientist.”

Another maverick scientist, chemist Russell Marker, had developed a technique, later refined by Carl Djerassi, to extract massive, cheap amounts of a synthetic progestin from a species of enormous yam that grew only in Mexico. The research to create an oral contraceptive was funded almost entirely out of McCormick’s private fortune; the pharmaceutical companies would not touch research into contraception at that time.

The post-World War II years were hard for American women. The outbreak of the Cold War, the purge of communists and other militants from the unions and the rise of McCarthyism also included a wholesale campaign to put women back into the kitchen and nursery. Many women had escaped from such drudgery during World War II, when their labor was necessary for the war economy.

As the government investigated “subversives,” there was an unprecedented state intrusion into family life and the deadening of every aspect of social and intellectual life. A “normal” family and a vigilant mother were supposed to be the front line of defense against treason, while anti-Communists linked “deviant” family or sexual behavior to sedition. Most women were married by age 19; the birth rate became the highest in U.S. history.

At the same time, the groundbreaking reports by Alfred C. Kinsey documented what Americans really did behind the bedroom door (and in some other places, too). And women wanted better contraception. The Pill was first marketed in 1957 as a treatment for menstrual disorders. When word circulated that it suppressed ovulation and prevented pregnancy, doctors across the country were besieged by hundreds of thousands of women asking for prescriptions to treat their suddenly discovered menstrual problems.

The leap to respectability and mainstream medicine for the Pill came through Harvard gynecologist John Rock, a fertility specialist, who had the medical practice and experience in working with women patients that enabled the first clinical trials to be conducted. A devout Roman Catholic, Rock later wrote a book, The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control, trying to garner public support in a fruitless campaign to make the Catholic church change its denunciation of birth control as a sin.


The Pill has freed women for a vast array of alternative sexual experiences “behind the bedroom door”.

In its first incarnation, the Pill had doses of progesterone and estrogen far higher than it does today, leading to serious side effects in some users. These dangers were seized upon by anti-woman bigots, including in the Senate, which in 1970 held a series of hearings to “investigate” the matter.

Over the years the Pill has been massively tested in many combinations. While risks remain regarding breast cancer and stroke for some, the Pill in fact helps to protect women from ovarian and uterine cancer. Because it reduces or eliminates the menstrual flow, it also reduces the risk of anemia, a serious problem in poor countries. The experience of millions of women, researchers and doctors working to improve the safety of the Pill has provided the basis for the clinical trials and testing now routinely used by the Food and Drug Administration.

[To be continued]

Workers Vanguard No. 968
5 November 2010
http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/968/pill.html