Tuesday, October 11, 2016
October 11, 2016: Birth Control in America: Esther at the Doctor
[On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in New York City. So this week, on the 100th anniversary of that moment, I’ll AmericanStudy Sanger and other histories and images connected to this still-controversial subject, leading up a special weekend post highlighting a great scholarly book on the topic!]
On two vital lessons from a unique and intimate fictional sequence.
Three chapters from the end of Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell-Jar (1963), its protagonist Esther Greenwood has an appointment at the doctor’s office. That’s hardly unexpected, as a significant percentage of the novel focuses on Esther’s relationships with doctors, from the kind and supportive therapist Dr. Nolan to the more domineering and destructive (he prescribes her electroconvulsive therapy, better known as shock treatment) psychiatrist Dr. Gordon. But this particular sequence portrays something quite different: the female, progressive Dr. Nolan has convinced Esther that her fears about sex and purity (passed down from Esther’s mother) are “propaganda” for certain visions of gender and identity, and so Esther visits a primary care physician in order to receive her first prescription birth control, a diaphragm. The doctor does so with sympathy and kindness, and, in perhaps the novel’s last moment of happiness, Esther leaves his office feeling that she has gained some measure of control over not only her sexuality but also her relationships with men.
While the sequence thus represents an important culminating moment in Plath’s novel (if one immediately complicated by the darker sequences of the book’s final two chapters), it also offers an interesting window into American society in the early 1950s (the book is set about 10 years before its release). Of course women in 2016 still can and do go to the doctor to receive prescriptions for one form of birth control or another, including diaphragms. But at the same time, there are now numerous birth control methods available over the counter, including a wide variety of condoms, all of which (I hope and believe) single women can and do purchase with no more consistent hesitation or shame than do single men. Plath’s sequence reminds us of how different things were in the 1950s—in the absence of stores like CVS, condoms and other over-the-counter birth control items had to be purchased in more intimate settings like the neighborhood drug store; and societal and cultural narratives for those items tended to focus on men, both married and single, as their accepted purchasers. It’s telling that Esther does not (as far as we know) ever consider buying condoms or other OTC options, going directly to the doctor when she decides to acquire and use birth control.
Esther’s experience with that doctor is, again, a smooth and positive one—but I can’t imagine that was always or even generally the case for single women seeking prescription birth control in the 1950s, nor that those women would have made such appointments without a great deal of trepidation (even the headstrong Esther might never have done so without the vital encouragement of Dr. Nolan). Our contemporary debates over women’s bodies often focus on the procedure and issue of abortion specifically, but Plath’s sequence helps us better remember a broader and even more significant reality: that as of mid-century women had far less access to birth control, and thus far less control over their sexuality and reproduction, than did men. When we read in the opening chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963, the same year Plath’s novel appeared) about the suburban housewives struggling with “The Problem That Has No Name,” we would do well to remember that even married women in the era faced the same lack of control—if their husbands wanted multiple children, on a certain timeline, and so on, those me were in a position to dictate the couple’s use of birth control, and thus to control the arc and stages of their wives’ lives as well. One more historical lesson that Plath’s sequence helps us remember and understand.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or images you’d highlight?