A few years ago at a book signing with fellow congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shared an anecdote about the sometimes strange experience of being a woman in the still predominantly man's world known as Congress. She recalled how early in her career she and another female elected official found themselves as the only women regularly dining at a table full of male elected officials. The men rarely acknowledged their female counterparts or asked their opinion on any political or policy issue. But one day the subject turned to childbirth. Being that she and the other female official were the only two real authorities on the subject (since they were the only two at the table who had actually given birth), Pelosi presumed that this would present an opportunity for their voices to be heard and valued by their male colleagues. Imagine her surprise when two of the men began speaking over one another to share their stories of "being there" for the birth of their children, before moving on to another topic before the women ever had a chance to speak.
I remember chuckling, along with the other women in the room, at how silly men in power used to behave, and being relieved that things have changed so much.
Apparently we laughed too soon.
Not only has the fight over access to contraception been led entirely by men (President Obama on one side, Sen. Marco Rubio and House Speaker John Boehner on the other), but a recent report has confirmed that the voices that have dominated this debate in media have been overwhelmingly male, as well. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin male guests and commentators outnumbered females in discussions of the contraception controversy on news programs. Sen. Rick Santorum's inaccurate remarks regarding the cost of contraception served as a powerful reminder of the severe handicap our political discourse suffers when women are not permitted to speak for themselves on the issues that directly affect them.
Before contraception was widely available, there were far fewer women able to do just that, because of the physical, emotional, and financial demands that giving birth to and raising sometimes more than a dozen children (something my great-grandmother did) required. Maybe that's the point. Maybe some of these elected officials fighting so hard to make contraception as inaccessible as possible want to return to the good old days when contraception was virtually impossible to come by, and therefore men were able to rule the world and, more importantly, their households. Men were able to enjoy absolute power in the legal system and in domestic life without fear that a woman could carve out some semblance of financial and political independence that would enable her to engage in such scandalous behavior as running for office or leaving an abusive relationship. Because after all, where would a woman with six, or seven, or eight small children to care for really go, even if she had a good reason to?
With that in mind, below is a list of the most powerful ways contraception has impacted and continues to impact the world, from issues such as literacy to life expectancy rates of women. I'm sure there are more than 10, so please feel free to add to the list in the comments section below.
1. In countries with the highest fertility rates, women have the shortest life expectancies.
Women in Sierra Leone live half as long as women in developed countries and 10 years less than their African counterparts in some African countries, and no, this is not merely due to the history of civil unrest. One in eight Sierra Leonean women die in childbirth. In other countries like Chad, where women are likely to give birth to six or more children, women are lucky to live to age 55.
2. In countries with the highest fertility rates, women have the fewest rights.
In countries like Niger and Mali, both of which fall in the top 10 for countries with the greatest number of births per woman, women and young girls can still be forced into marriages. A recent case in Niger documented a 9-year-old girl forced to "marry" a 50-year-old man.
3. Countries with low contraception usage have the lowest number of women who can read.
In Afghanistan, which continues to have one of the highest fertility rates in the world, and where contraception knowledge and access remains limited (and women give birth to an average of six children), 87 percent of women cannot read. In Sierra Leone the number is 71 percent.
4. Men who physically abuse their partners fear contraception. (Think about that for a moment.)
A national study of more than 3,000 abused women conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that one in four said their partners sabotaged, hid, or prohibited use of birth control as a form of control in an already abusive relationship. These findings confirmed those of a number of smaller studies.
5. When contraception availability goes down, abortion rates go up.
Abortion remains illegal in the Philippines, but for the last decade the nation's capital, Manila, has been at the heart of a battle over contraception. Contraception was stigmatized and difficult to access prior to 2000, when contraception was prohibited altogether by an executive order. (It is not unusual for women who have come of age in the city during the time period of the ban to have more than 10 children.) While the abortion rate in the country has barely changed in recent years, the rate in Manila increased by more than 10 percent. So has the number of women dying of complications from illegal abortions.
6. Countries with the highest fertility rates have the highest poverty rates.
Ten of the countries with the world's highest fertility rates are located in Africa. Between 1990 and 2001, the African continent experienced what is deemed "extreme population growth." The number of those on the continent living in "extreme poverty" ballooned from 231 million to 318 million.
7. Before contraception* American women were statistically more likely to die in childbirth than they are today.
At the start of the 20th century, the maternal mortality rate in America was approximately 65 times higher than it is today. During the 17th and 18th centuries, long before modern contraception became widely available, the average American woman gave birth to between five and eight children. Her likelihood of dying in childbirth increased with every birth. The number of women who died in childbirth or its immediate aftermath was one in every eight women.
*Forms of contraception have been available since ancient times (click here to see ancient forms of contraception), but contraception did not become widely available in the U.S. until the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Click here to read about Griswold and other key contraception cases.)
8. Before contraception men greatly outnumbered American women in colleges.
9. Before contraception there were no female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Katherine Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she became Chairman of the Washington Post Company in 1973. She inherited the publication from her husband, who had inherited the role from Graham's father, but Graham succeeded far beyond anyone's expectations. Since her trailblazing ascent, more than a dozen other women have reached the highest rung on the corporate ladder with a record-breaking 18 women serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2011, the largest number in history.
10. Before contraception women were virtually invisible in Congress.
Just before contraception became officially legal in the U.S. (1965), there were 20 women in the House of Representatives and one female senator, Margaret Chase Smith. None of them were women of color. (Patsy Mink, an Asian American, was elected to her first term the year Griswold was decided by the Supreme Court.) Today there are 76 women in the House. Fourteen of them are African American, four of them are Asian American, and seven are Latina. There are 17 women in the Senate.
And for the record, I doubt any of them want to return to the days when men spoke and voted for them, or for any of the rest of us blessed with ovaries.
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