Mouse rant blog vent mouse.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Something to think about

The book I'm reading right now is pretty hard to put down. It's called America's Women by Gail Collins and her breezy humor and grasp of human nature makes it fun to read. Anyway, I just finished her discussion of how the temperance movement gave way to the free and easy 1920's and something really struck me.
The temperance movement, for all its surface resemblances to the cultural warriors of today, was profoundly different. For one thing, the cultural warriors of today are anti-progress on all levels and their antipathy towards sexuality is based in a loathing of women more than anything else. The temperance movement of the late 19th century was started by men but the ball really got rolling when the suffragists joined up. The temperance movement suffragists resembled nothing more than the anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin that are the minority of feminists today, not the majority like then.
The female-run temperance movement had two major goals--stop men from drinking and visiting prostitutes. Alot of their reasoning was similar to the reasoning of the cultural warriors today. They were religious killjoys and resentful of people having all the fun they couldn't have. But they also had a very good reason for their goals as well. As women barely had any rights at all, wives had to suffer miserably if they had husbands who were drunken louses. Worse, if their husbands cheated with prostitutes, and many if not most husbands did, it was not only a betrayal it was a huge health risk. Many, many good loyal wives were victims of ugly and incurable venereal diseases. There are not exact numbers, but the situation was bad. From the book:

Dr. Prince Morrow, a New York physician, stunned his audience by estimating "that there is more venereal infection among virtuous wives than among professional prostitutes."... Morrow claimed that 60 percent of American men had contacted syphilis or gonorrhea....

At the time, the temperance movement, like the chastity movement now, framed the discussion in terms of the wickedly unchaste vs. the pure and godly women. In the 1920's, though, things changed. Women began to be able to go on dates unchaperoned and sexual contact between unmarried people became common. The result? The number of men who visited prostitutes plummeted. Birth control information became more widely used. Women were expected to learn something about sex before they grew up and subsequently their health improved.
There are no exact figures outside of the birth rate. Alot of this is conjecture. But just the fact that the birth rate more than halved between 1880 and 1900 and kept plummeting after that shows that women were learning to take control of their health and that loosened sexual mores, not tightened ones, made that possible. I think alot of people realized that at the time and that's one of the reasons that within a couple generations using contraception went from being an unspeakable sin for most people to common practice.
And I think that all this happened so long ago that people have forgotten. The lessons that abstinence just ain't gonna happen and contraception is critical for a woman's health are lost to time. And that what we cannot remember is doomed to repeat itself. Certainly it's been forgotten that in the days before widespread contraception use that abortion was actually quite common, despite its dangers. Health workers of the time reported working with women who had easily twice as many abortions as babies, and that was in the days when women had 5, 6, 7 children. The anti-abortion movement has been very effective in tricking people into believing that abortion is a modern problem, something beyond the pale for our more virtuous ancestors. In fact, the opposite is true. Nothing has done more to lower the abortion rate than empowering women to take charge of their own bodies and therefore lives.

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