Women’s Reproductive Rights from “8” to “B”August 14, 2013
Would it surprise you to learn that AAUW’s position on birth control can be traced as far back as 1935? That year, Dr. Louise Tayler-Jones (1870–1941), member of the AAUW Washington (DC) Branch and the AAUW Committee on Legislation, introduced a resolution known as “Item 8” to the organization’s legislative agenda during the national convention in Los Angeles. Item 8 would make it legal for physicians to distribute information on contraceptives.
The resolution seems benign enough by today’s standards, but at the time this was an extremely controversial move. Criminal laws known as the Comstock laws classified birth control information as “obscene.” Physicians and birth control advocates were prosecuted and jailed for providing birth control methods to women or even for simply attempting to educate their patients.
Tayler-Jones’ résumé is beyond impressive for a woman of her time. By 1903, she had graduated from Wellesley College, earned her master’s from Columbia University, and gained a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. By 1935, she was a well-established physician in the field of pediatrics, and a maternal and infant health worker. Not too far from where AAUW headquarters sits today in Washington, D.C., she opened a “baby cottage” in Rock Creek Park. There, sick newborns were nursed back to health and their mothers received infant care education. A respected medical professional in many spheres, Tayler-Jones ran the Mabel Grouitch Baby Hospital in war-torn Serbia during World War I, and fled only minutes before the German invasion. She also served as president of the American Medical Women’s Association from 1928 to 1929.
Let’s travel back to Los Angeles. At the 1935 AAUW convention, the delegates voted on Item 8 and it passed with no dissenting votes. And in keeping with the spirit of education, Tayler-Jones invited the American Birth Control League to exhibit information to convention attendees. It was a resounding success.
But soon after the convention, AAUW General Director Kathryn McHale began receiving letters from outraged members claiming they never had an opportunity to voice their dissent. They threatened to leave the association, and some did. McHale grew concerned about this small but vocal opposition. Dedicated members stepped up to the plate to defend the association. Sally Spensley Michener, president of the Minneapolis College Women’s Club, assured her branch membership that “the association is not on record as simply advocating birth control; it has simply voted to support a measure to remove the restrictions of the criminal code which hamper physicians in this respect.” She also pointed out that the resolution was “in accord with [our] traditional attitude toward scientific information” and that there were other legislative items presented, relating to maternal and infant health and disease prevention, that were approved but really could not be adopted without also adopting Item 8.
In 1937, at director McHale’s urging, the birth control resolution was dropped from the legislative agenda because “retaining the item was not important enough to risk division.” Then, in a symbolic move, the entire legislative committee resigned, including Tayler-Jones.
It’s important to note that we are talking about 1935, so in AAUW’s archival records, birth control is not discussed in the same language that we use today. There is no mention of reproductive freedom, nothing about a woman’s right to control her own body, no “right to choose.” Despite this, Item 8 was a monumental step because it established that a woman should have a right to access any information freely, and that education should be provided without restrictions, criminal or otherwise.
On August 18, we mark the 53rd anniversary of the first birth control pill, Enovid 10, being made available to the public by manufacturer G.D. Searle and Company. Although Enovid had previously been used to treat menstrual disorders, this was the first time that it was marketed as a form of birth control. In 1960, the Pill was surely controversial but its availability revolutionized women’s lives. Today, we follow the heated debate about health care reform and birth control, and we read the arguments over access to the emergency contraceptive Plan B. We are long past 1935, past 1960, but the controversy still rages on.