The US was behind other sovereignties in allowing women the vote. The Isle of Man gave women property owners voting rights in 1881. New Zealand, a self-governing British colony, followed in 1893. Australia gave women the vote in 1902, but continued discriminating against aborigines, male or female.
Finland and Norway granted the vote to women before the 1st World War. Many European, Asian, and African countries demurred on women’s suffrage until after the Great War. Most Latin American countries adopted universal suffrage in the 1940s. Late adopters in Europe included France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952), San Marino (1959), Monaco (1962), Andorra (1970), Switzerland (1971), and Liechtenstein (1984).
The Temperance Movement
Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul. ~ American educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist Frances Willard
As laws gave husbands complete control of the family and finances, temperance was another women’s issue in Stanton’s and Anthony’s day. A woman with an alcoholic husband had no legal recourse, even if he was abusive and his drinking left the family destitute. If a woman wrangled a divorce, which was difficult to do, the husband could easily end up with guardianship of the children.
The temperance movement began in the 1820s in both the UK and US. The movement culminated after the 1st World War with legal restrictions in Britain, while the US began its prohibition in 1920. Canada, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand also severely restricted alcohol consumption.
Booze became a bountiful business for bootleggers and a boon for organized crime. Public disenchantment with prohibition, which was supposed to reduce crime, ensued.
By the early 1930s, teetotaling countries were ready to get liquored up again. There is nothing quite like a Great Depression to make one want to whet one’s whistle. The US repealed its prohibition in 1933.
We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children, than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. ~ Annie Besant & Charles Bradlaugh
Early on, the women’s rights movement was not solely devoted to suffrage and economic issues. Women had to struggle for legal control over their own bodies, and social acceptance of their sexual freedom.
Birth control and abortion have been known technologies for millennia; well documented in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, and well known in ancient India and China.
Birth control became a political issue in Britain early in the 19th century. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), English cleric Thomas Malthus argued that sooner or later unchecked population growth would be checked by famine and disease. With decades, enthused Malthusians were actively promoting family planning and birth control.
Officialdom in Victorian England had trouble with this. Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were put on trial in 1877 for publishing American physician Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, which explained various methods for birth control.
Besant and Bradlaugh were fined and sentenced to 6 months in prison, but the judge relented, releasing them on bail. They were acquitted on appeal.
Beginning in the 1880s, birth rates dropped steadily in industrialized countries. Women married later, and urban life favored fewer children.
This trend was especially acute in England, where birth rates declined 29% from the 1870s to 1900. Victorian women knew effective contraception. While the rhythm method was not yet understood, rubber condoms and diaphragms were reliable and inexpensive.
America had its own convulsion over contraception in the 1870s. While contraceptives had been legal throughout much of the 19th century, the federal anti-obscenity Comstock Act of 1873 criminalized distributing anything sexual through the US mail, including contraceptives and information about birth control.
American social reformer Margaret Sanger practiced obstetrical nursing in New York City, where she saw firsthand the relationships between poverty, uncontrolled fertility, infant, and maternal mortality, and fatalities from illegal abortions. In 1912 she gave up nursing to devote herself to sex education.
No woman can herself free who does not own and control her own body. ~ Margaret Sanger
Sanger helped popularize the term birth control in 1914. The same year, Sanger was prosecuted under the Comstock Act for publishing her book Family Limitation. She fled to England until it seemed safe to return.
Sanger established a birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. It was shut down by authorities 9 days later, with Sanger being dragged out by police and arrested.
Sanger was again prosecuted. Her trial and appeal of her conviction generated the publicity needed to provide her funding and spark birth control activism in America. Sanger’s efforts were instrumental toward overthrowing the Comstock Act, though it took the nearly a century.
By mail-ordering a newfangled diaphragm from a Japanese physician, Sanger provoked US v. One Package (1936). A federal appeals court upheld the district court in ruling that the law could not be used to intercept shipments which originated from a doctor. It was not until 1970 that Congress removed references to contraception from federal anti-obscenity laws.
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) arose in the context of a Connecticut Comstock law that had a blanket prohibition against contraceptives. A supreme court (SCOTUS) majority invalidated the law as a violation of the constitutional “right to marital privacy.”
The Bill of Rights makes no mention of a right to privacy. The supreme court simply found this right “lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees.”
In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), SCOTUS established the right of the US populace, regardless of marital status, to possess contraceptives.
The constitutionally protected right of privacy inheres in the individual. The rights must be the same for the unmarried and the married alike. ~ SCOTUS in Eisenstadt v. Baird
Despite SCOTUS overturning Comstock laws, some states retain statutes that proscribe education about contraceptives.
The next year, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the supreme court legalized abortion to a limited degree.
This right of privacy is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. ~ SCOTUS in Roe v. Wade
At the behest of the medical profession, supported by sexists, abortions had been criminalized in the US state by state, beginning in the 1820s. For physicians, it was largely a professional ploy, in seeking supremacy over midwives and other health care professionals.
Most of this crime of child murder, abortion, infanticide, lies at the door of the male sex. ~ Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1868
Each year during the 1950s, there were around 1 million illegal abortions in the US. Over 1,000 women per annum died as a result.
Unsurprisingly, poor black women ran the greatest risk. 75% of the deaths from illegal abortions were black women. 90% of the legal abortions before Roe v. Wade were performed on white patients.
In the years just before Roe v. Wade, 18 states had changed their abortion laws. 4 freely allowed abortions during early pregnancy. The other 14 states only allowed abortion in the instance of incest or rape.
Britain passed its first anti-abortion law in 1803. Such laws grew stricter as the century wore on. In 1967, Britain relented and legitimized abortion.
England was more lenient on proactive contraception than the US. The first permanent birth control clinic was established by English scientist and social reformer Marie Stopes (1880–1958) in London in 1921. Stopes was one of many British activists that strove for equal rights.
The fight by women for the right to control their own bodies has had similar histories in the US, UK, and other European countries, with one notable exception.
France passed a law in 1920 that criminalized dissemination of birth control information. Abortion was criminalized by the Napoleonic Code, and was a capital crime during the World War 2. Abortion become legal in France in 1975.
The Soviet Union was the exception. Gender equality was promoted there, including the right of contraception.
The greatest injury to women arose from theological laws that subjugated woman to man. ~ Matilda Joslyn Gage
The historic struggles for women’s civil rights are exemplary of the continuing problem of sexism worldwide, most notably sexual repression promoted by adherents of Christianity and Islam. In Christendom, the most significant opposition to birth control has been the Catholic Church.
Roe v. Wade remains controversial. Republican reactionaries want it overturned. They have made headway by imposing restrictions on abortions, such as requiring parental consent and mandatory waiting periods. 84% of all US counties have no abortion services.
Worldwide, 1/3rd of all abortions are illegal. Only 40% of the world population has access to legal abortion.
Of those with legal access, only 21% may do so for economic or social reasons. 79% face severe restrictions.
20 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, 90% in developing countries. Half of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion.
Other problems with women’s rights loom large in much of the world. In the 21st century, the right to have rape taken seriously has yet to be won. Worldwide, women remain 2nd-class citizens, subjugated by men, especially those with the disease of religion in their minds.