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Birth Control as a Form of Female Empowerment

anonymous123's picture

 Tiffany Egbuonu

February 10, 2010

English 257



Birth Control as a Form of Female Empowerment


Throughout history, women have assumed the responsibility of mother, child bearer, and home keeper. Some of the earliest pieces of art known to man are fertility symbols, highlighting an important duty that has always been attributed to women, the duty to produce children. More contemporarily, the obligation to have children has not been as emphasized, as women have insisted upon being treated as equals to men. Nevertheless, although women have won the right to vote and to participate in the military in the past two centuries, the social responsibility to have children is still attached to women.

In the course Gender, Information, Science, and Technology, the ways in which science has shaped gender has been thoroughly explored. I am interested in entering a conversation about the restrictions and or liberations science and technology has given women. Birth control - something millions of women take everyday without much thought at all - provides freedom and peace of mind for women around the world. Various birth control methods provide women with the option of postponing motherhood, or to avoid it altogether. 

Birth control is a scientific creation that allows women to, if not discard the social responsibility to reproduce, chose when to start motherhood, control the number of children, or chose not to have children at all. The option to embrace motherhood has greatly de-constructed what it means to be a woman in today’s society. The woman is no longer regarded as just a means for a man to satisfy his sexual needs and pass on his lineage. In an increasingly science and technology oriented society, the expectation that a woman will have numerous children is no longer a social requirement. The advancement of the science of childbirth also decreased the threat faced by mothers and their babies during the childbirth process. Therefore, the old necessity of a woman to produce multiple children in the hopes that some will survive, is no longer a legitimate concern.

The distinction between sex as a pleasurable act and sex as a means to procreation was necessary in order for birth control to eventually become socially acceptable. New scientific theories about sexual behavior led to discussion on this extremely controversial topic, and as these conversations spread, so did the emergence of political movements. “American sex radicals, by contrast, transformed [Sigmund] Freud’s ideas into support for a campaign against sexual repression. They argued that Freud’s psychological studies showed the inevitable ‘return’ of repressed sex drives in destructive forms, thus mobilizing Freud’s authority against continence as a practical route to voluntary parenthood. Still uneasy with a straightforwardly hedonist position toward sex - that is, that pleasure was good in itself - American reformers preferred the notion of sex as an irresistible drive, dangerous to interfere with” (Gordon 126). Scientific theories proposed by Freud were monumental for women, as views on sexual freedom were beginning to change, and work in their favor.

As unpopularity towards authoritarianism and tyranny began to grow, so did the notion of patriarchy and male dominance. Feminism, in turn, was a response to the mostly male oriented views preventing women from being their male counterpart’s social equals. Feminists fought for the female’s freedom to seek fulfilling lives independent of the interference of men and responsibilities of motherhood. Birth control then, became a significant focus for the empowerment of women. Furthermore, concern over population control helped drive support for controversial birth control methods. “The campaign for population control and the development of the PIKk, the first hormonal contraceptive...mutually influenced each other: concern about overpopulation stimulated contraception research and development, the Pill was so widely publicized that it introduced knowledge of the possibility of reproduction control to many hitherto unaware of it” (Gordon 279). The creation of the hormonal birth control pill allows the woman to have complete control over becoming pregnant, whereas condoms and other forms of male contraceptives are largely left to the responsibility of the male.  

Since its introduction in the United States, more and more women have made the decision to take birth control. According to a 2008 New York Times article, Census Bureau reports that women today are having less children than compared to only thirty years ago. “Twenty percent of women ages 40 to 44 have no children, double the level of 30 years ago, the report said; and women in that age bracket who do have children have fewer than ever - an average of 1.9 children, compared with the mean average of 3.1 children in 1976” (Zezima 1).

The use of contraceptive allows women to further education. Studies show that women who pursue multiple degrees often choose to not partake in motherhood. The same is found amongst a growing number of career driven women who, after long hours in the office, are not willing to also run a home and raise children. The result of these decisions is a large number of childless yet fulfilled women who will never have children. It is no coincidence that ever since birth control was introduced to the United States in the twentieth century, women have ventured into areas that were otherwise historically male dominated. These recent accomplishments for women have changed the dynamic of male female relationships, and for that matter, what it means to be a woman, or a wife. No longer is the image of women and femininity so tightly attached to the role of mother. Even for women who do decide to have children, being able to control the size of her family allows a woman the freedom to still have a career or pursue numerous interests.

The use of contraceptive, which has been previously associated with a woman who is loose and regularly indulges in sexual adventures, has a wide variety of users, including women who have already had children and have made the decision to use contraceptive again to avoid having more children. I cannot help but wonder however, if there will come a time when the need for a women to procreate will rise. The freedom women have fought for and enjoyed these past two centuries may one day be in jeopardy. At a time such as that, what will become paramount - the choice a woman has to abstain from child bearing or the biological need to reproduce? I suspect that this will become an issue that society will inevitably have to address. 








Works Cited


Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: a History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2002. Print.


Zezima, Katie. "More Women Than Ever Are Childless, Census Finds." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 18 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.  < HYPERLINK "">.


Anne Dalke's picture

Widening the Scope

This is an interesting topic you've chosen, and now that you've chosen it, I'm puzzled that it hasn't already been discussed in our class, as a primary example of how modern technology has been a liberating force in the lives of millions of women. I think that the story you tell of increasing use of birth control in this country, and the increasing freedom for U.S. women that results from this use, is overall an accurate one.

Here are my questions:
1) how deep does the relationship go between your essay and Linda Gordon's History of Birth Control Politics in America? Is your essay essentially a "book report" of her argument, or does it diverge any substantial way from the history she traces?
2) what are the ways in which the story you tell might be diversified, more fine-tuned? You tell a story of generational change. But what about racial, economic, geographical and religious differences among women? Are there particular identity groups which use birth control less frequently? If so, why?
3) what happens to this story when you leave the borders of this country? Your essay begins with a very large sweep in space and time--"throughout history," you say, "the earliest pieces of art are fertility symbols." What are the birth control practices of women in Africa, in South America, in Asia today? Do your large general claims about women's decreasing obligation to have children hold outside the U.S.? I'm interested, again, in a more differentiated account than the one you give here.
4) You say that the "use of contraceptive allows women to further education," and I understand that the correlation between higher levels of education and lower levels of fertility is a very strong one. But which is cause, which effect? (Or is there some sort of "loopy" interactive relationship @ work here?)
5) Finally, I'm intrigued--and puzzled--by your concluding speculation, that you "cannot help but wonder if there will come a time when the need for a women to procreate will rise." What forces might possibly fuel such a "biological need to reproduce," given the skyrocketing rates of population growth in the world today?


anonymous123's picture


My essay was mostly a response to some of the information in Gordon's book. I admit it is quite general, and I could have focused it more specifically on women in America, as birth control practices in other countries vary depending on the religion practiced there and the customs. I chose to focus on America because I was most knowledgeable about it and birth control here is used more freely and openly than in many other countries. The general information I gathered from the web suggests that education is the cause, and less children are the result. The more access a woman has to education, the more likely she will be knowledgeable about birth control methods. Also, as I speculated at the end of the essay, I hypothetically wonder if there would be a crisis that would need more women to have children. War is a possibility, although I seriously doubt this happening. The world population is too high to be in danger any time soon.