Then v. Now: the Janes v. Current Feminism

(Image taken by ge’shmally, 2008, used under Creative Commons)

Then: Midwives Out, Janes In

Though younger Americans have probably never met a midwife, fantasy fans might be familiar with them: women who traditionally helped pregnant women give birth in their own homes. Their presence banished men from the delivery room, and their modern elimination meant the removal of women from women’s health.

For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women” discusses the illegalization of midwifery in the United States, and what it meant to women’s health. Birth was no longer a natural process or the domain of women, but a medical event controlled by male doctors. Women who would have hired midwives—poor immigrant women, especially—were either left entirely without assistance, or used as guinea pigs at teaching hospitals where they often faced unnecessary surgery so that the students could gain experience for actual difficult births. At this point in history, women were nurses, never doctors. With midwives and abortion outlawed, women were denied the control of their own health.

The “Cooperative Jane Collective,” as chronicled by Morgen, restored some of that control to women. First, by bringing women to male doctors for abortions, then by performing the abortions themselves. At the same time, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Carol Downer’s cervical self-examination movement taught women about their bodies rather hiding them. As their government stole women’s right to make informed decisions regarding their own bodies, grassroots feminist movements restored the same right, sometimes at the risk of arrest.


“History never repeats itself; at best it sometimes rhymes.”

–Mark Twain

If the story of the Janes—a government attempting to restrict women’s control of their own bodies, combated by grassroots movements bringing the information and options women need to make informed decisions about their bodies—sounds familiar, you might be passingly familiar with current US politics.

Last month brought the official signing of (one of) Arizona’s recent high-profile anti-abortion bills, dating conception to a woman’s last menstruation, rather than the formation of a zygote. The purpose behind this is to build on extant abortion restrictions that limit abortion access based on the age of the fetus. It also means that women are pregnant until proven innocent. As many women who have visited an emergency room at any point since menarche know, this means limited healthcare access.

February saw the passing of a more controversial bill in Virginia, requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before being approved for abortions. The law is designed to harass: an invasive medical procedure that further delays what is already a difficult decision for some of the people it targets. It is the legally-required physical invasion of a pregnant woman, using the threat of her health as coercion. The transvaginal ultrasound bill is the attempt to rob women of their control over their own bodies through government-mandated rape.

These two laws are far from inclusive of the attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, piece by piece. Meet the anti-abortion laws enacted on the state level last year. If anyone feels like they are overly paranoid because they are seeing increasing attempts to regulate uteruses, link them to chart in that article. 2011 saw more than double the number of anti-abortion laws passed in any other year since before 1985.

And abortion illegalization is not the only way that legislation is attacking women’s rights to their own bodies. Birth control pills are available by prescription only, but unlike other prescription medications—like those for treating erectile dysfunction—whether insurance should cover them is controversial. Another serious issue of discrimination in the insurance industry is that being female is a pre-existing condition, though this is changing.

Today is not without its own Janes. Planned Parenthood, most (in)famous for its abortion services, also provides birth control, emergency contraceptives, STD testing, and breast cancer screenings, as well as a variety of general health tests and vaccinations. Planned Parenthood also provides information on body image, relationships, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender identity to protect their users’ mental health and prevent disorders like anorexia. It provides people, especially women, especially poor, with the information needed to make informed choices and the access to the choices they make.

Feminist blogs providing the same information are spreading. Images announcing safe spaces for people of all sexes, genders, sexual orientations, and body types are popping up on personal websites and doors on college campuses. Like Carol Downer’s cervical self-examination fought the hiding and shaming of women’s bodies, and empowered women to take their health into their own hands. The internet is spreading ideas of self-acceptance and information that is otherwise censored or ignored. Cyberfeminism is circumventing governmental oppression of women by returning control of their bodies to them. Grassroots campaigns are also actively combating governmental oppression by protesting and encouraging women to vote.

Current politics are less oppressive toward women than politics during the Roe v. Wade era, but still discriminatory, and still fought. The current, fourth wave of feminism is more inclusive than the second wave feminism of the Janes, which focused on helping middle-class cis-gender heterosexual white women. Now, feminism is a movement attempting to protect people regardless of their genitals, their genders, their skin, their lovers, or their money. It is imperfect, but it is improving.


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