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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Roe at 41

As I've been reflecting on the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I've been remember conversations from my youth, seemingly disconnected, but all of a whole.

I remember the time, as a curious child,  I found a bottle of Lysol tucked behind the toilet. I wondered aloud why it wasn't in the cabinet with the cans of Borax and Ajax and other detergents.

My mother seemed embarrassed and flustered. "That's just where I keep it," she said sternly, in an attempt to cut off conversation. That, of course, just peaked my curiosity.

"But, why there?," I asked, looking intently at her face for clues. "Why are you hiding it?"

"I'm NOT hiding it," my mother said, raising her voice. "It's just where I keep it."

"But, why?" I persisted.

"It's how . . . It's how a woman . . . it's feminine hygiene . . . . which is how a woman . . . how she keeps herself clean . . . and . . . safe .... Oh," she said, flustered and embarrassed, "you're too young to understand! Now, get out of here and . . . and . . . go clean your room."

My father was at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, listening in and clearly enjoying hearing the squirm in my mother's voice.

"It's Catholic Birth Control," snickered my father from behind his newspaper.

My mother shot him one of her looks that would stop a clock, which meant that I would spend the next year or so telling my girlfriends about the incident and setting up our own detective agency to uncover the mystery of the brown Lysol bottle that was tucked under the toilets in all of our homes.

It wasn't until I was in nursing school that I learned that "feminine hygiene" was a euphemism for contraception, in a day and age when "The Pill" was not yet available.

Diaphragms and condoms were available over the counter but they would never be encouraged by good Roman Catholic doctors - the only kind in my community - to good Roman Catholic women.

So, women - of all faiths who didn't want to get pregnant - douched. With Lysol - an antiseptic soap whose pre-1953 formula contained cresol, a phenol compound reported in some cases to cause inflammation, burning, and even death. By 1911, doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation.  Those are the ones they knew.

Despite reports to the contrary, Lysol was aggressively marketed to women as safe and gentle. Once cresol was replaced with ortho-hydroxydiphenyl in the formula, Lysol was pushed as a germicide good for cleaning toilet bowls and treating ringworm, and Lehn & Fink's, the company that made the disinfectant, continued to market it as safeguard for women's "dainty feminine allure."

But if false advertising with highly suspect results weren't bad enough, the ads promoted a level of misogyny and female insecurity both laughable and frightening by today's standards.

Images of wives locked out their homes or trapped by cobwebs are surrounded by text asserting a woman should "question herself" if her husband's interest seemed to have faded. If her husband is treating her badly, the message was, "she was really the one to blame."

All of that had a logic all its own that fit into the logic of the messages I got from the Roman Catholic Church of my youth.

I clearly remember the morning I forgot to bring my mantilla to church. A mantilla is a small, white, usually lace scarf which were mandatory head gear for women and girls to wear to church.

Well, women and young women wore long, lace scarfs.  Adolescent girls wore shorter mantillas, which came to their shoulders. Young girls in my church wore little white circular lace caps which we secured to our hair with bobby-pins. They looked very much like a yarmulke, except they were flat and thin and lacy.

It was like the difference between a brownie, girl scout and troop leader uniform for The Roman Catholic Church.  You knew your age and status by the length of your mantilla.

I didn't have mine. I had left it in my coat pocket and, since it was a warm, spring morning, I had only worn a sweater to church. My grandmother fussed a bit and then pulled a handkerchief from her purse, smoothed out the place where she had wiped the tobacco snuff from her nose, found some bobby-pins she also kept in her purse, and fixed it on the top of my head.

"Why do I have to wear this stupid thing?" I huffed and squirmed as she pinned the wretched, smelly rag to my head.

"Why do you always ask so many questions?" my grandmother scolded.

"Well, why?" I persisted.

She stopped and put her hands on my shoulders and looked me squarely in the eyes.

"Some people will say it's because women are unclean. Others will say that women need to cover their hair so they won't distract men from their prayers. But," she pulled herself up, straightened her spine and squared her shoulders, encouraging me to do the same, "When I put on my mantilla, I think of myself as a Bride of Christ."

She smiled and turned my body to the entrance of the church. She may have felt like a Bride of Christ, but I felt like the Bride of Frankenstein with a slightly-soiled handkerchief pinned to my hair that smelled of tobacco.

I made a mental note to wash the handkerchief - and my hair - in Lysol when I got home.

My other memory is of a young girl in my junior class in high school. For the life of me, I can't remember her name. She was very pretty, as I recall, and I was so very envious of her fair skin and beautiful, long blond straight hair.

My skin color was described as "olive" - could there be a more unattractive descriptive for a teenage girl? - and my hair was very black and very thick and very curly, which practically shouted to everyone, "I'm Portuguese!" - not something one was very proud of in my High School.

She was on the Varsity Cheerleader Squad, sat at the lunch table with all the "cool kids" and, as the euphemism of the day went, was "very popular with the boys." I was certain she would marry the devastatingly handsome Captain of the Soccer Team and they would have beautiful babies and live in a beautiful home with a dog and a cat and a fenced in yard.

Happily every after.

One very bleak and cold February morning, the news ran through the school corridors like a small brush fire. She had committed suicide. The word was that she had taken some of her mothers pills and drank her father's whiskey, then slit her wrists as she sat in the bathtub while her parents were out at one of their 'smart parties'. 

What? Why? For the life of me, I couldn't figure it out. She seemed happy and had great parents who were professional people (unlike my factory worker parents) and bought her fashionable clothes (no hand-me-downs like me) and drove her to school (I had to take the stupid bus). She was young and beautiful and popular and going steady with the most handsome boy in school.

Her life seemed so much better and her future infinitely brighter than mine.

Why on earth would she commit suicide?

A few weeks after her death, the school grapevine was set ablaze again. People said she had just learned that she was pregnant.

"She got herself pregnant" That's what everyone said. As if she could have done that by herself.

People took great pains to say that it was definitely - definitely! - NOT the guy she was going steady with, Oh, no! Not him - the captain of the soccer team.

She 'ran around on him', see? She was, you know, a S.L.U.T.

Other, more sympathetic voices asked, well, what else could she do? Have the baby and ruin her life? No, better to take her life than bring that kind of shame on herself and her family.

Some people said she did the noble thing.  Better than going to a back alley to have an abortion.

Which, come to think of it, was the first time I ever heard the word "abortion". 

Those memories are all pre-Roe v. Wade.  These events all took place all before "The Pill" became readily and conveniently available. They were expensive, however, and even the few people I knew who had health insurance did not find that birth control measures of any kind were covered by their insurance policies.

Indeed, each of these events happened long before there were "pro-life" and "pro-choice" movements.
That's because there weren't any real choices for women.

Well, except for Lysol.

The thing of it is that those attitudes about women and pregnancy still animate the so-called 'pro-life' movement. In many parts of these United States, in the early years of the second decade of the third millennium, women are still considered 'unclean' and unreliable and therefor, unable to make decisions for herself about her own body and her family and her future.

A woman is still considered "noble" is she puts her life in jeopardy rather than jeopardize the potential for life within her.

And, women who elect to have an abortion? Why, they are murderers! Evil! Monsters! Wanton sluts! Women who need to put a put a baby aspirin between their knees, lest they have a baby in their belly.

Better they should kill themselves than "kill" the "beautiful precious life" she's carrying.

Because, you know, if you're pro-life, it's all about the "beautiful precious baby" - but not the beautiful, precious, intelligent, responsible life of the woman.

I've never understood why it is that the same woman who can't be trusted to make an important decision like abortion is somehow to be trusted with a baby.

What really confounds me is that the same people who are anti-abortion are also opposed to contraception.  It's as if all of the progress we've made in science and medicine and as a culture of people has completely passed them by. Or, they've willfully ignored it.

The anti-abortion folks were out in force today, marching on Washington as they have every year for the last 41 years, protesting Roe v. Wade.

The anti-abortion folks have been out in force in what has become, once again, the hot political issue which is animating the Republican party for the senate and presidential election processes.

Forty-one years later, the controversy of Roe v Wade is as strong as it ever has been.

I suspect the heart of the controversy has a lot to do with the memories I have as I reflect on life before Roe v. Wade.

It's not really about the question of when life begins or "personhood" or even our Puritan-Victorian heritage which complicates our attitudes about human sexuality.

Those things just create a smoke-screen which cloud the issue.

The real issue is about the personhood and dignity and nobility and responsibility and liberty of being a woman.

It comes down to this: Either a woman has the right over her own body or she doesn't.

Misogyny and sexism are ancient bacterial strains of societal disease. 

And, not even Lysol, I'm afraid, can rid us of that. 


JCF said...


Oh my God, Lysol.

I think I just felt sympathy-burning in... }-0

Beyond that, I'm just SO over debating abortion anymore. People w/ uteruses will NOT be dictated to what they may/may not do w/ those uteruses---regardless of the contents of an individual uterus at any given time. End of discussion. That's my (Christian) conscience, and God alone will judge.

heather said...

I've never understood why people don't realize that in every pregnancy a man gets to make a choice if he wants to be involved. Why shouldn't women be allowed to make the same choice?

I also think that anti-abortion people should be the ones proclaiming contraceptive options in the streets but that's just me using too much logic, I guess.

Daphne/Maryland said...

Wow Elizabeth! Thank you so much for your eloquent remarks on this subject. We do need to be reminded of the history.

Ann said...

My HS friend did go for a “back alley” abortion - and died at 15. Many friends went off to “visit their aunt” which meant they were pregnant and had to go somewhere else to have the baby. None were allowed to finsh HS. My mother knew who were safe doctors - ones in Portland who would perform abortions. It was definitely not the good old days.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Yes, Lysol. I remember once scraping my knee as a child at play. My friend said we should clean it off and put some disenfectant on it. All we could find was the Lysol. All I remember was the brown bottle and the liquid being poured on my knee. The next thing I remember, literally, were stars. O...M...G...!

I can't even imagine douching with the stuff.

Unfortunately, the discussion about abortion and reproductive rights is starting to heat up again. Which is why I wrote this blog. It's so important that we don't forget.

Making abortion illegal will not stop abortion. It will simply make it unsafe.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Heather - Well, darlin', you have company. Lots of company.

If you want to significantly reduce the number of abortions, allow easy, affordable access to contraception.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Daphne! There's so much more history to be told. We forget it at our own peril.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann - How right you are. They were the "bad old days". As I said earlier, making abortion illegal will not stop women from getting abortions. It will just make them unsafe.

Matthew said...

RE: suicide. My coming out experience was pretty positive but I remember those of a few friends and their homophobic parents who basically said that it would be better if you killed yourself than came out of the closet. So much hatred all round.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Some young, pregnant girls still feel the same way - better to kill themselves than deal with the consequences from their parents.

Marthe said...

And then there's Pastor Mike Huckabee insisting that only a woman who can't control her own libido has any need for birth control.
An ugly truth no one seems to admit is that this sort of man is deeply afraid of women (at home, barefoot and pregnant, she isn't likely to ever be a threat to take his job with her sheer competence and hard work), projects his own weakness onto her rather than deal with his own issues, and is likely to think of women and children as property, not people. Property can be abused, controlled, abandoned or sold by the owner without nasty little considerations about feelings or morals - just a business decision - nothing personal or complicated or "sinful". Those who are so very busy minding others' sexual "business" would be the last to admit that the root of it all is neither moral nor religious, just a desperate grasping for control over their own scary impulses coupled with some notion of manhood as dictatorship over all around him ... see also bullying and those who get away with it under the guise of strong leadership, tough guy mythology, and/or the admiration of predator personalities so obvious in the media if one looks. The extreme conservative wing (I refuse to describe them using the word right ever again - they are soooooo wrong)is afraid: afraid of the loss of dominance, of position, of the benefits accrued illegitimately for decades, of competition from independent women and other human beings not currently their "property".