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Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control and Why We'll Still Be Fighting About It 100 Years From Now

Conservative bishops and Congressmen are fighting a rear-guard action against one of the most revolutionary changes in human history.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Starbooze

 

What's happening in Congress this week, as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) bars any women from testifying at his so-called "religious freedom" hearings, is so familiar and expected that it hardly counts as news. The only thing surprising about it is the year: didn't we all honestly think that by 2012, contraception would be a non-issue, and Congress wouldn't make the mistake of leaving women out of conversations like this one?

Yes, we did. And the fact that we were wrong about that points to a deeper trend at work, one that needs a bit of long-term historical context put around it so we can really understand what's going on. Let me explain.

When people look back on the 20th century from the vantage point of 500 years on, they will remember the 1900s for three big things.

One was the integrated circuit, and (more importantly) the Internet and the information revolution that it made possible. When our descendants look back, they're likely to see this as an all-levels, all-sectors disruption on the scale of the printing press -- but even more all-encompassing. (Google "the Singularity" for scenarios on just how dramatic this might be.)

The second was the moon landing, a first-time-ever milestone in human history that our galaxy-trotting grandkids five centuries on may well view about the same way we see Magellan’s first daring circumnavigation of the globe.

But the third one is the silent one, the one that I've never seen come up on anybody’s list of Innovations That Changed The World, but matters perhaps more deeply than any of the more obvious things that usually come to mind. And that’s the mass availability of nearly 100% effective contraception. Far from being a mere 500-year event, we may have to go back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire to find something that’s so completely disruptive to the way humans have lived for the entire duration of our remembered history.

Until the condom, the diaphragm, the Pill, the IUD, and all the subsequent variants of hormonal fertility control came along, anatomy really was destiny — and all of the world’s societies were organized around that central fact. Women were born to bear children; they had no other life options. With a few rebellious or well-born exceptions (and a few outlier cultures that somehow found their way to a more equal footing), the vast majority of women who’ve ever lived on this planet were tied to home, dependent on men, and subject to all kinds of religious and cultural restrictions designed to guarantee that they bore the right kids to the right man at the right time — even if that meant effectively jailing them at home.

Our biology reduced us to a kind of chattel, subject to strictures that owed more to property law than the more rights-based laws that applied to men. Becoming literate or mastering a trade or participating in public life wasn’t unheard-of; but unlike the men, the world’s women have always had to fit those extras in around their primary duty to their children and husband — and have usually paid a very stiff price if it was thought that those duties were being neglected.

Men, in return, thrived. The ego candy they feasted on by virtue of automatically outranking half the world’s population was only the start of it. They got full economic and social control over our bodies, our labor, our affections, and our futures. They got to make the rules, name the gods we would worship, and dictate the terms we would live under. In most cultures, they had the right to sex on demand within the marriage, and also to break their marriage vows with impunity — a luxury that would get women banished or killed. As long as pregnancy remained the defining fact of our lives, they got to run the whole show. The world was their party, and they had a fabulous time. 

 
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