Women’s Rights in the United States in the 1970s

In the 1940’s-1960’s, there was a blurred distinction between clinical and sexual exams within the medical field (Wendy Kline, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry). For example, many male doctors would provide pelvic exams as a means to teach women sex instruction, and were taught to assert their power over their patients. This led to women instituting new training programs for proper examinations, creating a more gentle and greatly-respected method of examining women and their bodies. There was also an increase in breast cancer screenings, and screening technologies received lots of funding because the benefits of careful clinical examination plus a medical history and diagnostic tests be brought to every woman at risk, despite their economic status.  Historian Barron Lerner argued that “early detection is consistent with American notions of risk aversion and individual responsibility for preventing disease, ” meaning that it was a significant benefit for women fighting for proper exams, improving women’s health globally. (Gardner, 2006, p. 182).

In the periods leading up to the movement, “abortion” was often associated with “crime” and many women were fighting to make it legal at this time. There were many illegal abortions, so services such as the Jane abortion service and counseling were formed to lower maternal mortality rates and to help these women cope with such losses. (Dore, 2014) Many women were fighting for such sexual and reproductive because they felt that it was a method of oppression by controlling their bodies by forcing them to bear children. This need for change is expressed by “Abortion was part of this feminist analysis of sexual freedom because it had real, material importance in women’s lives…legal, available abortion as fundamental to female freedom.” (Reagan, 1997, p. 229). Cases such as Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton ended an era of illegal abortion, as it made abortion legal. The acknowledgment of women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies and reproduction independently of men was a significant advance to their overall rights.

However, abortion was never completely outlawed in the United States, but for almost a century it had been strictly regulated by the state and medical community. (Roe v Wade, 1973). Many state officials continued to push for policies that sterilized low-income women, even after it was made legal. For example, in Illinois, one legislator proposed that “welfare recipients be forced “off public aid or undergo sterilization operations if they have more than two children,” and used his political power to attempt to reduce the low income population, which had been associated with the urban black community. This underlying racism renamed birth control, and then abortion, “black genocide” and caused minority women, such as the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, to make forced sterilization part of the campaign to repeal the abortion laws and allow women to decide their childbearing rights, and grant them freedom to practice those rights. Some women were even charged with “child abuse” of a fetus in utero and others have been surgically delivered by cesarean section against their will. It was mostly low income women, minority women, or women who hold religious views different from those of their doctors who have been charged or forced to undergo such surgery. A handful of states at the time covered abortion services for low-income women, but much of that coverage wass restrictive. One way that this was inaccessible for lower income women was because they often had to travel to other states that were long distances away, making it too expensive and arduous. (Reagan, 1997, p. 252) . This implied that women of means could consult with physicians, and were more likely to gain sympathy and obtain hospital abortions. Thus, this violated the equal protection provisions in the constitution as not all women had access to such services.

Women’s expectations had changed through World War II and the1950s. More women entered the workforce as defense spending, population growth, innovations in consumer goods, and new techniques in marketing powered the economy. Female employment grew at higher rates–44 percent–than in the 1960s, when the growth rates were 37 percent. In the 1970’s, the law and public policy opened unprecedented professional opportunities for women, but not all women climbed the income ladder. This is proven by “women held nearly exclusive domain over low-level office jobs, and ‘pink-collar’ describes the gendered allocation of the work as well as its inferiority to other white-collar occupations” (Blackwelder, 1997, p. 179). Many of the women held pink-collar jobs, or positions that were designated for women, despite having the same education as men. However, women gained more supervisory jobs than in previous decades. Within the professions the areas of greatest growth remained the traditionally female occupations of teaching, nursing, and librarianship. Historian Ellen More states “the rarity of women doctors… has limited the freedom of women to choose doctors of their own sex, and has deprived women of the benefits of research into diseases peculiar to women,” expressing how the lack of female physicians made women not obtain medical freedom. Although the number of women applicants to medical schools had risen by more than 300 percent since the 1930s, the rate of acceptance of women remained at 50 percent of applicants per year, as a result of “an arbitrary grouping of applicants by gender.” (More, 1999, p. 217),  which further expresses medical and professional inequality.

Though feminism and the pro-choice movement have been represented as white and middle-class movements, sections of those movements recognized and fought for the interests of low-income women and women of color. Feminists of color struggled over these issues with compared to white feminists because on the one hand, they fought sexism, on the other, they had to combat racism. African American and Latina feminists brought the issues of genocide and sterilization to the forefront of feminist attention and rejected the notion that the revolutionary role for black women was to have more babies. For example, Florynce Kennedy stated “not too far removed from a cultural past where Black women were encouraged to be breeding machines for their slave masters,” expressing that this expectation was based on the basis of both race and gender, and expressed inequality in both ways. Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm also emphasized the idea of high levels of injury and death resulting from illegal abortion among black and Puerto Rican women, and advocated for legal and accessible birth control and abortion for all women, rather than just white women.

The feminist health movement insisted that women’s voices and experiences gain more merit in medical evaluations and treatment decisions, which is ultimately an extension of fundamental rights for women. (Gardner, 2006, p. 175). Many women entered professions previously dominated by males (Blackwelder, 1997, p. 180). However, although many laws were enacted to eliminate discrimination based on gender, gender quotas were still in place.  (Blackwelder, 1997, p. 180). Women’s Liberation from the Women’s movement challenged the concepts of masculinity and femininity and discussed many issues such as medical screenings, abortion, breast cancer, and the wage gap. However, many of these rights were mainly accessible to wealthy white woman, and minorities had to tackle issues of both race and gender as coverage of these necessary services were not uniform.

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