It is easy for activists, writers, and lovers of everything pro-choice to speak on what must be done in the movement, ways organizations can improve, and how politicians and law makers can stop being so damned patriarchal. There are a lot of “musts” right now, no one doubts that, but sometimes a woman’s voice can be lost in the rhetoric and seemingly never-ending campaigns. This is by no means something that is done deliberately, but I have recently come to the conclusion that I must shift my personal pro-choice activism to include more emphasis upon women’s lived experiences from their own perspective. I think the movement will ultimately be better for including regular, every-day–woman stories, mundane as they may seem.
In my effort to reach more voices and documenting more real experiences, I took the liberty to reach out to a woman very dear to me, a person I’ve looked up to for years, and ultimately a feminist woman who’s story I knew would be good. She graciously agreed to talk about her beliefs surrounding abortion, contraception, her time in Africa in the 1990’s and being a teen during the late 1970’s. What follows is an endearing, fascinating, heart breaking and eye-opening conversation about abortion and birth control in the 1970’s, religion, and one woman’s journey to find her happy median between her Catholic and pro choice beliefs.
Sophia : Thank you for agreeing to sit down with me! First I would like to start by asking, in general, what type of things were common-place in your teen years sex wise? And when exactly were you a teen?
Lisa*: I graduated high school in 1977 when I was 17, so my whole teen years were during the onset of the Gloria Steinem era, the ERA, and the advent of birth control. Honestly, I was not sexually active until I was a year out of high school, because back in those days you got a reputation as a girl. Boys had a reputation, too, though. If a guy wanted sex from you right away, he was known as a “wolf.” I don’t think most of the girls in my high school went all the way until they were going steady, you know, they had developed relationships. Most of the time-and there were obviously one on one relationships- what we did, we did in groups. There were a few stereotypical king and queen of the prom, football player and cheerleader kinds of things, but because we were graduating in the 70’s a lot of girls wanted to go to college and didn’t want to get married right away, there were other avenues for us. I grew up in a military city, San Diego, so the Navy just started recruiting women for more leadership positions and title 9 passed when I was a senior so the idea of women’s athletics was really coming on. There were a lot more ways for women to be independent and take a different route.
Sophia: What was common birth control?
Lisa: Condoms, foam, and contraceptive cream.
Sophia: What did that do? What did you do with that?
Lisa: It’s , you know, you put it up your vagina…
Sophia: Like Mono-stat?
Lisa: Yeah, you gotta wait 15 minutes (laughs) … Do do dooo…everything’s very hot and heavy and you gotta wait. And then douching was really big, lemon juice and water, vinegar and water, pepsi, anything that you knew was acidic. Women would do that before [sex] and after. We had a big joke when I was in high school that we were the “pepsi generation”. We were told we couldn’t get pregnant standing up, and a big thing was that we couldn’t get pregnant when you have sex on your period. So if a guy was down with that , girls thought it was okay.
Mostly, contraceptive wise, girls depended on a guy to pull out or to have a condom. Most girls didn’t go all the way but they would do the petting. Petting was a big thing, because if you got pregnant you were doomed because you had to go to a pregnant girls place, you had to leave town. Nobody, nobody, kept their babies. Even as cosmopolitan as [California] was, no one kept their babies.
Sopha: What did women do for abortions?
Lisa: A lot of girls went out of state, or they went to Puerto Rico or Mexico, a lot of girls went to Arizona. We had the back alley abortion, coat hanger abortions or you would go to a midwife, or a guy that was in second or third year of medical school. Or you would go out of state , or you go to Mexico. It was just a 6 hour drive from were I lived in San Diego. The idea was you went away for a long weekend and you came back and nobody was the wiser. When I was a senior in high school and then after high school, , it was the advent of planned parenthood and free clinics and stuff, so when I went to college I was on birth control and it was great.
Sophia: Can you talk a bit about when you learned about sex and STI’s ?
Lisa: In 6th grade, the girls went with the girls and the boys went with the boys for the sex ed classes. The Kotex company supplied the female teachers with pads, have you seen a sanitary napkin, um, belt? (Laughs again and stands up to demonstrate.) Well, you had an elastic belt and you snap the pad on in the front and back and then you put that between your legs. That’s all we had, we couldn’t use a tampon because we could break the hymen, that was a big deal. I didn’t start my period until I was 16, and it was just awful.It was like wearing an oven-mitt between your legs. You couldn’t do sports with this big wad of stuff underneath you. If you were on the swim team you couldn’t practice or you were forced to use a tampon. The technology for us was not as good as you all have it.
But regarding the sex ed, we learned how babies were made. The girls could ask questions and boys could ask questions, at a young age (6th grade) we really got good information. Later on, In biology class in high school we had the information about STD’s and how to prevent pregnancies. My parents were really good about [talking about sex] too.
Back in my day syphilis and gonorrhea were the two sexually transmitted diseases, we didn’t have chlamydia or HIV. Growing up in a Navy town you knew that people had multiple partners were more susceptible. We were taught what to look for with gonorrhea and syphilis and the public health department was great because they would treat you for no charge and clean you up… but that was back in the glory days.
We had a lot of romantic movies but no one ever told us how to have an orgasm or anything like that. It just wasn’t anything anyone ever talked about. The Feminine Mystique and Our Bodies, Our Selves came out and Woodstock was in ’69 so that whole decade was the advent of feeling good and the Joy of Sex, all of that. So more emphasis on feeling good was made. Prior to that though, it was all about pro-creation, it wasn’t about being pleasurable or a woman’s pleasure.
With the birth control pill, we could hook up with somebody and once we didn’t have to worry about pregnancy, we thought, ‘this is it, really?’ I had a boyfriend in college, and I just adored him, we had a great sex life, but the thing I enjoyed the most was the hugging and kissing, the preamble, but initially I was like, ‘um okay…’ We knew what the clitoris was from a physiological standpoint but we didn’t know anything about pleasure centers or anything like that.
Sophia: Did you ever learn anything about homosexuality or trans-identities?
Lisa: No, it wasn’t taught. We had stereotypes associated with homosexuality, but there wasn’t anyone out because being in a military town you couldn’t be overt about being gay. At that time, gay men were stereotyped to like drama, theater and thought to dress really well, for lesbian women they were considered to be athletic tom boys. But there wasn’t this thing that we see now where gay men are considered pedophiles or the idea that all homosexuals are predators. The only time we saw or heard of a trans person or cross-dresser was only with the drag queens down on Broadway. We didn’t hear about trans youth.
The big thing then was a show hosted by Phil Donahue. He had on “men who dress as women” and he had reproductive rights as a topics. I remember his show was on in the afternoon and I would come home from school and watch it with my mother. I feel like that was the sort of start of talk radio, talk shows, and all of that.
Sophia: So, switching topics a bit, would you consider yourself a feminist?
Lisa: Yeah, I joined NOW (National Organization for Women) as a sophomore in high school, that would have been 1974. I was on the debate team and I always argued why Colorado should be the state that tipped the ERA into law. I was a big supporter of Planned Parenthood.
Sophia: Are you still a Planned Parenthood supporter, being that you’re very religious?
Lisa: Well, I was very religious then, too.
I was brought up cradle Catholic, but my parents taught me that the church is an institution and I learned pretty fast that it was just a patriarchal thing. But remember in the 70’s and 80’s, American nuns were speaking out so I had a good model for that. I remember Pope Paul VI came on a tour of the United States and spoke to a bunch of religious orders and four or five nuns stood up and turned their back to him the entire time in protest. It was a great. I knew there were other Catholic women that felt like I did. The Bible is full of stuff about talking care of your brother and feeding children and taking care of widows and orphans… So you know , I never had problems with supplying people birth control.
I remember when the birth control pills became readily available, the Catholic church made a big bru-hahah over that, about how women should not take birth control because they were thwarting God’s plan. So there was a lot of this new medicine, technology was better, women were out on the streets…liberating themselves saying, ‘I’m not going to be chained to stove anymore’ but the Catholic Church just had a conniption fit. At every turn (of new reproductive rights and medical technology) there was ‘no you can’t do that,’ and you would go to hell for ‘killing your baby,’ if you had an abortion. But I knew from a scientific standpoint that it wasn’t [murder]. Having that knowledge of how a fetus develops…I knew that at 12 weeks or whatever, that’s not a life.
I love me some Jesus, but you know, I really don’t love the church. I learned in the 70’s that the male hierarchy of the church would do everything in their power to keep people in a box and ignorant. I mean, in terms of the Church’s position on when life begins the Bible says that Adam wasn’t viable until God breathed life into him. So you have to breathe to be a life, that’s what I believe.
I go to a Convent for mass now, it’s all women and the Nuns there are great. They do a lot of great things social justice wise there. I brought your dad there once and he was totally outnumbered, it was great, now he knows how women feel.
For me, at the end of the day, I think the biggest enemy of the Catholic church is a woman that thinks, reads and votes. So they do what they can to prevent that.
Sophia: So, you lived in Africa, what was abortion and reproductive rights like there?
Lisa: There was a lot of folk medicine that women would ingest if they wanted to miscarry because in my part of the third world you wouldn’t want to go to the hospitals there. It wasn’t an option. It was that bad. I was in Cameroon, West Africa, for 2 years with the Peace Corps from 1990 to 1992.
From a family standpoint, it reminded much of the US in 1800’s where women helped other women with the children and the work. So the idea of having a lot of kids wasn’t necessarily a hindrance. But, those women didn’t really have any other options either. In that society, the more children you have the more virile, and thus successful, you are, for the men. So there was that motivation to have lots of kids, from the man’s perspective of course.. Also, most families didn’t name their children until 5 or 6 years old because infant mortality was so high.
There were definite roles for women but the society is very tribal, like 23 tribes in Cameroon (which is the size of California) and heavily Muslim in the north. They got a lot of support for having kids, most women had about 5 kids and there wasn’t any stigma if you had a baby out of wed lock. Also, because there was not social welfare for people in old age, for women, the kids were like a security blanket to take care of them in old age. Still, one of the things we did was teach women how to use condoms and foam, that’s all they had, and say, ‘you know, you don’t have to have any more kids if you don’t want them.’
In terms of birth control, they had, like, a crude IUD, where they would put lemon seeds or something in the uterus and they use a lot of herbal medicine. But like the woman in Idaho burying her fetus, if they didn’t have resources for a baby they just had, they would put it in the jungle or if the woman had a twin they would pick which one they wanted and put the other one in the jungle. That was readily accepted because you had to live, you can’t afford to keep the baby, you had to live.
I would like to conclude with a heartfelt thanks to Lisa for agreeing to talk so openly about her experiences.
* Name changed to protect her privacy.