Same Bigotry, Different Name: Race Suicide, the Birth Dearth, and Women’s Rights

Same Bigotry, Different Name: Race Suicide, the Birth Dearth, and Women’s Rights

Megan McGlynn

Despite the fact that roughly half of the world’s population is born female, women’s roles in history are consistently regulated to side characters and often left out of core history classes. In those same classes there is a lack of discussion of the ways that women have been affected by the issues of the time in often dramatically different ways from men, but from each other as well. We have a tendency to treat the experiences of all women as one universal experience in education which could not be far from the truth. Even the optional women’s history courses taught at some high schools have unregulated curriculums created by teachers that want more for their students but may unintentionally let their own ideas of whose story matters steer the course away from the point. Intersectionality is the crux of progress, understanding that no one is ever just one thing. Gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and a whole host of other aspects of a person are independent of each other and differ widely, allowing for humanity to benefit from the wonder of a complete variety of distinct perspectives and unique people. Limiting women’s history to an optional course with no clear path hurts the learning of all students and sets the standard that women are a separate branch of human history, that their stories and lives have had no bearing on the course of events.

As teachers, it is our responsibility to determine where and how we can incorporate supplemental material into our core curriculum in order to provide additional insight and get to more topics than we might be able to delve fully into. One such topic of importance that gets zero attention in U.S. history is women’s movements. Sure we talk about the 19th amendment; but only long enough to ensure students that it fixed everything overnight, missing the whole sections on the rights of women of color and the other ways women were still restricted. The current struggle federally over the rights women have to their own reproductive choices is an issue I guarantee that your students have questions about. They know little about Roe v. Wade, or the numerous attempts to overthrow it. What they do know is that this coming year may change the landscape of the nation and that is terrifying. One of the most overused cliches in the English language is ‘knowledge is power’, and it could not fit better here. Arming students with an understanding of the origins of these battles gives them context, motivation, and a place to start. And what better way to do so than to connect the present legislative concerns with where U.S. history classes love to focus; U.S. presidents. Shortly, the opinions of two presidents from opposite ends of the 20th century will become clear; Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. In order to take them in fully however, we first must form a distinct picture of the issues facing the nation today.

In December of 1971 a pregnant woman, named Jane Roe in court documents for privacy, sued her county district attorney Henry Wade alleging that the Texas abortion law violated her constitutional rights. Two years later on January 22, 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 majority in Roe’s favor, declaring safe access to abortion a constitutional right.[1] The ruling ensured legal protection for those seeking the essential medical procedure despite the countless protests and legislative attempts at blocking access throughout the years, and restricting eligibility for the procedure based on the length of pregnancy. Forty-eight years later, the state of Texas has passed the most restrictive abortion legislation to date.[2] The bill, SB 8, bans all abortions except those fitting into slim medical necessity criteria after ultrasound scans first pick up evidence of cardiac activity typically around six weeks’ gestation. The term “heartbeat bill” has caused strife as it inaccurately labels electrical pulses as a heartbeat, attaching emotional images of infancy to a cluster of cells the size of a grain of rice.[3] Not only is the nickname misleading, but six weeks is only two weeks after a missed period and is the earliest possible time a pregnancy test can give a positive result. Therefore an abortion is nearly impossible for any Texas woman to receive by the time they discover they are pregnant.

This is by far not the first time Texas legislation has made national headlines for its restrictive nature or controversial stance, but now there is an insurmountable fear of how influential this bill may be. Texas is not the first state to pass a “heartbeat bill” but all others have been struck down as unconstitutional. This law has skirted the limitations of previous legislation by putting the onus of prosecution on civilians instead of the government. Per Roe v. Wade, government officials cannot prosecute an individual for seeking an abortion but according to the Texas Tribune the new legislation has remedied that stating, “While abortion patients themselves can’t be sued under the new law, anyone who performs or aids with the abortion can be sued”.[4] By creating a civil avenue for abortion persecution Texas lawmakers have stepped into uncharted waters where it is unclear if attempts to throw the bill out will succeed. A successful bill of this kind will produce similar bills across the country until women’s reproductive healthcare is completely unrecognizable in a post Roe v. Wade world.

Unfortunately though perhaps unsurprisingly, attacks such as this on the rights and liberties of women are persistent throughout American history. The above instance is a prime example of these attacks which increase in number and intensity during periods of increased women’s rights activism, but are ultimately always present. The right to vote was the first cause that women congregated in support of solely for themselves in the United States. Women sought the influence of voting privilege and equal treatment under the law; if men and women are all citizens why should they not have the same liberties? For some this made perfect sense and women came together locally and eventually nationally to advocate for women’s suffrage.

In 1890 the two national suffrage organizations, the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association, separated for twenty years due to conflicting support for the 15th amendment and Black men, finally came together again with the help of suffragist Alice Stone Blackwell.[5] Under the name of the National American Woman Suffrage Association the group led women’s suffrage efforts ultimately culminating in the ratification of the 19th amendment giving White women the right to vote. This success was certainly to the chagrin of the opposition; which was a surprising combination of men and women who felt that White women did not need to vote as they spent most of their time in the home caring for children. Coupled with this group’s perceived lack of political knowledge, they believed that giving White women the ability to vote would only raise taxes and not change much else. Anti-suffragists believed that most White women did not want the vote and made their voices heard through protests, political cartoons, scathing articles, and speeches.[6] But even the formation of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage by Josephine Dodge in 1911 to coordinate and amplify anti-suffrage opinions did tip the scales and the 19th amendment passed.[7] When women activists would once again bring calls for equal treatment to the national stage, similar opposition surfaced.

Though it was first drafted fifty years earlier, in 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by both houses of Congress and ratification of the potential 27th amendment seemed all but certain. The amendment’s sudden and long overdue position as a topic of national conversation was the credit of a new age of women’s activism; women’s liberation. Often shortened to women’s lib in discussion, the movement aimed to free women of the unequal barriers present in professional spaces. These barriers kept them from the opportunities afforded to men in the same spaces, as if these working women were not privy to a secret password. The ERA was the universal translator, a legal declaration that adequate pay, promotions, and authority were not to be hidden above a glass ceiling away from women who were held back from reaching them.

So in 1972, support was high from the women’s liberation movement and a true success for women’s rights felt close enough to taste.[8] Women were tired of the inconsistencies and being told that the vote was enough to fix hundreds of years of inequality. But the deadline for ratification came and went without a ratified ERA, leaving the nation wondering how. In the ten year time limit thirty-five out of the thirty-eight required states ratified the amendment.[9] But this was not enough. As shocking as it may seem, this is attributed to the work of one woman, Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly was an author, activist, and lawyer who formed the Stop ERA movement on her own. She believed that equality was not truly in the interests of men or women and would ultimately lead to a detrimental moral shirt in American society.[10] Her emphatic public expression of this opinion frightened the public and had the intended effect on politicians. It was this extremist comparative approach that was responsible for the failure of the ERA and is yet another example of the oppositional forces that spark up against fights for women’s rights.

Though separated by decades, these two 20th century movements, suffrage and women’s liberation both tackled the mistreatment of women in the United States, pulling the discrepancies to the forefront of national discussion. What is most shocking is that 50 years separate these two movements but they frankly could have taken place at the same time. Nothing changed from the ERA’s conception while White women were gaining the right to vote in 1920 and its failed ratification in the last decades of the century. This is even more apparent when you consider the inherent issues of race in women’s movements. The suffrage movement was populated by abolitionists who fought for the 13th amendment decades prior securing Black men their constitutional right to vote. Yet the same White women who had shown up in support then refused to acknowledge that suffrage should come for all women at once. They selfishly secured their own rights ahead of all other women and proved that their earlier activism for Black men was only in the interest of paving their own way. This racial divide in women’s movements is demonstrative of the larger social perception of race, the lines of demarcation that defined acceptance and persecution so clearly outlined by skin color.

The intersection between the treatment of women and racially motivated fears in the United States is considerably large. Women are, by virtue of reproductive anatomy, the individuals who give birth to the next generation. Those who wish to control the future makeup of the population therefore have always had a vested interest in the ways women choose to procreate or not, and with whom they do so. Sociologist Edward A. Ross established the term ‘race suicide’ at the beginning of the 20th century to refer to situations ‘when the birth rate within a so-called race dropped below the death rate’ and expected the end result of this to be ‘that the “race” would die out’.[11] This definition with its use of the word suicide heavily implies that the focus of the blame falls within the race in question and is not due to outside forces impacting the race.[12] Later on we will see evidence of President Theodore Roosevelt taking Ross’s idea and running with it, popularizing a national idea that race suicide was killing the United States and that the only remedy was a strictly traditional large family. Prominent political and academic thinkers of the era seeing as women produce children, also blamed them for White race suicide in America as the term gained popularity.

Just as Edward Ross coined the term race suicide in the early 1900s, Benjamin Wattenberg coined the term ‘birth dearth’ in 1987 in his book titled The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies?. Birth dearth is close in meaning to race suicide. Quite simply it refers to a lack of births contributing to a lower population and in the next generation a lack of adults to replenish those retiring out of the labor force or passing away.[13] Again, as with Roosevelt, Wattenberg lists many reasons that caused this horrific decline. Of those causes, most directly implicate women. Of the subheadings in chapter 10 titled Causes, two-thirds (12 of 18) specifically target women. They include education (for women), working women, abortion, contraception, divorce, and decreased fecundity all of which except the last attacked personal decisions women made in their lives. These decisions were perceived by Wattenberg to have caused a majority of the birth dearth decline, leaving the country open to being outmatched in advancement and population by other Eastern countries.[14] Instead of focusing on the family as Roosevelt did, Wattenberg chose to turn his attention to the outside influences of immigration and fears of the advancement of other countries.

            Based on the history and current events described previously, it is clear that women’s personal decisions have been the concern of the public and the government for well over a century, and far beyond the time frame examined. Whether or not the individual choices of a group as large as women should be controlled or inspected so closely is not up for debate, but the reason for that examination certainly is. The picture that Ross and Wattenberg painted of a future United States devoid of children centers women’s contributions in a specifically narrow light. The research conducted in this paper aims to answer the question raised by the opinions of figures like Ross and Wattenberg. That is, what are women’s roles in nationalism as mothers and how are expectations for women shaped by government officials and national culture? With that question at the focus a secondary question forms that will also be answered in the following pages; why and how has progress in women’s rights led to backlash and a privileging of unequal gender and racial hierarchy? Holding tightly to those two questions it is important to examine the body of work conducted in this vein looking at both the suffrage and women’s liberation movements and their backlash.

                        At every turn, women’s rights activists struggled in a greater culture that benefits from the reduction of women’s capabilities and denial of the positive effects that liberation and equality provide. There is a consistent bubbling undercurrent of discontent in American society that continues to exist in the pervasive nature of disease, perpetually infecting the nation with discontent whispers of feminist pursuits as the biggest possible detriment to national prosperity in existence. These whispers push and claim that elimination of and movement beyond feminism into postfeminism is the only cure, women must forget the call for equality because they already can have it all. This is certainly not the case and frankly is a desperate albeit successful attempt to bring women’s issues full circle, to replace the barriers that are already broken one by one.

            The use of the word backlash above is deliberate. Backlash is a term that originated with Susan Faludi who examines the distinct spikes in discontent that push into aggressive, propagandist backlash in her book of the same name, aptly subtitled The Undeclared War Against American Women. She describes the intense media and governmental assault on women’s liberation that occurred in the 80’s, at the height of the movement managing to sow indecisive and malcontented seeds of self-doubt into the minds of women across the nation. This gave the backlash places to hide in the minds of its victims and a convenient space for denial in the spotlight.[15] But the backlash of the 80’s is not the only one we have experienced as a country, far from it in fact.

            But the 80’s were not the first decade to experience backlash, it historically comes as a direct “reaction to women’s ‘progress’” as Faludi dives into further.[16] That being said, Faludi is not the only historian to connect the seemingly cyclical attacks to women’s progress historically. In Building a Better Race : Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics From the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, Wendy Kline contends that the history of eugenics in America has been passive and pretends that eugenic efforts have ceased which she demonstrates is far from the truth.[17] Kline asserts that eugenics is responsible for the notion of race suicide in the beginning of the 19th century and the concept of the birth dearth in the 80’s.[18]

Notably Kline is not the only historian to share this opinion. In her essay “Reproduction: The Politics of Choice” taken from an anthology of her works titled No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women Estelle B. Freedman reiterates the importance of eugenics on reproductive decisions in the United States. According to Freedman, when fears of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant women committing race suicide bubbled to the surface of American life, eugenics was already heavily rooted in the United States as well as other predominantly White European nations across the ocean.[19] It was not long until eugenics ideologies gripped the medical practice of these countries allowing doctors, White men, to decide which women were fit for reproduction. She discusses laws implemented in the United States to institute compulsory sterilization by stating, “The laws applied to men or women of any background, but they disproportionately affected immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, the poor, and disabled women. Twice as many American women as men underwent compulsory sterilization”.[20] Freedman’s analysis of the perilous situation eugenic efforts placed people of color, women, and those who were disabled in demonstrates how the fear of race suicide was not just a lack of White babies, but an increase in non-White babies.

The way President Roosevelt viewed women and their role in society is discussed in Leroy Dorsey’s article “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman” where he articulates a nuanced view of the man and his perspective. Dorsey asserts that Roosevelt built his idea of womanhood around the idea of the frontier woman, creating a niche way to build support for women’s equality while still claiming that motherhood was of the utmost importance to the equal frontier woman.[21] He managed to find a balance where he could support a progressive approach to women’s equality while still championing a traditional view of marriage and family aligned with its emphasis on national welfare. This midrange stance did leave Roosevelt in contention with women’s rights activists who felt he could push harder in support of the movement, but Dorsey argues that Roosevelt’s careful balance was wholly intentional and actually was necessary in order to “consider the application of Victorian principles in a modern age”.[22] Though Dorsey does make a solid argument, he neglects a large portion of Roosevelt’s beliefs, mainly regarding racial purity and race suicide. These beliefs are ever present in his presidency and opinions, to leave them out of the analysis creates an inaccurate depiction of Roosevelt and his impact.

            Though her work does not contend with the implications of race suicide or eugenics, Elaine Tyler May does investigate the legislation surrounding women’s bodies and choices. Her book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation lays bare the history of the contraceptive pill and how inaccurate the assumptions of its grandiose accomplishments for women were. The pill was FDA approved in 1960 and was viewed publicly as an incredible advancement in birth control technology.[23]  Prior to the pill, the Comstock Law made it illegal to send information about contraceptives or any contraceptive devices through the mail.[24] The Comstock Law was in effect from 1873 to 1936. From its introduction to the birth control scene, the pill was represented in mountains of legislation and informal governmental rulings limiting it as well as other forms of contraception. Presidential gag rules were also cyclically introduced would ban U.S. aid for health organizations working in other countries that provided abortion, even if that was a small percentage of the services provided.[25] Though the gag rules were a part of foreign policy, they are incredibly telling in regards to American positions on contraception and abortion, both of which heavily impacted women’s lives.

            While May heavily addresses the legislative efforts to control women’s reproductive rights, the work of Grant and Mislán focuses on the media that influenced the spread of race suicide ideology in the first place. Through close examination of articles published in two newspapers, the Columbia Missourian and the Columbian Tribune, in Columbia, Missouri, Grant and Mislán demonstrate how objectivity as a tenet of journalism ethics contributed to the rise in eugenics scientific legitimacy.[26] The trust that local communities placed in their newspapers to provide ethical, honest, evidence-based claims lent itself to being taken advantage of by journalists with clear biases. Coupled with the lack of other news outlets to compare information with and the insulated nature of small communities, race suicide ideology implanted and festered without much resistance. Through examination of these works, a picture develops of a society where women’s civic impact is emphasized by their willingness and ability to produce children to combat the racial suicide of the American race.

The research conducted in this paper on the recurring antifeminist backlash and emphasis on women as wombs for national protection against a non-White population increase fits in nicely with of Susan Faludi, building upon her research into backlash against women’s liberation. To do so it will highlight a specific focus of the opposition on women’s reproductive capabilities as their primary quality over all others, taking required emphasis away from other qualities and damaging women in the long run. From there the bridge between this discussion of backlash and the eugenics arguments of the 20th century is easy to cross as historiography has evolved to understand how eugenics was responsible for the restrictions placed upon women and continues to be. In this way the intention is to complement and build upon these works to foster a stronger understanding of the reproductive harm caused by fearful efforts to mitigate supposed racial tensions.

Further, it is clear that an examination of presidential opinions and decisions will demonstrate the clear and intentional steps taken to protect a white supremacist nationalist view that has carried on throughout the decades undetected by giving the same rhetoric a facelift and vocabulary change while maintaining the oppressive structure and values. Eras with strong women’s rights movements challenge this placement of women in society and as a result see a huge backlash from those aiming to protect this view in the highest realm of politics. This will be evident in the analysis of the sources from the periods of women’s suffrage and women’s liberation that establish the rhetoric of each. Presidential speeches and opinions illustrate how women’s role in the family was essential to the continuation of American excellence.  Ultimately, this will culminate in an argument that is difficult to dispute, that women’s role in American nationalism as breeders has been planned by men in power for the better part of a century to use them as pawns in a one sided race war.

            Though Edward Ross coined the term race suicide, credit for its proliferation into 1900s American vernacular and everyday life goes to then president, Theodore Roosevelt. He was inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States on March 4, 1905 in Washington, D.C. Nine days later he appeared in front of the National Congress of Mothers to address his concerns over the grave dangers that plagued the nation. Roosevelt was uniquely positioned as the first president to have been reelected following a term ascended to from the vice president position. In this position he felt justified by his victory to press further onwards with his beliefs on maintaining the pride and prowess of the nation via a close adherence to traditionally apt goals of marriage and family. Through an emphasis on the strict traditional representations of men and women’s roles, Roosevelt aimed to mitigate the plight of ‘race suicide’ in the United States; in doing so he alienated and invalidated the women fighting for women’s suffrage by asserting that a woman’s civic duty began and ended with their children.

            Roosevelt brought race suicide to national attention through his public speeches and written work over the course of his presidencies, heightening national fear and promoting the idea of procreation as function of national security.  In this speech he claims, in reference to his own example of what would happen if all American families only had two children, that “a race that practiced race suicide would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being”.[27] Here he demonstrates the racial imperative he believed Americans held to have a large family, anything less was not enough. Roosevelt doubly emphasized this notion for women in this speech, highlighting the importance of choosing motherhood over personal ambitions. He believed, as many soon would, that the American population was in a serious decline that would diminish America’s prestige around the world and lead to a change in the demographic makeup of the country. This would reduce the White population’s majority in the country as well, as he claimed “But the nation is in a bad way if there is no real home, if the family is not of the right kind.”[28]  In this speech Roosevelt further emphasized the “primary duties” of men and women; for men to tend to the financial needs of their families and for women to tend to the physical, emotional, moral needs of their children.[29] These two roles are treated the same in that they are essential and play the largest part in protecting the white race but are different in that women who choose not to have children are demonized. And, this distinction comes at the same time that American women are struggling for the right to vote.

Despite condemning both men and women who shirked their duty to procreate and raise children with strong American ideals, Roosevelt targets women more vehemently than men.  He asserts that the nation suffers if the home is in bad shape providing several examples, most of which are specifically towards women. Roosevelt calls these examples a woman losing her “sense of duty”, sinking into ‘vapid self-indulgence’, and “let[ting] her nature be twisted so that she prefers a sterile pseudo-intellectuality”.[30] In this way he connected the future population numbers to women’s personal decisions. From there it was not difficult to make the jump to controlling women’s decisions about their bodies in the interest of the nation. In doing this, he places a woman’s civic duty in direct connection to her decision to procreate and removes the ability to be a proud citizen without having done so. His audience, being mothers who took part in the National Congress of Mothers, received this message well, embraced it as they were validated by the prestige his beliefs awarded their position. In proliferating this message to an audience of mothers, Roosevelt played into pre-existing divisions amongst women regarding suffrage efforts and further increased the divide by providing means for a motherly superiority complex in the form of nationalist praise.

This public speech was not Roosevelt’s first time deliberating on the topic of race suicide. It happened to be a subject of correspondence between him and his associates. He also made it clear in his writing that his particular stance was racially motivated. In a personal letter to politician and friend Albion W. Tourgée, sent in November of 1901, this latter racial matter is made clear as Roosevelt begins the letter by saying, “I too have been at my wits’ end in dealing with the black man”, elucidating further in his next paragraph by writing, “I have not been able to think out any solution of the terrible problem offered by the presence of the negro on this continent”.[31] Further in this sentence he explains that he is resigned to the fact that it would be impossible to expel Black men from America either by death or emigration, so “the honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each White man strictly on his merits as a man”.[32] From these quoted passages, Roosevelt’s opinion is clear; he does not want Black men in America and they would be banished as soon as possible if only that was feasible. The fact that this letter predates his speech to the National Congress of Mothers by four years emphatically stresses that Roosevelt’s belief in the severity of race suicide was motivated by an increasing non-White population in the United States.

Further delving into the former president’s personal correspondence shows much of his public sentiments as president were very much rooted in personal truths. One year following the letter described above to Albion W. Tourgée, in October of 1902 Roosevelt wrote to Bessie Van Vorst the notable author of the magazine series and book titled The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Gentlewomen as Factory Girls. This book focused on the lives of factory working girls. Roosevelt begins by complementing Vorst’s magazine series before condemning another article by a different author published in the same magazine on the unemployed rich population. In comparing the women at the focus of the two articles Roosevelt finds similarity stating that he sees, “An easy, good-natured kindliness, and a desire to be independent” claiming that these qualities “are no substitute for the fundamental virtues, for the practice of the strong racial qualities without which there can be no strong races”.[33] Here he defines independence as a quality that is incompatible with American womanhood, and a lack of independence as better for the White race.

A final letter written by Roosevelt in April of 1907 demonstrates that his view if race suicide did not waver and ultimately grew stronger following the 1905 speech. This letter was written to the editor, Dr. Albert Shaw, of The American Monthly Review of Reviews regarding issues Roosevelt had with an article published in the journal titled “The Doctor in the Public School” written by Dr. Cronin. In the article Dr. Cronin says with a level of professional certainty that American families do not need to have more children than are depicted by the national birth rate of the time.[34] But Roosevelt contests this calling the idea erroneous and claiming that the doctor is not fit to write definitively on the subject because he is not as well read as the president is on the subject.

Roosevelt calls attention to what he sees as the biggest issue of this misinformation, which he says is a “tendency to the elimination instead of the survival of the fittest; and the moral attitude which helps on this tendency is of course strengthened when it is apologized for and praised in a magazine like yours.”[35] Cronin’s article asserts in a journal read by the well-off of American society an argument that goes directly against Roosevelt’s own and removes the imperative placed on the elite to reproduce profusely. This is a direct threat to White American nationalist efforts like Roosevelt’s to increase White birth rates. Further evidence that Roosevelt is incensed by the article because of this perceived threat is seen when he states, “These teachings give moral justification to every woman who practices abortion; they furnish excuses for every unnatural prevention of child-bearing, for every form of gross and shallow selfishness of the kind that is the deepest reflection on, the deepest discredit to, American social life.”[36] By writing in this passionate way, Roosevelt betrays his true feelings of reproductive control and the women who assert that right. These private, personal decisions of American women are a direct reflection on the entire nation and as such are terrible choices that should be shamed unlike how Dr. Cronin bears their justification. Time and time again through his public speeches and private letters, former President Theodore Roosevelt demonstrates his belief that women who chose not to have children were criminals at the center of a racial betrayal. By his description, women’s continued birthing and raising of new White children was all that protected the country from the loss of a truly American society.

It is important to note that President Roosevelt’s fears of racial imbalance in the United States were not sparked by Black men though they were the target of most of his vitriolic rhetoric. In reality the fear of Jewish and Irish Catholic immigration was the true catalyst for his sentiments, Black men simply garnered the heavy burden of his prejudices because they were the visibly identifiable group amongst the three. In reality, Black men have been present in the country since 1619 when the first African slaves arrived while Jewish and Irish Catholic immigration grew considerably in the early 1900s, making them the “real” outsiders. Though today Jewish, Irish Catholic, and Protestant White people are all considered a part of the same White population in the United States, this was not the case at the beginning of the 20th century. Protestants were the White race and were clearly different from the former groups in society. Though his ideology clearly developed a focus on Black men and their potential corruption of White birth rates, it bloomed from fear of increased immigrations effects of the birth rate because White did not mean what it means today.

Former President Roosevelt was perhaps fortunate that he could be so outspoken about the views he held regarding race suicide and women’s reproductive decisions in both his private communication and public speeches as president, as his views were common amongst those he spoke to. The presidents of the country during the women’s liberation movement did not have that same so-called luxury and had to combat the new fear of being taken out of context in conversation and being recorded. One of the biggest lessons learned by President Nixon was the importance of hiding your personal opinions from the public. This is evidenced by his commissioning of the infamous ‘Nixon tapes’, recordings of his meetings and phone calls in the Oval office and his private study which have been released in recent decades as part of public record. His recorded conversations contrasted with public communication and decisions show his opinion of mothers but also his impact on their lives and how these things were steeped in his own racism.

Richard Nixon’s paranoia about a leak in the White House and his need to always be covered in case of miscommunication not only led to his impeachment but also provided the public with copious records of his personal communication and a glimpse into the man behind the president. One thing that Nixon clearly knew to keep private was his racist ideology, though he had no problem discussing it on his private telephone line. On October 7, 1971 Nixon called sociologist Daniel Moynihan to discuss an article titled “I.Q.” written by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and its impacts on education, welfare, and government intervention. During this conversation they begin discussing Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. At this point Nixon says, “everybody says, ‘Well, God, you can’t—the work requirement is only for the purpose of making these poor colored women, you know, who can’t work and with little babies coming every month—or it’s every nine months, I believe. Anyway, whatever the case is, you can’t make them work’”, assuming that only women of color need to use welfare programs and that they simply cannot stop having children.[37] Later on in the same conversation he says that it is the responsibility of a nation’s leader to know the hard truths that drive decision making but never say them outloud. Nixon says, “My theory is that the responsibility of a president, in my present position, first, is to know these things. … But also my theory is that I must do everything that I possibly can to deny them.”.[38] The things in question being that Black people and Jewish people would damage the performance of a voting ticket and that women do not belong on the Supreme Court. Here the overlap between his racist views and misogyny is tentatively expressed, but that is developed further in a future tape.

            Roe v. Wade occurred in 1973 while Nixon was still president. He never publicly commented on the ruling however so his opinion was not known until the January and February 1973 tapes from the Oval office were released in 2009. On January 23rd, the day after the decision, Nixon and his special counsel Chuck Colson were discussing the decision and Nixon said, “I know, I know. I admit, I mean there are times when abortions are necessary. I know that. You know [when] you have a black and a white.” And then following a prompt by Colson adding “Or rape.” as an afterthought.[39] This shows with clarity how his racist views overlapped his views on women. It was not acceptable for women to have mixed race children and the thought of allowing women to make that decision after a traumatic event like rape was not nearly as important to him as keeping the races separated.

            Though never explicitly stated publicly, these views were present in his decisions. The most notable one being his veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971, a bill that would have extended the programs available from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) establishing national public daycare facilities among other provisions.[40] A main reasoning of Nixon’s veto was keeping focus on the family. His veto reads “good public policy requires that we enhance rather than diminish both parental authority and parental involvement with children.”[41] In speaking to his Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally on the phone Nixon confirmed that his stance was not only concerned with family stability but also with keeping stay at home mothers in childcare saying, “I mean, I think if you ever start down this—the road of having the state raise the kids and giving mother, whether they work or not, the option of that, it’s bad, you see?”[42] His motives in vetoing the child care bill were to strengthen the American family by continuing to force American women to stay home with their children and reducing the number of Americans on welfare programs. This was in spite of their personal wishes regarding going to work if they were not able to afford private child care. This coupled with the way he spoke about women of color on welfare on the tape with Moynihan in 1971, referenced above, demonstrates that he believed women must earn the right to need government assistance for their families and that supporting families was not as important as protecting his ideal of the American family.[43] The fact that this was the president’s opinion of American family life during the women’s liberation movement’s fight for equality of opportunity is baffling and explains how he managed to produce the exact opposite of his intended result.

            Contrary to Nixon’s intention of building up the American family by vetoing the OEO bill, his action directly contributed to the degradation of the American family and subsequent birth dearth that Ben Wattenberg would write his titular book about. As we have discussed earlier on, Ben Wattenberg was an economist who analyzed decreasing birth rates in the United States, finding that White births suffered a considerably higher decline, and claimed that the nation’s authority as a world power would undeniably suffer as a result.[44] His fears of the United States being overtaken by Eastern socialist countries heavily influenced his results. These findings were published in The Birth Dearth where he contended that this was because of a variety of social and legal successes of women’s movements and contributed his own solutions for a White birth increase. The highlights if these contributing issues included increased higher education and job opportunities for women, accessibility of contraception and abortion, and divorce, while his most notable solution was banning abortion because a majority of abortions were done on wealthy White women, a ban would naturally increase the White population.[45] At the time of the book’s publication, Wattenberg was a notable public figure following his time as an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson and condensed versions of the book’s argument were  published in prominent newspapers including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times which also published scathing reviews of the book.[46] That is to say that his view on the topic was projected to the national stage much in the same way as Roosevelt and Nixon’s were by nature of their position.

A scathing indictment of Nixon’s decision to veto was published in the New York Times the day following the decision, quoting Nixon as saying, “our response to this challenge must be a measured, evolutionary, painstakingly considered one, consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”.[47] Yet, the birth dearth is cited as beginning in 1971, continuing until the present day, so that conscious decision did not play out as planned.[48] Worse, Nixon’s veto is still contributing to the unequal distribution of wealth and participation in the labor force that still plagues women in America despite the efforts of the women’s liberation movement. According to Lisa Rabasca Roepe, author of the Business Insider article “Richard Nixon Sabotaged a Generation of Women, but Now Congress Has Another Chance – If It Can Pass Biden’s $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan”, the birth dearth is evidence “that Nixon’s veto weakened the family structure in exactly the way he was trying to prevent”.[49] By forcing childcare to remain a private industry, many families could not and still cannot justify having both parents in the workforce when the salary of one parent would be used in almost its entirety to pay for childcare that can be done at home instead.

In effect, growing costs of living and a lack of childcare options forced many women to choose between having a family and a career. This sentiment was echoed throughout the ranks of the women’s liberation movement, as women cried out for support that President Nixon refused them. Combined with the widespread use of the birth control pill, Nixon’s veto contributed to the birth dearth by making the choice easy; to have a career women had fewer children. The nation was not prepared to make the necessary efforts to ensure that families were supported in ways that mattered so that was the only way. If only Nixon had taken the time to consider women as individuals separate from their relationship status or obligation as mothers the American family could have prospered the way he intended.

It may not seem so, but the relationship between Roosevelt’s views on race suicide and Nixon’s impact on the birth dearth is quite close. Nixon was born in 1913 while race suicide rhetoric, strengthened and popularized by President Roosevelt’s speeches years prior was still wildly prominent in American culture. He grew up breathing in and internalizing these messages that the White race was dying and that minority groups were overtaking “true Americans”. In truth the birth dearth was inspired by the rhetoric of the early 1900s, a continuation of the same mantra with a fancy new name and subtler approach. This is a fantastic place to build connections as a teacher, to demonstrate the importance of chronology when understanding history. Nixon was a young child at the height of race suicide ideology so it is no wonder that his own beliefs so similarly mirror this notion minus the name. Our societal beliefs form slowly and change even slower, fifty years is not so long in the grand scheme of time.

The 1973 case of Roe v. Wade was the first national government ruling that gave women the right to make decisions about their bodies that they had been making without government approval for centuries, but some in the government finally recognized the need for women to be in charge of those health decisions. The current backlash and attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade are reflective of the attitudes of older decades. Fears of race suicide and separation of the family unit pushed presidents and therefore the public to the extreme of the traditional family unit barring women from gaining strides in reproductive rights in the same way that they did with the vote and workplace equality. The views and actions of Presidents Roosevelt and Nixon were crucial to the pressure on American citizens to participate in the good American family ideal in order to preserve the nation from potential racial disparities and consequently White women had to be controlled. Their bodies housed all potential for another generation of Americans and they had to be made to do what was ‘right’. With all the evidence laid out it can be clearly seen that this was an intentional decision by the men in power to use White women as pawns in this war of perception by making their bodily decisions for them.

Using the primary sources depicted in this article and the historiography provided, the means to develop a short but effective interjection to a U.S. history classroom are clearly available. The situation of Roe v. Wade’s standing as a Supreme Court ruling is the most recent legislative example in a long storied history of the American government and our presidents attempting to assign limitations to women. Our students were not alive for even the most recent prior examples of these attempts but that does not mean they cannot learn. Incorporating new primary source material from notable and already frequently discussed U.S. presidents provides further detail to an undiscussed issue and will also teach your students more about developing full opinions of historical figures as flawed human beings.

References

Primary Sources

Address by President Roosevelt before the National Congress of Mothers. Theodore Roosevelt Collection. MS Am 1541 (315). Harvard College Library.

“Child Development Legislation Dies in House.” In CQ Almanac 1972, 28th ed., 03-914-03-918. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1973. http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal72-1249564.

Colson, Chuck and Richard Nixon. “President Nixon and Chuck Colson Discuss the Supreme Court Decision Roe v. Wade.” Edited by Luke A. Nichter. Nixon tapes and transcripts. Accessed October 23, 2021. http://www.nixontapes.org/chron53.html.

Douglas, Erin and Carla Astudillo. “We Annotated Texas’ near-Total Abortion Ban. Here’s What the Law Says about Enforcement.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, September 10, 2021. https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/10/texas-abortion-law-ban-enforcement/.

Irvine, Bethany. “Why ‘Heartbeat Bill’ Is a Misleading Name for Texas’ near-Total Abortion Ban.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, September 2, 2021. https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/02/texas-abortion-heartbeat-bill/.

Jane Roe, et al., Appellants, v. Henry Wade, Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute (United States Supreme Court 1973).

“Richard Nixon and Daniel P. Moynihan on 7 October 1971,” Conversation 010-116, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002184

“Richard Nixon and John B. Connally on 8 December 1971,” Conversation 016-044, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006696

Roosevelt, Theodore. “The American Birth Rate”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 520.

Roosevelt, Theodore. “The Danger of ‘Race Suicide’”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 259.

Roosevelt, Theodore . “Dealing with the Black Man”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 244.

Rosenthal, Jack. “President Vetoes Child Care Plan as Irresponsible.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 10, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/12/10/archives/president-vetoes-child-care-plan-as-irresponsible-he-terms-bill.html.

Wattenberg, Ben J. The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? New York, NY: Pharos Books, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Dorsey, Leroy G. 2013. “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16 (3): 423–56. doi:10.14321/rhetpublaffa.16.3.0423.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. New York: Crown, 1991.

Freedman, Estelle B. “Reproduction: The Politics of Choice.” in No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, 229-252. New York:Ballantine Books, 2002.

Grant, Rachel and Cristina Mislán (2020) “Improving the Race”: The Discourse of Science and Eugenics in Local News Coverage, 1905–1922, American Journalism, 37:4, 476-499, DOI: 10.1080/08821127.2020.1830627

Hochman, A. (2014, April 29). Race suicide. Eugenics Archive Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/535eedb87095aa0000000250

Kennedy, Lesley. “How Phyllis Schlafly Derailed the Equal Rights Amendment.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 19, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/equal-rights-amendment-failure-phyllis-schlafly.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race : Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics From the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.rider.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=112975&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Lange, Allison. “National American Woman Suffrage Association.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/nawsa-united.

Lange, Allison. “National Woman Suffrage Association.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/nwsa-organize.

Lange, Allison. “Opposition to Suffrage.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage. National Women’s History Museum, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/naows-opposition.

May, Elaine Tyler. America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Roepe, Lisa Rabasca. “Richard Nixon Sabotaged a Generation of Women, but Now Congress Has Another Chance – If It Can Pass Biden’s $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan.” Business Insider. Business Insider, August 15, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/care-economy-biden-nixon-veto-50-years-infrastructure-american-families-2021-8.


[1] Jane Roe, et al., Appellants, v. Henry Wade, Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute (United States Supreme Court 1973).

[2] Bethany Irvine, “Why ‘Heartbeat Bill’ Is a Misleading Name for Texas’ near-Total Abortion Ban.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, September 2, 2021. https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/02/texas-abortion-heartbeat-bill/.

[3] Bethany Irvine, Heartbeat Bill. 2021.

[4] Roe, Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute; Erin Douglas and Carla Astudillo, “We Annotated Texas’ near-Total Abortion Ban. Here’s What the Law Says about Enforcement.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, September 10, 2021. https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/10/texas-abortion-law-ban-enforcement/.

[5] Allison Lange, “National Woman Suffrage Association.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/nwsa-organize.; Allison Lange, “National American Woman Suffrage Association.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/nawsa-united.

[6]  Allison Lange, “Opposition to Suffrage.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage. National Women’s History Museum, Fall 2015. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/naows-opposition.

[7] Allison Lange, “Opposition to Suffrage.”

[8] Lesley Kennedy, “How Phyllis Schlafly Derailed the Equal Rights Amendment.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 19, 2020 https://www.history.com/news/equal-rights-amendment-failure-phyllis-schlafly.

[9] Lesley Kennedy.

[10]  Lesley Kennedy.

[11] Adam Hochman, (2014, April 29). Race suicide. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/535eedb87095aa0000000250

[12] Adam Hochman, Race Suicide.

[13] Ben J. Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? New York, NY: Pharos Books, 1987.

[14] Ben J. Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth.

[15] Susan Faludi, introduction to Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. (New York: Crown, 1991), xxii.

[16] Susan Faludi,  xix.

[17] Wendy Kline, 2001. Building a Better Race : Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics From the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 6.

[18] Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race, 159, 164.

[19] Estelle B. Freedman, “Reproduction: The Politics of Choice.” in No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, (New York:Ballantine Books, 2002), 233..

[20] Freedman, 234.

[21] Leroy G. Dorsey. 2013. “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16 (3): 423–56. doi:10.14321/rhetpublaffa.16.3.0423. 446,447.

[22] Lroy G. Dorsey. 2013. “Managing Women’s Equality”, 448.

[23] Elaine Tyler May, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 2011, 1.

[24] Elaine Tyler May, America and the Pill, 1.

[25] Elaine Tyler May, America and the Pill, 53-55.

[26] Rachel Grant and Cristina Mislán (2020) “Improving the Race”: The Discourse of Science and Eugenics in Local News Coverage, 1905–1922, American Journalism, 37:4, 476-499, DOI: 10.1080/08821127.2020.1830627, 476.

[27] Address by President Roosevelt before the National Congress of Mothers. Theodore Roosevelt Collection. MS Am 1541 (315). Harvard College Library.

[28] Address by President Roosevelt before the National Congress of Mothers. Theodore Roosevelt Collection. MS Am 1541 (315). Harvard College Library.

[29] Address by President Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt Collection.

[30] Address by President Roosevelt before the National Congress of Mothers.

[31] Theodore Roosevelt. “Dealing with the Black Man”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 244.

[32] Theodore Roosevelt. “Dealing with the Black Man”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches, 245.

[33] Theodore Roosevelt. “The Danger of ‘Race Suicide’”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 259.

[34] Theodore Roosevelt. “The American Birth Rate”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. Edited by Louis Auchincloss. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004, 520.

[35] Theodore Roosevelt. “The American Birth Rate”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches, 521.

[36] Theodore Roosevelt. “The American Birth Rate”, Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches, 522.

[37] “Richard Nixon and Daniel P. Moynihan on 7 October 1971,” Conversation 010-116, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002184

[38]  “Richard Nixon and Daniel P. Moynihan on 7 October 1971,” Conversation 010-116.

[39] Chuck Colson and Richard Nixon. “President Nixon and Chuck Colson Discuss the Supreme Court Decision Roe v. Wade.” Edited by Luke A. Nichter. Nixon tapes and transcripts. Accessed October 23, 2021. http://www.nixontapes.org/chron53.html.

[40] “Child Development Legislation Dies in House.” In CQ Almanac 1972, 28th ed., 03-914-03-918. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1973. http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal72-1249564.

[41] “Child Development Legislation Dies in House.”, 1973.

[42] “Richard Nixon and John B. Connally on 8 December 1971,” Conversation 016-044, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006696

[43] “Richard Nixon and Daniel P. Moynihan on 7 October 1971,” Conversation 010-116.

[44] Ben J. Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth

[45] Ben J. Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth

[46] Morris, Richard. “The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? by Ben J. Wattenberg (Pharos: $16.95; 182 Pp.).” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1987.; Shabecoff, Philip. “Warning on Births Provokes Dissent.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 23, 1987. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/23/us/warning-on-births-provokes-dissent.html.

[47] Jack Rosenthal. “President Vetoes Child Care Plan as Irresponsible.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 10, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/12/10/archives/president-vetoes-child-care-plan-as-irresponsible-he-terms-bill.html.

[48] Lisa Rabasca Roepe. “Richard Nixon Sabotaged a Generation of Women, but Now Congress Has Another Chance – If It Can Pass Biden’s $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan.” Business Insider. Business Insider, August 15, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/care-economy-biden-nixon-veto-50-years-infrastructure-american-families-2021-8.

[49] Lisa Rabasca Roepe. “Richard Nixon Sabotaged a Generation of Women”

Midwifery and Abortion in the Modern Curriculum

Midwifery and Abortion in the Modern Curriculum

Nora Sayed

Teaching sensitive topics in the classroom is difficult no matter the subject material. Especially when incorporating political ideologies and scientific disagreements. The science of childbirth has been a tumultuous one. The impact of women in the field of childbirth, and medicine in general, has often been overlooked due to the mostly male presence in the medical narrative. When doctors began to control the practice of childbirth and hospital births became more common, the history of midwifery took a downward turn. However, midwifery has been the central practice for childbirth for thousands of years. The definition of a midwife is a person (typically) a woman who is trained to assist in childbirth and has been a central figure in history in every culture globally. Midwifery is centrally important because it was the original practice of childbirth and pioneered the obstetric field. Not only did midwifery pioneer the obstetric field, but the ideology of a woman’s right to her own body. Midwives were often seen assisting, in some capacity, with women seeking abortions. When combining secondary education and specifically sensitive topics such as childbirth, and more specifically midwifery, the teacher should present the information, facts, history, and current events to the student and then guide them in making their decision. Due to the recent political activity regarding the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, allowing students to understand more about the medical history regarding midwifery as well as abortion could assist in them making a well-informed opinion.

Research regarding early modern midwifery states that despite it being the most common practice with regards to childbirth in human history, it only became a licensed medical profession in the 16th century. Comparatively to today’s standards, midwives played the role of multiple healthcare professionals and even social workers. The role of the midwife was to assist the new mother in any   way possible. Meaning she would visit the mother during pregnancy, assist with the labor and delivery process, and then return post-labor to teach the mother about her newborn and best care practices. Not only did midwives do all of these things, but they would also check on mothers to see if they were fit to care for their newborn child. Samuel Thomas has a Ph.D. in history with a focus on Early Modern England and taught history at the college level for ten years. He currently teaches at a high school in Cleveland Ohio and is an author of a series about Midwives in 17th century London. Thomas wrote an essay about the social importance of midwives in society as well as the lack of historical credit given to them.[1] This historical lack of credit accounts for the later shift in care in the obstetric field during the 17th century when childbirth became hospitalized. Along with this shift towards childbirth and obstetric care in general taking place in a hospital, the entire fundamental practice changed from constant care with the expecting mother to check ups and generalized advice. “Trained midwives delivered superb medical care and gave birthing women personal attention that physicians were too rushed to provide. It is suggested that the elimination of midwifery in the United States slowed the decline in infant and maternal mortality.”[2] Not only did this shift impact childbirth, it also stimulated the drastic change in the perception of abortion.

 In the 17th century abortion was seen as a mother’s choice with drugs being sold in drug stores that would induce miscarriage. After childbirth, and consequently OB/GYN care, was taken over my male practitioners in hospitals this viewpoint drastically changed. Which eventually led us to the modern debate over abortion in the United States. According to historian Leslie Regan, “At conception and the earliest stage of pregnancy, before quickening, no one believed that a human life existed; not even the Catholic Church took this view. Rather, the popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies.”[3] Contrary to popular belief, abortion was not banned by the Catholic Church canonically until 1869[4]. Midwives would often help women gain access to an abortion and would allow them the choice to do so. However, at the turn of the Progressive Era this practice became ‘taboo’ and was restricted; “The combined campaign to control abortion and midwifery took the form of a classic Progressive Era reform movement”[5].  This campaign to control abortion continues today with peaks and troughs such as the recent ban on legal abortion in Texas as of 2021.

When considering how these topics should be brought into the classroom it is important to consider the parameters of the subject. For instance during my field experience at Ewing High School in New Jersey this past fall I was able to observe a women’s studies class. This experience was very eye opening as it allowed me to see how different, less common topics, were tackled in the classroom. The teacher had Pro-Choice posters in her class, along with abortion on her curriculum as a discussion topic not be overlooked. Ground rules I have observed both in and out of the classroom when bringing up sensitive topics include: placing parameters and clear goals for the discussion topic; giving the students objective background information to prepare them; going through the topic with respect for opposing viewpoints or possible emotions; as well as allowing them time to summarize, reflect and ask questions. This basic framework works with any sensitive topic or current events issue. According to the National Education Association’s article on teaching sensitive topics in history, “One of the greatest challenges facing teachers right now is teaching our students to engage with hard histories in this specific historical moment,” says Rich, a director of research at the university’s Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Currently, everything feels particularly fraught, and we are unsure of where students and families fall across the highly polarized political spectrum.”[6] Despite the complicated political climate and sensitivity of the topics, these histories should not be left out of the classroom. Allowing students to analyze and learn about uncomfortable historical topics allows for more informed decision making in their future.

Although abortion and childbirth are somewhat obscure topics when it comes to the traditional curricula of the public school system there are ways to integrate them into the classroom. For World History classes, when discussing the Medieval Period and the Black Plague it is important to also touch on the overall medical sphere of the time period, and midwives were a huge character of that. Not only did midwives deliver babies and care for mothers, they continued to care for the delivered baby well into childhood acting almost as a family practitioner. The importance of midwifery can continue into US History 1 and 2 by integrating nurse-midwifery that gained its roots in the Civil War with the rising popularity of nursing, and later officially began in 1925.[7] These are some more abstract and creative ideas regarding midwifery in the classroom, whereas the famous 1973 Roe v Wade case can be touched on in both Civics and American History curriculums for its monumental impact on both second wave feminism and medical history.

The importance of history cannot be overlooked when the topic becomes unsavory. Despite abortion and midwifery being more high-level or sensitive issues to be debating in the classroom, there are tools and ways to allow for their discussion with students. Without teaching students about more thought-provoking topics they will never have the opportunity to make informed decisions thus creating uninformed citizens who will continue to misinterpret history. A teacher’s place is not one to force opinions or political standings on their students but to open their minds to new things that they might not have previously understood or heard of. The debate over legal abortion access will continue, and by informing our students of the history regarding it we will be able to have pride in their future decisions.

References:

Devitt N. The statistical case for elimination of the midwife: fact versus prejudice, 1890-1935 (Part I). Women Health. 1979 Spring;4(1):81-96. PMID: 10297450.

Dawley K. Origins of nurse-midwifery in the United States and its expansion in the 1940s. J Midwifery Women’s Health. 2003 Mar-Apr;48(2):86-95. doi: 10.1016/s1526-9523(03)00002-3. PMID: 12686940.

Hovey G. Abortion: a history. Plan Parent Rev. 1985 Summer; 5(2):18-21. PMID: 12340403.

Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. University of California Press, 1998.

Reagan LJ. Linking midwives and abortion in the Progressive Era. Bull Hist Med. 1995 Winter;69(4):569-98. PMID: 8563453.

Rosales, John. “Teaching the ‘Hard History’ behind Today’s News.” NEA. NEA Today, August 29, 2018. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/teaching-hard-history-behind-todays-news

Thomas, Samuel S. “EARLY MODERN MIDWIFERY: SPLITTING THE PROFESSION, CONNECTING THE HISTORY.” Journal of Social History 43, no. 1 (2009): 115–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20685350.


[1] Thomas, Samuel S. “EARLY MODERN MIDWIFERY: SPLITTING THE PROFESSION, CONNECTING THE HISTORY.” Journal of Social History 43, no. 1 (2009): 115–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20685350.

[2] Devitt N. The statistical case for elimination of the midwife: fact versus prejudice, 1890-1935 (Part I). Women Health. 1979 Spring;4(1):81-96. PMID: 10297450.

[3] Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. University of California Press, 1998.

[4] Hovey G. Abortion: a history. Plan Parent Rev. 1985 Summer;5(2):18-21. PMID: 12340403.

[5] Reagan LJ. Linking midwives and abortion in the Progressive Era. Bull Hist Med. 1995 Winter;69(4):569-98. PMID: 8563453.

[6] Rosales, John. “Teaching the ‘Hard History’ behind Today’s News.” NEA. NEA Today , August 29, 2018. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/teaching-hard-history-behind-todays-news.

[7] Dawley K. Origins of nurse-midwifery in the United States and its expansion in the 1940s. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2003 Mar-Apr;48(2):86-95. doi: 10.1016/s1526-9523(03)00002-3. PMID: 12686940.