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.
Thousands of generations of men and women have lived under some variant of this order — some variations more benevolent, some more brutal, but all similar enough in form and intention — in all times and places, going back to where our memory of time ends. Look at it this way, and you get a striking perspective on just how world-changing it was when, within the span of just a few short decades in the middle of the 20th century, all of that suddenly ended. For the first time in human history, new technologies made fertility a conscious choice for an ever-growing number of the planet’s females. And that, in turn, changed everything else.
With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before. We could choose to delay childbearing and limit the number of children we raise; and that, in turn, freed up time and energy to explore the world beyond the home. We could refuse to marry or have babies at all, and pursue our other passions instead. Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by the men — education, the trades, the arts, government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.
That one fact, that one technological shift, is now rocking the foundations of every culture on the planet — and will keep rocking it for a very long time to come. It is, over time, bringing a louder and prouder female voice into the running of the world’s affairs at every level, creating new conversations and new priorities in areas where the men long ago thought things were settled and understood. It's bending our understanding of what sex is about, and when and with whom we can have it — a wrinkle that created new frontiers for gay folk as well. It may well prove to the be the one breakthrough most responsible for the survival of the human race, and the future viability of the planet.
But perhaps most critically for us right now: mass-produced, affordable, reliable contraception has shredded the ages-old social contracts between men and women, and is forcing us all (willing or not) into wholesale re-negotiations on a raft of new ones.
And, frankly, while some men have embraced this new order— perhaps seeing in it the potential to open up some interesting new choices for them, too — a global majority is increasingly confused, enraged, and terrified by it. They never wanted to be at this table in the first place, and they’re furious to even find themselves being forced to have this conversation at all.
It was never meant to happen. It never should have happened. And they’re doing their damndest to put a stop to it all, right now, and make it go away.
It’s this rage that’s driving the Catholic bishops into a frenzied donnybrook fight against contraception — despite the very real possibility that this fight could, in the end, damage their church even more fatally than the molestation scandal did. As the keepers of a 2000-year-old enterprise — one of the oldest continuously-operating organizations on the planet, in fact — they take the very long view. And they understand, better than most of us, just how unprecedented this development is in the grand sweep of history, and the serious threat it poses to everything their church has stood for going back to antiquity. (Including, very much, the more recent doctrine of papal infallability.)
That same frantic panic over the loss of the ancient bargain also lies that the core of the worldwide rash of fundamentalist religions. Modern industrial economies have undermined the authority of men both in the public sphere and in the private realms; and since they're limited in how far they can challenge it in the external world, they've turned women's bodies into the symbolic battlefield on which their anxieties over this play out. Drill down to the very deepest center of any of these movements, and you'll find men who are experiencing this change as a kind of personal annihilation, a loss of masculine identity so deep that they are literally interpreting it as the end of the world. (The first rule of understanding apocalyptic movements is this: If someone tells you the world is ending, believe them. Because for them, it probably is.)
They are, above everything else, desperate to get their women back under firm control. And in their minds, things will not be right again until they’re assured that the girls are locked up even more tightly, so they will never, ever get away like that again.
If you’re a woman of childbearing age in the US, you’ve had access to effective contraception your entire fertile life; and odds are good that your mother and grandmother did, too. If you're a heterosexual man of almost any age, odds are good that you also enjoy a lifetime of opportunities for sexual openness and variety that your grandfathers probably couldn't have imagined — also thanks entirely to good contraception. From our individual personal perspectives, it feels like we’ve had this right, and this technology, forever. We take it so completely for granted that we simply cannot imagine that it could ever go away. It leads to a sweet complacency: birth control is something that’s always been there for us, and we’re rather stunned that anybody could possibly find it controversial enough to pick a fight over.
But if we’re wise, we’ll keep our eyes on the long game, because you can bet that those angry men are, too. The hard fact is this: We’re only 50 years into a revolution that may ultimately take two or three centuries to completely work its way through the world’s many cultures and religions. (To put this in perspective: it was 300 years from Gutenberg’s printing press to the scientific and intellectual re-alignments of the Enlightenment, and to the French and American revolutions that that liberating technology ultimately made possible. These things can take a loooong time to work all the way out.) Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, in all likelihood, still be working out the details of these new gender agreements a century from now; and it may be a century after that before their grandkids can truly start taking any of this for granted.
That sounds daunting, though I don’t mean it to be. What I do want is for those of us, male and female, whose lives have been transformed for the better in this new post-Pill order to think in longer terms. Male privilege has been with us for — how long? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? Contraception, in the mere blink of an eye in historical terms, toppled the core rationale that justified that entire system. And now, every aspect of human society is frantically racing to catch up with that stunning fact. Everything will have to change in response to this — families, business, religion, politics, economics…everything.
We're in this catch-up process for the long haul. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be surprised to be confronted by large groups of well-organized men (and their female flunkies, who are legion) marshaling their vast resources to get every last one of Pandora’s frolicking contraception-fueled demons back into the box. And we need to accept and prepare for the likelihood that much of the history of this century, when it’s finally written, will be the story of our children’s ongoing struggles against the organized powers that intend to seize back the means of our liberation, and turn back the clock to the way things used to be.
What we’ve learned these past few weeks is: the fight for contraception is not only not over — it hasn’t even really started yet.