Browsing the many articles and informational pages on popular and mainstream feminist websites, I notice that access to birth control and sex education is an issue that often stands at the forefront of their individual agendas and ideologies. It is often not difficult to find dissent among different feminist writers about topics such as whether Beyoncé is truly feminist, or if she is merely using the term to achieve greater economic success; or whether wearing heels and makeup and other stereotypically “sexy” clothing makes one less of a feminist or not; or whether one can be feminist but not ascribe to all facets of leftist political philosophies – I have run across many such articles and social media posts along these lines over the years, as I’m sure most other women have as well who spend any time on the internet and listening to public radio. But one thing that seems to act as a kind of inter-organizational glue, and something which binds together feminists of all persuasions, is the idea that all women (regardless of race, economic status, education, etc.) should have equal access to contraception, as this statistically improves the quality of life (at least according to modern, Western standards) of women, allowing them to pursue their dreams and careers and to only conceive when they choose.
And yet, upon a little bit closer inspection, something stands out as an oddity: that is, most of the time when these articles and social media posts and informational pages are speaking about birth control, it is specifically hormonal birth control that takes the center stage. The “pill” (broadly used to encapsulate – pun intended – all the different varieties of hormonal birth control that come in the form of pills) and other hormonal birth control methods including the hormonal IUDs Mirena, Skyla, and Liletta; the Depo-Provera Medroxyprogesterone birth control shots; progestin-releasing birth control implants such as Implanon and Nexplanon; transdermal patches; vaginal rings such as the NuvaRing; and even emergency “morning after” contraceptives such as Plan B One-Step are all spoken about and promoted to the near exclusion of other methods of birth control which exist. Two exceptions to this are the fairly-frequently mentioned ParaGard non-hormonal copper IUD (which works by causing an inflammatory reaction in the body, creating an environment inhospitable to sperm) and, of course, the good ol’ condom.
I have two main critiques of this reality, which will open up an exploration of this topic, and ultimately will provide a plausible answer to the question, “Is hormonal birth control inherently feminist?”
Firstly, women are often given incomplete information and education regarding their bodies and their contraception. It seems that many women are not fully educated (from childhood and puberty onward) with the complete science of their fertility and related body systems. Having this knowledge is often termed “body literacy”. Tying in with this, when women do not fully understand how their bodies work, they also as a result do not fully understand how birth controls work to prevent pregnancy (even simply how ovulation and menstruation are inseparable events, and that the latter cannot occur without the former).
Secondly, many doctors do not present women with all of the options for contraception that are available, such that women have limited choice. Paired with a lack of information about potential adverse health effects from the methods, they also lack autonomy of choice. Anecdotal evidence reveals that many women feel that they are not adequately educated regarding the range of side effects that birth controls can and often do cause. Along with this, many women feel pressured into taking hormonal birth control from a very young age (to treat “irregular” periods, PMS, acne, hormonal imbalances, etc.), and as a result many women are on hormonal birth controls long before they are informed of all the different methods of birth control that are available, and of the long-term effects of being on these medications.
Holly Grigg-Spall, in her book Sweetening the Pill, or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, questions the entire premise that hormonal birth control is feminist. She herself took many different variations of the drugs over many years, and now numbers herself among “survivors” of (especially) Yaz and Yasmin, which contain Drospirenone and Ethinyl Estradiol (synthetic versions of progesterone and estrogen) and are among the most controversial of the methods – having caused mood disorders , pulmonary embolisms (some resulting in loss of ability to pursue careers further), lost limbs due to blood clots, sometimes permanent loss of libido, and exacerbated hormonal imbalances. In her book, she speaks about Bayer Pharmaceuticals, the producer of Yaz and Yasmin, demonstrating how they popularized their drugs on an essentially misogynist premise. In the Victorian era, women were frequently diagnosed with hysteria, which was thought to have been a result of the fact that women’s ovaries were constantly at war with her brain, as the two fought for predominance. Women were told that they were weakened due to this “fact” of their biology, and this pushed the idea that the ideal, most “feminine” woman is weak, in need of constant rest, and is easily upset. The medical industry effectively convinced women that the natural biological state of their bodies was inherently pathological and that womanness necessitated passivity. This passivity was primarily a privilege of upper-class women, who were therefore seen as more feminine than their poorer, working-class counterparts. On top of this, most medical studies of the human body were male-centric, meaning that the female body with its unique organs was an aberration, as it were, from “normal” (that is, male) biology. Males were not thought to experience hormonal fluctuations (though this too is false), and so the natural, predictable hormonal fluctuations within women were seen as an unruliness that required taming and controlling.
Yet, this type of thinking has its roots far deeper in history than the Victorian era. In one episode of the well-researched women’s health podcast Fertility Friday, feminist and body literacy instructor Lisa Hendrickson-Jack interviewed Geraldine Matus (founder of Justisse International, a Canadian school which teaches women secular, science-based, non-hormonal birth control and body literacy). In this episode, entitled “Fertility Awareness, Feminism, and Reproductive Freedoms”, Matus traces the fear of feminine biology and the things that it does (menstruate, give birth, nurse) to an ancient ‘fear of the feminine’. She references Erich Neumann (author of The Fear of the Feminine, and other essays on feminine psychology ), who through his research found that historically, humans learned to fear nature because it was unpredictable and could not be controlled. Throughout history, nature and femaleness have been correlated, as both produce new life, and sustain current life. Yet, as Matus and Neumann explore, the fear of unpredictable nature was translated into a fear of the uncontrollable feminine woman. Tracing this lineage, they believe that even our modern conceptualization of female biology is seen as a force to be quelled, controlled.
With this ideological groundwork laid, and firmly entrenched in the societal psyche, it was not a far leap for pharmaceutical companies to frame their new hormonal contraceptives as the ultimate liberative tool. But I find it disturbing that, rather than seeking to overturn the false idea that female biology is inherently pathological or deviating from normal, and needs regulating, 20th-century feminism largely accepted the idea, and framed their developing discussions of liberation upon the premise that biology is a burden. In other words, rather than seeking liberation from a system that views female biology as erratic and inconvenient and untamed, we have perhaps accepted this misogynistic thinking as fact and instead sought to be falsely liberated from our own biology, our own womanness, because it is intolerable to society. Yet, undermining our body’s correct functioning states actually diminishes our well-being and (yes) even our productivity.
Resultantly, even healthful, necessary biological functions such as menstruation, or ovulation with its accompanying cervical fluids, are seen as unwanted and (as the male-centered medical ideal has no female reproductive system) are essentially unnecessary except when a woman is trying to conceive children. On the contrary, however, the shutting down of these functions diminishes a woman’s freedom to be untethered (rather than freeing her from her biology) and her liberation is dependent on substances which temporarily sterilize her, whilst 150 other body functions are affected by this disturbance to what is rightly a harmoniously functioning system. The female body is not supposed to work like clockwork, but is rather affected by the woman’s emotional, mental, physical, and nutritional health, and the body knows when it is unsafe and often hormonally delays ovulation (the releasing of an egg) until the perceived environmental danger/stressor is removed. With full body literacy, women are able to observe this, and can then make fully informed choices regarding how best to support their needs at any given time.
In the book Woman in the Body: A cultural analysis of reproduction, Emily Martin writes that ‘Women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones out of balance [especially during PMS and menstruation, as Holly Grigg-Spall notes], rather than society and work perceived as in need of transformation to demand less constant discipline and productivity.’ In a society that is driven by capitalism, it seems right to be wary of any corporation or large body of a lucrative profession that seeks to tell women how they are supposed to function. In a capitalistic society, a machine is almost an ideal, higher than humanness, because it is consistent and its productivity can be measured and predicted. With humanness, however, comes fluctuation and rhythm, and this is seen as unpredictable. So imagine the perceived boon to society and womankind when drugs are made available which allow women to shut down their fluctuations and to (supposedly) be able to work constantly.
This masculinization (regulation, as men are perceived as being in a steady state) of women eliminates the uniquely female pattern of productivity, which allows for just as much effort and creativity, but according to a different pattern. Many women currently are tapping into the idea of “cycle syncing”, in which they learn and observe the different phases of the fertility cycle (menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, luteal). With this knowledge, a woman knows that she communicates most effectively around ovulation, because her estrogen levels are at their highest, and it is at this time that she plans important meetings and conversations. She also knows that after menstruation and before ovulation she has her highest levels of testosterone, which allows for the most productivity and focus. Knowledge of these patterns enables a body-literate woman to focus her life around her female biology, in a way that actually increases her ability to function and work effectively. When the body is suppressed, these hormonal patterns cannot occur and, besides increasing the likelihood of cancers and osteoporosis, in the long run, can immediately impact a woman’s ability to be creative and productive.
So rather than adapt the woman to an unhealthy society, many feminists (as the ones I’ve cited) believe that true progress and liberation will be found when society accepts to adapt to the woman and her particular strengths.
Likewise, with birth control, there are many non-hormonal methods with efficacy rates that are close to or just as effective at preventing pregnancy (another taboo, when the woman pregnant is deemed by society to be unfit for pregnancy, whether due to age, race, or economic status). Barrier methods (which decreased in popularity with the rise of hormonal birth control – not a good thing for preventing STIs!) such as condoms are highly effective at preventing both pregnancy and STIs. And thousands of women around the world are using modern science-based methods called Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs). With increasing scientific capabilities and knowledge, it is known exactly how the hormones of the female body change through the cycle and the observable symptoms correlated with those hormonal events are known to be absolutely reliable biomarkers of a woman’s fertility status on any given day. Obsolete methods such as the Rhythm Method have been incorrectly equated with FABMs, and even sources such as Planned Parenthood, Bedsider, and the CDC give false efficacy rates for FABMs, confusing them with the Rhythm Method. This misinformation is also present in the medical field, such that women seeking to pursue this highly effective (99.6% with perfect use, which is achievable with accurate instruction) method of non-invasive, non-hormonal birth control are generally discouraged from doing so by their medical care providers. Many millennial women trust FABMs to prevent pregnancies, and have zero intention of ever conceiving in their lives! These methods have the added benefit (for women, not necessarily for the pharmaceutical industry) of being free, and once they are learned a woman may use the knowledge to either conceive or prevent pregnancy for the duration of her fertile years, regardless of her economic status, race, or any other circumstances. She also can know her hormonal and nutritional health, as all of these things are tied in with fertility. Yet, due to misinformation, many doctors strongly discourage women from using FABMs, citing the false efficacy rates, and the difficulty (yet again) of understanding the workings of the female body.
With accurate information and complete access to all methods of contraception, women can choose for themselves which methods can best fit their lives and circumstances. Women should be able to decide for themselves which risks they are willing to take and whether a pregnancy is appropriate for them. The ability to control one’s contraceptive choices with absolute autonomy is, I believe, the ultimate feminist act. Yet when mainstream feminism only largely supports those methods which suppress the body’s functioning, and when education systems don’t fully inform girls of their biology (for fear, often, that they will become pregnant at a time that is societally deemed to be inappropriate) women’s access to full choice and reproductive autonomy is undermined.
For these reasons, while hormonal birth controls are one option among many, I do not believe that they are inherently feminist, as they were developed upon the misogynist premise that women’s bodies needing controlling/suppressing, and that women need regulation in order to function most freely and productively in society. Feminism, as defined by the Feminist Majority Foundation, is ‘the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic, and social equality for women’. Surely equality for women is that state in which a woman (as her complete self) can be equally as accepted as men, without the requirement to change or adapt.