- Layering the LensesToward Understanding Reproductive Politics in the United States
About the time the Journal of Women’s History (JWH) began publication, I was starting out as a historian, drawing almost exclusively for my work on primary texts from the 1950s and ‘60s. I didn’t realize then that I was participating in the invention of a subfield: the history of reproductive politics in the United States.1 Since then, this arena has developed significant contours. A critical mass of work has appeared, layering new analytical lenses over foundational perspectives laid down in volumes predating the JWH, particularly the historian Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right (1976) and notably, books by two non-historians, the political scientist Rosalind Pollack Petchesky’s Abortion and Woman’s Choice (1984) and the scholar of development and population Betsy Hartmann’s Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (1987).2
I will start by naming a few of Petchesky’s and Gordon’s opening moves and then offer, in chronological order, what I take to be the field-shifting insights—the lens-crafting—of a group of additional authors. First, my disclaimers. I tried to focus on the work of historians exclusively, but in the end, five of thirteen works are by scholars in other fields who, nevertheless, have shaped or will shape the way historians think. Second, some of the thirteen implement key insights of other scholars, clarifying and operationalizing a new lens. Third, I am an Americanist, so the subject matter of the books I’ve included is mostly about the United States, though scholars of other areas have adapted some of the questions and approaches. At the end of the essay, I will name a number of additional volumes that have also been crucial to developing the field.
It goes without saying but must be said: my selections are predictable. I have been influenced by the same stand-out work as others have. But even more to the point, my own political preoccupations and scholarly commitments structure what work I think is transformative.
Finally, I’d like to say at the beginning instead of at the end that rereading all these books for this assignment has been an astonishing pleasure. At other times, as a reader, I’ve typically been reading for use, looking for something I need for my own thinking and writing. This time, I could simply and completely admire the stunning scholarship, coherence, and incisive writing that I found in each one. [End Page 101]
To an extent, much of what has developed in the field rests on Abortion and Women’s Choice (1984, revised 1990) by Petchesky, a political scientist who set frames, laid down first principles, and opened up questions that historians of reproductive politics have pursued. I will focus here on two of her insights, elaborated and tested in the text, that have been particularly important to historians over the past generation.
First, Petchesky insisted that the experience and politics of reproduction could not be captured by individualistic concepts such as “choice” or “the right to choose.” By its nature, she argued, reproduction is both an individual and a social event. She further showed that engaging in heterosexual intercourse; using contraception or not; getting pregnant as a teenager or as a mature woman, while married or not; getting an abortion; having a child—none of these events has intrinsic meaning. Each derives its social and personal significance from the historical and political context in which it occurs and according to the race, class, and other attributes of the persons involved.
Second, Petchesky clarified how, in the United States, reproductive politics has been repeatedly reshaped. As women achieved increased autonomy reproductively and otherwise, these successes stimulated successive “crises of patriarchy,” especially during periods of economic stress and unemployment similar to today. In the 1980s, for example, special gendered systems of discipline and punishment were devised by the neo-conservative state for women attempting, as Petchesky put it, “to survive and be sexual outside of the bounds of the traditional family.”3 Typically state policies have aimed to shore up the fraying patriarchal family and to favor private sector entities over public ones...