It’s easy to celebrate suffragettes in 2018, but contraceptive rights are a harder battle

Opponents of women’s rights over their own bodies remain in power. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A hundred years ago, some women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote for the first time, and women were allowed to stand for election as MPs. Without those two pieces of legislation, the annals of Parliamentary history would have no Barbara Castle, no Winnie Ewing, no Nancy Astor, no Alice Bacon, no Shirley Williams, no Mo Mowlam, no Diane Abbott, no Harriet Harman, and no Ann Widdecombe. No Anna Soubry would bark embarrassing questions at no Theresa May, and neither – hard to imagine – would come from the party of Margaret Thatcher. So there is no doubt that 1918 mattered.

But here’s another year, one that is not learned in school, and does not merit speeches in Parliament: 1961. The year the contraceptive pill was invented.

Suffragettes chaining themselves to railings and stealing out of bourgeois homes to rallies is undoubtedly a better story than researchers in labs (and definitely a better story than the decision to use poor women from Puerto Rico as test subjects). They are also of far more interest to the current occupants of Westminster, who love nothing more than putting past political activists on a pedestal. But it’s hard to imagine that a third of MPs would be women without access to birth control.

Until the late 1960s, an ambitious woman’s chance of a career meant either sacrificing conventional love and a family life, or being somehow catapulted into the top echelons of society where childcare could be outsourced (Thatcher, who was born in 1925, had both the emotional and financial support of her husband, as well as an inordinate amount of self-belief and a university degree). A 2000 paper by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that in the United States, women’s enrolment in higher education jumped in the early 1970s, as did the age of first marriage among college-educated women. “A virtually foolproof, easy to use, and female-controlled contraceptive having low health risks, little pain, and few annoyances does appear to have been important in promoting real change in the economic status of women,” the report concluded.

Of course, as the report was careful to acknowledge, the invention of contraception is only part of the story. The pill was initially restricted in circulation: in the UK, GPs were slow to prescribe it. Only in 1967 did Parliament pass the National Health Service (Family Planning) Amendment Act, which allowed unmarried women to get the same advice as married ones, although it took another seven years to be properly implemented. In the same year, Parliament passed the Abortion Act, which legislated that an abortion could take place if there were significant health risks to the pregnant woman or her unborn child.

As this suggests, the idea that women should be allowed to have control over their bodies remains far more controversial than the idea that they can look at a list of prospective MPs, and make a rational decision. More than 50 years on from the invention of the contraceptive pill, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, talked about as a future Prime Minister, can declare that women who terminate a pregnancy after rape are committing “a second wrong”. Women in Northern Ireland, now represented in Westminster almost exclusively by the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party, still cannot access abortion in their home country. Today, debates about democracy in the world, Saudi Arabia excluded, barely bother with the bizarre notion that the franchise should be extended only to men. Yet under Donald Trump, the US has eroded the rights of women to get access to contraception, both at home and in the developing world.

Women would not be as prominent in politics and other professions today, if not for both contraception and the legislation that gives them access to it. It’s easy for those celebrating women in Parliament today to scoff at the men who, a hundred years ago, opposed women putting a cross on a piece of paper. But there are still those within Parliament who wield real power and oppose on principle the idea that women should have a say over their own bodies.

Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, and the former digital news editor of the New Statesman. She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Free trial CSS