Wednesday, April 9th, 2003

Help with history, please!

Filed under: history of feminism,movies,sex,women — alison @ 22:00

Anne and I have just been to a very sweet documentary-style fictional film set and made in 1964 (first in a series of films relating to the lecture we attended last week on themes of identity in Québécois cinema).

Ok, now the two central characters are the enchanting Barbara (18, anglophone and jewish) and her doleful, broody, critical, self-centred boyfriend Claude (20, francophone and pure-laine). They are beats or hipsters, I guess: they and their friends are either unemployed, in theatre or in journalism, they listen to jazz, they smoke a lot and wear black. Anyway, they can’t be hippies because the word was only invented in 1965. They talk earnestly about the bourgeoisie and the Revolution. Barbara’s mother isn’t thrilled about her sleeping with Claude but doesn’t appear to believe there’s anything to do about it.

1) In 1964 the Pill exists but is very new and is illegal in Canada. Condoms and diaphragms are not new but are also illegal. Abortion is very illegal.

Birth control history timeline (west/US):

Birth control history timeline (Canada):

Deduction: Barbara probably isn’t on the Pill. She probably doesn’t have a diaphragm or jelly either, and she certainly can’t walk into a drugstore and buy condoms.

2) Barbara lives with her parents in a nice part of town, and she’s a student. Having children right now would presumably be a problem for her. She isn’t living on a commune with a lot of trippy naked people happily imagining the revolution that will happen when her free children take over the world. (That won’t be a popular option for a few more years, anyway.)

So my question is: what does it mean to Barbara to be having sex when birth control is not an option and children are not part of the immediate plan?

I seem to remember from my British feminist history a lot of grousing by women revolutionaries who put lots of time into marxist studies and who only years later figured out that the free love, marriage-is-a-prison revolutionary philosophy affected them differently from their male comrades. (Consciousness-raising – “the personal is political” – was invented in 1968, but that was around the time that reliable birth control became generally legal and available anyway. A little late.) But I’m afraid that at the time I was investigating feminist history I didn’t have a lot of attention or concern to spare for women feeble-minded enough to be straight.

Am I to understand that Barbara has rejected the bourgeois values of proper deportment without thinking about what that will mean for her? I’m all for Barbara taking control of her own sexuality, but I suspect she hasn’t.

I’m not worried about Barbara in particular. She’s (at least partially) a fictional character. But modern free love has been around and promoted by women since Mary Wollstonecraft (she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1791), long before the availability of reliable birth control. Mary Wollstonecraft thought that women should have the means to earn their own livings; Barbara doesn’t appear to have many thoughts at all beyond wanting to be free and loved.

Is that what happened? Women just didn’t think? Is my fretting about birth control simply an artifact of my having grown up with it, rather like I grew up with access to education? If it wasn’t around to want, did people just not think of their actions in those terms?

Or do I have this all wrong, and the black market in birth control was thriving nicely, thank you very much?

Or was it a kind of fatalism, that birth wasn’t something you could control so you didn’t think about trying. And rather than confine oneself to one’s parents’ parlour, one would run out and embrace life, embrace the future whatever it held?

(Note that in these questions I have left Claude out completely. He is so self-centred that it probably doesn’t occur to him that Barbara might get pregnant. If she did he would think it was something she did on purpose to bother him. He certainly wouldn’t marry her. At least I hope he wouldn’t: then she’d have both of them to look after…)

[originally transmitted by e-mail April 9, 2003]

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