Guest Column with Dr Louise Keogh

April 12 / 83

Dr Louise Keogh, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Women's Health, Gender and Society, School of Population Health
Dr Louise Keogh, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Women's Health, Gender and Society, School of Population Health

The oral contraceptive pill turned 50 last year, and it is timely to reflect on the progress
we have made in gender equality in fertility management. Historically, women have
taken all the responsibility for contraception and fertility management. Prior to 1960,
fertility was controlled through social means. Sex was only sanctioned within marriage,
yet, it was women who were expected to ensure sex did not occur outside of marriage,
and women who were more likely to suffer the consequences when it did.

But a lot has changed since then. Since the sexual revolution (in the 1960s and 1970s)
and the introduction of the pill in 1961, we have moved to controlling fertility through
technological means (mainly contraception). As a result, it is no longer the case that
men have the freedom to have sex and enjoy it, while women must either remain 'pure'
and 'virginal' until marriage, or suffer the social consequences if they do not.

In the brave new world promised by the sexual revolution, men would take equal
responsibility for contraception, and even child rearing and domestic work. It was
hoped that greater equality between men and women and greater freedom to
experience sex without fertility would deliver a better society.

But progress stalled somewhere along the way. We still don't have a male pill, and
women still rely mostly on the pill and condoms for contraception. We still have
persistently high abortion rates, for which women are held solely responsible. We have
not achieved the promised gender equality. But that does not mean we should stop
striving for it. The worst response to the remaining gender inequality is for a women to
think "It's just my relationship, my inability to communicate, negotiate, or to find a good
way to manage fertility". We should instead look outwards and ask, "Why we do not yet
have gender equality?" and "What happened to the promise of the sexual revolution?"

We should continue to aspire to a more equal society, better sharing of the easy and
hard tasks that have to be completed on the way to living fulfilling lives. Contraception
is as good a place to start as any. If we don't ask for better contraceptives that can be
shared equally between the sexes then there is NO chance they will be delivered.
Women should not accept that ownership of a womb implies a whole raft of social
responsibilities, whether it is thinking about, planning and ingesting contraceptives, or
being responsible for the child care, cleaning and cooking in heterosexual partnerships.

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