Trading in “Barefoot and Pregnant” for Economic and Reproductive Justice

As Congress works through the economic stimulus package, representatives need to keep in mind the connection between a woman’s need to determine her reproductive life and her ability to benefit from and contribute to economic recovery and growth. (This is an exclusive commentary I wrote for the Women’s Media Center.)

Arkansas State Senator Paul Van Dalsem got a roaring laugh in 1963 at the then all-male Optimist Club when he railed at women lobbying to improve educational opportunities for African Americans. He said his home county’s solution would be to get an uppity woman an extra milk cow. “And if that’s not enough, we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot.”

Fast forward to January 2009. The relevance of barefoot and pregnant remains central to an inclusive and just America. Economic parity and reproductive justice are still intertwined, not only in the lives of individual women; they are indivisibly connected to our economic recovery as well.

While the 111th Congress awaits President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration for action on his proposed $775-billion stimulus plan, it’s considering two important pieces of legislation not included in the recovery package. Each is treated in isolation as “women’s issues.” Yet both are integral to the success of Obama’s economic stimulus.

The Prevention First Act, sponsored by Representative Louise Slaughter and others to expand access to family planning and reproductive health care, was introduced January 13 to virtually no fanfare and little media coverage. Two gender pay equity bills—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act—passed the House of Representatives with a bit more hoopla a few days earlier. Here’s how they work together and with the economic recovery.

If a woman is to control anything in her life, she must first be able to control her own fertility—to decide whether, with whom, and when she will have sex, become pregnant, and bear a child. A Catholic priest first made the connection for me between economic and reproductive justice in three short sentences I’ll never forget: “The people in my parish are poor,” he said. “Who am I to tell them they should have a baby every year? I can’t feed or clothe their children for them.”

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It was 1969, just a few years after Senator Van Dalsem uttered his famous phrase; I was teaching kindergartners in the Head Start program housed at the priest’s church. Since I wasn’t Catholic, I didn’t know how radical it was for a priest to advocate for birth control. I did know that when I got the birth control pill, I had been able to start college, decide that the three children I had were wonderful but enough already, and consider career possibilities. My job with Head Start didn’t pay much but it moved my family a step beyond paycheck-to-paycheck.

If a woman can’t decide when to have a child, she can’t reliably enter the workforce to earn income for her family’s support, and she can’t contribute her skills to economic growth. That simple equation remains today, exacerbated by our economy’s slide into deep recession.

Conversely, economic power inherently gives women greater power within the family and in society. Virginia Woolf wrote that when her Aunt Mary bequeathed her 500 pounds a year, she found financial independence of more value than even the right to vote. She felt freed from slavery, because she “need not flatter any man” in order to have food, clothing, and shelter.

A woman needs economic equality to freely and successfully make her own choices about sex, pregnancy, and childbearing. As recent news stories of women selling their eggs and use of their wombs have poignantly illustrated, a tough economy can prevent people from having children they desperately want, or push them to use their reproductive capacities for economic necessity. In a New York Times Magazine story, for example, a woman who served as a surrogate was doing so to help pay for her daughter’s college tuition. The daughter in turn was contributing to her college costs by selling her eggs.

Fairness and gender equity benefit everyone. As Linda Hirshman argues in a recent op-ed, while Obama compares his infrastructure plan to the Eisenhower era construction of the interstate highway system,

It brings back the Eisenhower era in a less appealing way as well: there are almost no women on this road to recovery. … Fortunately, jobs for women can be created by concentrating on professions that build the most important infrastructure—human capital. In 2007, women were 83 percent of social workers, 94 percent of child care workers, 74 percent of education, training and library workers (including 98 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers and 92 percent of teachers’ assistants).

It’s simplistic to think that giving a woman access to preventive family planning services means she’ll find a great job in or out of the stimulus package. And families that plan and space their children don’t automatically become wealthy or happy.

Nevertheless, the fundamentals remain. For a thriving 21st century economy, America can’t afford to lose half its population’s contributions. The intersection between reproductive and economic justice must become as seamless today as “barefoot and pregnant” was in our history.

As a woman who used Title X funded birth control services—those to be expanded by the Prevention First Act—summed it up, “Times are hard and children are expensive.”

The Women’s Media Center (WMC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan organization making women visible and powerful in the media. Through our website, media training programs, and advocacy work, the WMC ensures that women are represented as they are: powerful newsmakers, informed experts, and sought-after media professionals. For more information, please visit I serve on the WMC board.

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