Bitter Lessons

By Andi Powers

Photo of Margaret Rose McCullough, provided by the author.

There is a story the women in my family love to tell. It has been shared through three generations at countless family get-togethers. It is our own small piece of women’s history. The tale stars Margaret Rose McCullough, my grandmother. Margaret was born, worked, and died amongst the red dust and sagebrush of Wyoming ranches. By necessity the women of her family passed down practical knowledge for navigating the demands of rural life.

As the story goes, one day in the 1930s, Margaret was working in her modest kitchen. A traveling salesman happened by to peddle his wares. What treasures the salesman was hawking that day has been lost to history; however, what Margaret was making in her kitchen was not. She was whipping up a batch of homemade contraception. I know what you are wondering. No, you do NOT eat it, it was a pessary for the barrier method. Complete ingredients currently unknown, but it did include pine tar. Yes, well at least anecdotally effective, Margaret had her first child over ten years into her marriage and her three children were evenly spaced out (each four years apart).

Mrs. McCullough and her visitor stood in the kitchen where a cookie sheet sat on the stove. The cookie sheet was filled with a smooth, dark substance cut into small pieces. Before she knew what was happening, the salesman popped a piece into his mouth. Horrified, and a bit of a prude, Margaret said nothing to her visitor about his mistake. The salesman, too, was silent (although he would have immediately known by the taste he had made a grievous error). Surely he thought Mrs. McCullough made the most awful homemade fudge. He most likely left the ranch that day with an abundance of pity for this dreadful cook’s poor family. Margaret’s demure nature did not keep her from telling this embarrassing story to her daughters. Later when her daughters told their daughters, we laughed together at the account of the salesman who ate Margaret’s homemade birth control.

In the past, when thinking of this story, I often ruminated on the starkly different lives my grandmother and I have lived. Worlds apart, really. But recently, I have thought of this family tale in a much different light. Many Americans are worried their rights are at risk under the current administration. Access to birth control, health screenings, STD treatment, and other aspects of reproductive healthcare are currently at a precipice. The targeting of reproductive health care rights is being described as a war. The hashtag #waronwomen is trending on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. And it is not just social media users who are anxious about these issues. The ACLU has released the slogan: “Our Granddaughters Should Not Have To Fight The Battles Our Grandmothers Won.” An apt sentiment. The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Trump’s War on Women Begins. Likewise, the byline in an article from Mother Jones reads, “A new front has opened in the war on women”. Similar stories about the “war on women” have been published by most news outlets. However, a search on Fox for current articles about “reproductive healthcare” produced no results. A search for “war on women” did return a single article in the opinion section. There were no results in the news or health care sections, which raises concerns about the availability of information about these issues. It appears a wave of change approaches.

Where will the changing tide take us? Should we expect a new round of Comstock Laws (passed in 1873 and not entirely repealed until 1983) to shame us and limit access to medical services? Will those corny (but educational) pamphlets with diagrams of lady parts at the doctor’s office soon be censured by our government? Will contraception be labeled obscene? This is not a new war; yet, we find ourselves fighting the same battles we thought our parents and grandparents had already won. I am grateful to have access to reproductive healthcare. I am thankful my circumstances do not require I make my own contraception. Still, conditions may change. Presently many Americans struggle to obtain quality medical services. A struggle which may face many more people in this country very soon. The Guttmacher Institute reports that Title X (which is currently at risk of being rescinded by Congress) funded healthcare centers provide reproductive health care to over four million people a year. Planned Parenthood alone provided services to 2.5 million people (both women and men) in 2014. In addition, over half of Planned Parenthood facilities are in rural locations and other medically underserved areas. The disparities in access to healthcare will only be exacerbated by restrictions on reproductive rights.

When faced with the realities of 2017 in America, I began to realize my grandmother and I do, indeed, live in the same world. As it turns out, I have much in common with the woman who stood in that ranch kitchen some 80 years ago when a man took something he did not understand without asking. However, I am also reminded the salesman was left with a bitter taste in his mouth, and when he departed my grandmother could not help but smile.  Regardless of politics and presidents, the women in my family will tell our stories to the next generation and continue to laugh when we do. But we will also remain vigilant —and we will persist.

Andi is an American studies PhD student at Montana State University.


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