Elaine Tyler May is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, whose research focuses on gender, sexuality, reproduction and culture. She is the author of half a dozen books, including Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America, Pushing the Limits: American Women 1940-1961 and Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Her latest book, America and the Pill, about the advent and impact of the birth control pill, comes out in May. As she explained to me, she feels that the Pill is a crucial part of women’s history, but it’s also a part of her own personal history – both her parents were involved in the development of the Pill. Professor Tyler May, a Fulbright scholar and the President-elect of the Organization of American Historians, is a perfect example of how to study women and feminism in a range of disciplines, all of which are connected – intersectionality is the name of her game.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Elaine Tyler May.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to your research on the cultural history of reproduction on America and specifically to your new book on the Pill?
Elaine Tyler May: I have always been interested in women’s issues and women’s history, and the intersections between public policy and how people live their lives have always been at the center of the work I do. Reproductive life has been an issue that I’ve studied in a number of contexts, so when the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill appeared on the horizon, it seemed like a great opportunity to look at the fifty years since the Pill was first approved by the FDA, and what that half-century had really meant for women and the role it played in the gains that women have made in that time.
I also have a personal connection to the Pill because my father was one of the developers of it and my mother was also involved in the early birth control movement and helped to set up a number of free birth control clinics in Los Angeles, so both my parents were very involved in reproductive rights and I kind of grew up with that. So those two things came together – my interest in women’s issues and women’s history, and my own personal history growing up the daughter of two birth control pioneers.
CA: Who are your favorite fictional heroines and who are your heroines in real life?
ETM: I don’t have that many fictional heroines; because I’m a historian I tend to focus on people who are real, and my fictional heroines are often based on real people. For example, Vyry in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee is a wonderful heroine, because she’s someone who really represents the struggles of slave women who grew up in that era and went on to be strong women who were able to move into and accept and embrace freedom and not be crushed by their own personal experiences. It is a fictional book, but Walker based it on her own family history, and I’m inspired by those kinds of stories.
As for my real life heroines, there are thousands of them. There are writers like Margaret Walker who are able to retrieve this history and bring it to life in creative ways through fiction and non-fiction. There are the movers and shakers that everyone knows about, the Eleanor Roosevelts of the world.
I have some personal favorites that come from my work in women’s reproductive rights. Some of them are obviously very well known, people like Margaret Sanger, but some of them are less well known, people like Katherine McCormick, who along with Sanger was a mother of the Pill. She was quite an amazing woman: a feminist early on in the early twentieth century, and one of the major activists involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She was one of the first women to graduate from MIT, so she was a scientist at a time when very few women were.
She married into a huge amount of wealth, and shortly after her marriage her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she used a lot of those resources to invest in research into mental illness. After he died, she turned her attention to reproductive rights, because she and Margaret Sanger had known each other for decades. It was a time when nobody, literally nobody, would put a penny into contraceptive research. In the 1950s the government wouldn’t touch it, the pharmaceuticals wouldn’t touch it – it was considered some kind of scandalous exercise and they were afraid of public opinion. So Sanger and McCormick got together and launched the research for the Pill: Sanger had the connections and McCormick had the scientific knowledge and the money. So really, it was Catherine McCormick’s money and energy that brought us the birth control pill.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
ETM: Just about every time I pick up the newspaper I want to bang my head against the wall. I’m going completely berserk over the inability to get the healthcare bill through. Everything I read about that makes me want to back my head against a wall. Everywhere I turn, President Obama is signing a bill that allows guns in National Parks – bad enough that we have conceal and carry in forty or more states, but now we’re getting conceal and carry laws in our National Parks? I just feel like every time I pick up the newspaper there’s more bad news. I’m a discouraged optimist, so I want to hold on to the hope that the progressive forces in this country that elected Obama will eventually prevail and be able to provide him with the support he needs to move in the right direction.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
ETM: The right wing. They are very, very well organized, they’re anti-feminist and anti-reproductive rights, and they’re so savvy about the use of media, images and language. They’re the ones who can hijack issues that are of such great importance to women, and feminists really need to find ways to capture those claims back from that radical right wing. I think most people in the United States do not agree with the right wing on these issues, but somehow, they’ve been bamboozled by the political and media savvy of the right wing, and we really need to be able to respond to that.
CA: You’re going to a desert island and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you choose?
ETM: I would take chocolate, red wine and Eleanor Roosevelt. I may not live long on that island, but I will live well and I will never be bored.