Sex, Reproduction and Oral History

Holly Ashford

The Gender and Sexuality History Workshop hosted its last speaker of the term a couple of weeks ago. Roseanna Webster gave a nuanced and intimate view of the fight for reproductive rights in the Spanish barrios. Her paper, entitled: Reproductive Rights in Spain’s Barrios During the 1970s navigated  geographical and class divides to explore how birth control reached the neighbourhoods of Spain’s cities in the 1970s. Given my own research on women’s reproductive health in the very different context – Ghana – but in a similar time period, I was very interested to hear Roseanna’s paper!

Roseanna demonstrated the conflict between ideologies for birth control. Marxist inspired, young, urban, feminists sought to lead the sexual revolution by entering neighbourhood spaces and telling barrios women about their rights to sexual and reproductive freedoms. On the other hand, barrios women were keen to organise for birth control, but for the most part on a materialist level. They framed their freedom from giving birth to child after child into conditions of poverty, as an economic matter.

Roseanna’s paper came alive through her discussion of oral history. Her interviews evidently gave her insights into women’s – both the ‘young feminist’ and the ‘neighbourhood housewife’– lives’. Quoting the voices of these women directly, Roseanna succeeded in telling their stories from their point of view. More than that, she demonstrated through her analysis of oral testimonies, that moments of discomposure highlighted fragmented disconnects in women’s reflections. Navigating the past through the lens of the present proved challenging for women reflecting on their experiences. It was fascinating to hear that women struggled to express their involvement in contraceptive campaigns, simply because they did not have the language back then. One woman, for example, did not know the word for ‘vagina’ until a family planning clinic opened in her neighbourhood. I was reminded of the importance of educating women about their own bodies so that they have the capacity to make decisions that affect their reproductive health.

How women framed themselves provided the core of Roseanna’s story. For example, Dulce Gallego was just fourteen years old when she became involved with Marxist activists because she fancied some of the guys – a very honest and human reflection on motivation so often absent in written sources! She was shocked by the experiences of the older women she met who were primarily mothers and housewives, and very quickly began to define herself in dialogue with these women. She, and other young feminists, sought to reveal to older women that sexual pleasure could be divided from its reproductive purpose. Amusingly, Roseanna said that the older women did not always tolerate being preached to about sex by younger women. However, she was keen to stress that this wasn’t a matter of strict dichotomies being formed between women of different classes, education or geographies. Rather, feminist rhetoric oscillated between othering ‘neighbourhood’ women, and relating to them.

Roseanna’s comments forced me to reflect on my own experience with oral history. I interviewed elderly Ghanaian women about their reproductive lives between the 1950s and 1980s. Women often framed their experiences in relation to the present, claiming that in their time, there was no contraception available, and in any case it was not necessary because, unlike today, the economy was healthy enough for them to provide for the many children they gave birth to. Their daughters and granddaughters use/d contraception because they could no longer afford to support such big families. The fact that women frequently told me that they spaced their children by around five years – as later family planning advice suggested – again suggests a composition of the past based on what is seen as ‘correct’ in the present. Other moments in interviews suggest discomposure – women either being unable or unwilling to describe aspects of their reproductive lives was often solved by reference to God. It was God who decided how many children women would have, not them.

Religion, perhaps surprisingly, did not play a big part in Roseanna’s paper. Although the Catholic Church was, in theory, opposed to contraception. In practice, this was more complicated. Roseanna drew on Agata Ignaciuk and Teresa Ortiz Gomez’ work to suggest that certain Catholic groups and (male) health experts were increasingly engaged in open discussions about contraception in the press in the mid-1960s in relation to wider transnational changes effected by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, Roseanna told us that social Catholic groups were open to the idea of contraception from around the mid-1960s because of the benefits it afforded. I’ve also seen this in the case of Ghana, where the Christian Council was the first organisation to open a Family Planning clinic in the country in 1961. Its motivation was to secure healthy and stable Christian family life, and it saw family planning as an ally in this, rather than an enemy.

Ultimately, in Spain, a grassroots exchange of knowledge, communication through gossip and jokes, an importation of internationalist campaigns, feminist discourses and materialist needs all contributed to the genealogy of contraception provision in Spain. The synthesis of ideas, conversations, perspectives and experiences was what provided the depth and nuance to Roseanna’s paper.

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