The world is growing smaller for American women. Rights won in decades past are being carved away. The Birth Control Panel recently hit women’s rights in its most vulnerable target. Pending legislation and the personhood movement will more than likely continue to snip away at what young women have come to think of as unassailable rights.
When I was a pregnant teenager in a small Catholic town in 1970, men were in charge of women and the same issues that are making headlines today. I like to think the constraints of this kind of old-school small-town thinking wield very little power over me now that I’ve been a big-city person for more that thirty years, but it isn’t true. When I read my morning newspaper the feelings of desperation and damnation I experienced while struggling to keep my pregnancy secret in order to preserve my family’s good name rise up with a fresh dread.
The summer after my ordeal was over, I left my family, my town, and my friends for college in anther state, and after that, the west coast where I could be just another stranger in the City of Angels. Anonymity is a long leash. The tether is quite a bit shorter in a small town. People talk about you in line at the grocery store, or in the bank, or standing on the church steps Sundays when the weather is fine. In 1970 the unthinkable act of being discovered making love to a boy you plan to marry would have required slinking out of town in the dead of night while the church spires reached menacingly toward the heavens behind you. The shame of it all would have you still beating your breast as the sun rose, seeking sanctuary in somewhere with less open space, but more open minds. Piety and propriety cast long shadows in small towns.
When I became pregnant at the age of sixteen in October of 1969, my personal world and the larger world were both changing rapidly. Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the moon just a few months earlier. Two years before that, the social revolution embodied by the 1967 “Summer of Love” had taken place a half a continent away in San Francisco. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have occurred on the moon. I was much more familiar with the moon landing than I was with the goings on involving free love in the liberal landscape of California. I have a clear memory of vacationing at a campground in Kentucky while Neil Armstrong took those first steps for mankind in July of 1969. We campers lounged in folding chairs gathered around a black and white portable TV that someone had hooked to an electrical outlet at an RV site. I saw Neil bounding through the lunar dust that summer as the evening buzzed with the sounds of insects and conversation at the wonder of it all. I have no recollection of any discussion about the social upheaval that ensued when young people in San Francisco were experiencing their own release from gravity two years before.
Sex was a taboo subject in my small town. Millions of American women living in more open-minded places were already using the birth control pill by the time I started high school in 1966, but in my world even the word “rubber” was still spoken in hushed tones, and there was no place in my Catholic town of three thousand people that a high school girl or boy could have purchased one. In the preceding year of 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut had made information about birth control, and birth control itself, legal for married women, but for me, the subject of birth control was just as forbidden as the subject of sex. For Catholics, the freeing of those constraints was delayed even further when Pope Paul the VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed all types of birth control other than the rhythm method. The 1973 abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade was still a glimmer in some non-Catholic’s eye by the time I graduated from high school and left my small town forever the summer of 1970.
The fall weekend during my senior year of high school that changed my life and my son’s did not present many options. There was no way to prevent my pregnancy short of abstinence, which was something I didn’t quite manage on one particular Saturday night. Nine months later as I delivered my son without the support of family or friends, I took no consolation from the fact that I’d gotten pregnant during my very first sexual encounter.
The people in my hometown are the kind of people who judge you. They think they have a right to because their great-grandparents’ faces looked into the faces of your great-grandparents. They think they know you even if they don’t. They’re the kind of people who can ruin you, will tell you what they think and what to do, and then they’ll kill you with kindness. They’re the kind of people who’ll drive your car for a funeral so you can weep in the backseat on the way to the cemetery. They’re the kind of people who will give you the shirts off their backs, the fish they caught, deer meat for your freezer, and their last jar of homemade rhubarb jelly. If I had kept my son and brought him home, it would have been a scandal. I didn’t know then that there would come a time when they might forgive me.
Small towns can be wonderful places to grow up if you don’t step off the path and end up lying in the ditch. For those of us who have stumbled, big cities are a comfort. The urban cacophony of everyday life drowns out the voices of reproach in our heads, and we know that the hundreds of eyes that fall upon our faces each day have no knowledge of our past sins. A walk down a busy street in a city like New York or Los Angeles is a baptism that washes us clean. But as the walls in the world of women’s rights continue to close in, there may come a day where cities like Richmond, Tucson, Sioux Falls, South Bend, Miami, Minneapolis, and even Los Angeles and New York are indistinguishable from the 1970s town I grew up in. Women across the nation may be moving, traveling to a time and place we thought was history, and we won’t even have to pack.
photo credit: vintagesevensisters.tumblr.com