How women in politics can make life safer for all of us.
Posted Jan 07, 2019
This month, the most female and the most racially diverse group of freshman representatives were sworn into Congress. On this day in January, nearly half a century ago, women were in the Senate too—lots of them. But back then, the women were not our elected officials, nor were they invited speakers. But they did create much-needed change all the same.
It’s a good time to take a moment to remember what those women did for us:
Beginning in January 1970 and lasting for three months, the Senate heard testimony about the birth control pill. The hearings were sparked by concerns about dangerous side effects, which were ignited by a book written by female activist Barbara Seaman, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill that linked oral contraceptives to deadly strokes, heart attacks, depression, and weight gain. Her bestseller spotlighted on dangers that had, for the most part, been dismissed.
The vast majority of the testimony was by men, considered the experts on women’s health. But a group of so-called Women’s Liberationists sat in the back row hoping to add to the discussion. When the senators ignored them, they started yelling from their seats.
Among the rabble-rowers was Alice Wolfson, who was 29-years-old at the time. “We are not going to sit quietly any longer. You are murdering us for your profit and convenience,” she yelled.
She and the other women—about a dozen of them—returned everyday for months, at times shutting down the hearings when the men in charge found the women too distracting. Eventually though, the women got what they wanted and what we all needed: a lower dose, safer pill that included warning labels in every package.
Wolfson is now a San Francisco-based lawyer—a career inspirited by her early activism. She became a founding member of the National Women’s Health Network and founded the Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights. I spoke to her recently about her work then and now.
We should be thankful for Wolfson and her colleagues who stormed onto Capitol Hill uninvited and unwanted. Thanks to them we have safer birth control. Thanks to women like her we have watchdogs protecting us from other health dangers and fighting for our rights.
Beginning this month, we have a new crew of women who no longer need to be yelling from the back, but will have a much-needed voice to usher in healthy and socially just changes.