Last month, we traveled to Seattle for the National Popular Culture/American Culture Association Conference to deliver a talk about birth control advertising in the 1960s. Our talk titled “Easy for you to explain...easy for her to use”: Advertising the Pill” is part of a larger, long-term project that critiques the widely accepted popular narrative that the Pill heralded in a new era of women’s liberation and sexual freedom--because we have to ruin the women’s liberation movement for everyone too.
In our talk, we gathered advertisements for the pill and other contraceptives from medical journals between 1960-1965. These advertisements tell a very different story than popular memory has led us believe. These advertisements center the physician and his expertise (the physician is always a white man), and the female patient is removed as the subject of their own medical experience. Women, when they are represented at all, are portrayed as incompetent and forgetful and in desperate need of a physician to remind her to take her pills. This premise is, of course, ridiculous because for centuries women have been counting and tracking their cycles, whether they were hoping to avoid pregnancy or to become pregnant. These women are also white, married, and middle-class, while women of color, poor women, and single women are left out entirely, which has had long-lasting effects on how we view feminism, who has the fundamental right to reproduce, and who has access to reproductive health.
The conference itself was huge; larger than any conference either of us had attended before. Our panel on Advertising was well attended with a nearly-packed room. We submitted for a panel on Advertising rather than a subject area specifically about gender in the hope of inserting some feminist and gender theory into a panel that might not otherwise have it. This seemed like a good idea at the time.
Overall, people didn’t seem to know what to do with our research. During our talk, faces in the audience ranged from stony to disgusted to a little hostile. The talk was followed by a long awkward silence, which was punctuated by the panel chair saying “That was some dark stuff.” (*whispers* what if I told you that women’s history isn’t always celebratory and fun? *boop*)
Needless to say, no one had questions for us. Perhaps, we should have left out the analysis of the symbolism of the forceps, or at least not started off with it.
It’s easy to avoid issues of gender or feminist theory when panels are advertised as such. While we probably would have been better received and would have been given good feedback at a panel about gender or women’s studies, we think it’s still important to show that gender theory and analysis is not something separate from everything else.