Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reproductive Rights: American Social History in the Making--and Retelling--in the Pioneer Valley

Many citizens are familiar in general terms with the controversial Supreme Court "Griswold decision" (Griswold v. Connecticut) of 1965, which legalized contraception for married couples but made it illegal to display or advertise contraceptive products.  Few of us, however, realize that an important step in challenging that bizarre ruling took place right here in the Pioneer Valley:
It was a mob scene. On April 11, 1968, some 200 college students and Valley residents joined reproductive-rights activist Bill Baird in a demonstration outside the Zayre's department store in Hadley on the site of present-day TJ Maxx store.
. . . .
That day, Baird had walked into Zayre's and legally purchased a can of contraceptive foam and a copy of Modern Bride magazine, which carried an ad for the product. Outside, in front of the store, he showed the foam and the magazine to the crowd, challenging local police to enforce the law, including arresting the attorney general for the sales tax collected on the product.
Among those present was Smith theater professor Leonard Berkman.  Now, Len and his wife, our University of Massachusetts colleague in US and women's history, Joyce Berkman, have collaborated on a major new work that recalls and interprets Baird's campaign, set to open next week at UMass:
Baird's lifelong crusade, nearly lost in the annals of reproductive rights for women, will take center stage next week at UMass. The docudrama "Menace to Society," named for the moniker given to Baird by his opponents, is the work of a multidisciplinary team drawn from the UMass departments of history, legal studies, women's studies, English and theater.
. . . .
Last year, when UMass Dean Joel Martin put out a call for proposals for a "Visioning Grant" for a multidisciplinary project, the last tumbler fell. Berkman was awarded the grant and set about assembling a team.

The 10-member research group included investigators from the history, legal studies and women's studies departments. Lori Sandhusen took an oral history from Baird, while others researched the law, women's history, the struggle for reproductive rights, the responses of the Catholic Church and organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women.
. . . .
"The most surprising thing about the story itself is that so many groups of people who you would think would be [Baird[']s] natural allies - Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the women's movement - totally rejected him," said Kimberly Fuller, a Ph.D student in the history department and the project's historian. "People saw him as being too radical."
We cannot fail to note that my own institution, which has been a leader in promoting education about reproductive rights, played an indirect role in the creation of this work:
Three years ago, Berkman heard Baird speak at Hampshire College. "It was spellbinding," she said. "After his lecture a bee got in my bonnet about recognizing the important role he played in women's reproductive rights."
(full article, including performance schedule:  Bonnie Wells, "Choice:  UMass breathes life into the history of a local man's lifelong crusade for women's reproductive rights," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Dec. 2008).

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