As heard in class, redux
Many of you enjoyed the "Black people were bred to be better athletes" story, so now I've got a follow-up story, featuring the same student.
A few weeks ago we were studying European immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century. As part of their assignment, the students looked at some Jacob Riis photographs. (Riis was a famous photographer and reformer who went into the tenements to document immigrants' living conditions.) Not surprisingly, many of the photos showed dirty and crowded apartments, some of which were used by family members who operated sweatshops out of the apartments.
During class discussion students shared their impressions of the photos, which usually included surprise about the "bad" living conditions and being somewhat impressed with immigrants' fortitude. Then the student in question raised his hand and asked why these families continued to have so many kids if they were already poor and crowded into these small apartments. Fair enough question. And one that I'm actually fairly well-prepared to answer. So I launched in what seemed like an endless answer, including the following points:
*Many immigrants arrived with large families, something that might have been necessary back in the farming areas of Europe
*Some people considered children to be economic assets, i.e. to either work on the farm or work in factories to provide additional income, as well as to provide care for their parents in their old age
*Higher rates of infant mortality encouraged higher birth rates
I also went into the issue of birth control and why it was not available and/or utilized:
*Most poor women did not have access to knowledge about birth control, and would not have been able to afford it, even if they had known about it
*Birth control was illegal at the time, and in fact, it was even illegal to mail information about birth control
Then I told the class a bit about Margaret Sanger, who agitated for birth control during this period, and when she opened a clinic in a working-class neighborhood, it was deluged with women who were desperate for some information. Sanger's personal "epiphany," in fact, was when a young woman died from repeated pregnancies that she could not avoid. When this young woman asked how to avoid pregnancy, an insensitive doctor told her to tell her husband to "sleep on the roof." So I also pointed out to students:
*It's likely that most people back then had little to no understanding of the female reproductive cycle and would not have known about the timing of "safer" periods
*And even if they did, traditional gender roles did not usually empower women to refuse sex with their husbands. Which is why Sanger wanted to find some sort of female-controlled contraception.
So... that seemed like a pretty complete explanation, but he refused to buy it. He kept asking things like, "So, you're saying they're too stupid to know that sex results in children?" and: "Can't they read?"
So I reiterated most of what I had already said about the lack of knowledge, power, and access that these families experienced, and how most immigrant families either chose to have larger families or were simply unable to avoid pregnancy. It didn't take. So finally, I asked him simply, "So what you're saying is that poor people shouldn't have sex."
He looked a bit perplexed, and then denied that's what he was saying. I believe, however, that that is exactly what he was saying. The "punishment" for being poor and unable to access birth control should be denying yourself sex. And this is not the first time the question has come up -- it is more likely to be raised when we discuss Anne Moody's book about being part of the Civil Rights Movements. Anne's mother (an impoverished sharecropper in Mississippi) continues to have children throughout the book, which puts an economic strain on the family. Most students are quite critical of the mother for this, and don't understand why she doesn't just "stop having kids."