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February 22, 2012

GESENHUES: The funny thing about birth control

FLOYD COUNTY — Last week, a top-donor for Rick Santorum’s Red, White and Blue super PAC commented on the current national debate over birth control.

“Back in my days,” said billionaire Foster Friess, “they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”  

The joke was so bad, I didn’t even get it at first. And then I thought, “Are you kidding me?”  

Turns out, he was; or, at least, he claimed to be making a joke.

Ha ha. Women and birth control. So funny.

I’m not one of those militant feminists without a sense of humor. I’m more of a militant feminist who laughs regularly. I don’t even mind sexist jokes, as long as they’re actually funny.

Foster’s remark wasn’t just unfunny; the comment he made to one of today’s leading journalists, Andrea Mitchell, gave a face to the powers of unlimited wealth that guide our political process. It’s the face of a rich, white guy who was getting his driver’s license around the same time Eisenhower was getting re-elected.

Born in 1940, Foster would have been 20 years old by the time the FDA approved birth control pills; 27 years old when Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay female employees less than their male counterparts. He was 32 years old when Title IX was put into effect, prohibiting sex discrimination in our schools.

You would think someone who has been around to see the before and after of such historic events would understand the significance and importance of these cultural rites of passage. It is because of the birth control pill that females — and their spouses — have had more freedom over their reproductive choices. Such freedoms led to more women in the workplace and more financially successful wage-earners to help boost our national economy.

According to the Friess Associates website, an investment firm founded by Friess, it was his entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm for finding the companies of tomorrow that, “… formed the foundation for Friess Associates and set the firm on its course for success.”

I imagine that many of the “companies of tomorrow” Friess discovered in 1974 to boost his investment firm’s earnings benefited from the efforts of female employees. Females who, in 1974, could better determine when and if they wanted to have children by swallowing a pill versus holding it between their knees.  

There are so many directions to take this debate against Foster’s comment. First there is the pure insult and hypocrisy of birth control being solely the female’s responsibility to keep her knees together. But, for me, the real concern comes from the comment that led to Foster’s attempt at a joke.

Before referencing Bayer Aspirin, Foster said, “… people seem to be so preoccupied with sex — I think it says something about our culture. We maybe need a massive therapy session so we can concentrate on what the real issues are.”

First, disregarding the importance of birth control is a very real issue for women and men.

Second, I’m confused about his presumptuous leap between accessible birth control and a preoccupation with sex. These two things don’t add up; just because a society wants affordable and accessible birth control options does not in any way signal a preoccupation with sex. It simply means that we want to leverage medical advances made in the last 50 years to our benefit.

Fortunately, a large portion of the voting population is made up of generations born long after issues like equal pay for equal work, sex discrimination in schools and access to affordable birth control were ever in question. Regardless of their political affiliation, I imagine most of these voters to be in favor of women’s rights.

I do wonder what the female population of conservative groups like Foster’s think when their party’s pundits make such ridiculously awful comments toward women. What would Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin say to a man who told her to put an aspirin between her knees?  

As a 38-year-old professional female, wife and mother, I’ve never had to fight for the right to take the pill. Honestly, I’m a little shocked that the birth control pill has taken up as many headlines as it has lately.

But when one of the top financial donors to the campaign of who may be the next Republican presidential nominee makes such sexist comments, it’s hard not to point your finger and ask, “This? This is who you think has the best ideas about moving forward?”

— Amy Gesenhues is a freelance writer and syndicated columnist for CNHI. You can read her daily commentaries at www.AmyWroteIt.com or email her at amy@amywroteit.com.

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