A statewide history of mom

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

In the early days of the twentieth century, because of poverty, low population density, and poor communication, all of which resulted from geographic conditions, women in Arizona were isolated, travel was difficult, and health care and education in general, but especially concerning reproductive issues, were almost non-existent. Mid-wives, trained nurses, and doctors were few. As the century passed, services got better, but even today they are much better in the cities than the country or on the Indian reservations. Melcher explores these environmental, political, and social issues through careful, extensive scholarship and informs us of what she learned.

Women’s highest calling, in the doctrines of the two dominant churches, the Catholic and the Mormon, was the bearing and rearing of children.  Anything that interfered with this was opposed, either by denying women information on their choices or by legal means, particularly in the days before Roe v Wade (1973). Even late in the century, the legislature would not provide funding for reproductive services. The idea of such issues being a private and personal matter for a woman rather than a church or state concern was simply never valued by the authorities.

As a result, aid, including government sponsored public health clinics and education, Planned Parenthood, and other resources, was often not available, particularly in rural areas. Mexicans, the thirteen Indian tribes, and African-Americans were especially singled out for neglect. The federal Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 provided for public health programs for all, but in practice, urban white women benefitted most.

The non-whites prior to about 1940 viewed birth control with suspicion because of the emphasis that the eugenics movement had placed on white superiority. They viewed it as being akin to a form of genocide. Hence, when government workers did try to interest them in it, they declined. The younger generation, however could see the personal advantages to family planning and were more accepting.

As a result of these various factors, Arizona in the first part of the century, particularly in rural areas, had one of the highest fertility, as well as infant and maternal mortality, rates in the nation.

The chapters on medical care, abortion, choice, and the law reminds the reader of Jamie Q. Tallman’s “The Notorious Dr. Flippin: Abortion and Consequence in the Early Twentieth Century,” which tells of medical conditions in Kansas and Nebraska a century ago; it was reviewed on these pages on June 2. It also sounds very much like the arguments, efforts, and laws, both for and against, that we hear all of the time today.  It seems like nothing has changed over the years.

Melcher traces women’s changing resources and attitudes toward their roles and activities as child-bearing individuals in twentieth-century Arizona by examining, among other sources, census data and other statistical sources, by looking at historical records, by comparing Arizona with other states,  particularly New Mexico and Utah, which were similar, and by interviewing more than 100 individuals. This is reflected in her extensive end notes, bibliography, and index.

While she uses statistics in a descriptive, not a predictive, manner to learn what happened and to make her points, they are not presented in a boring or intimidating manner. She includes a few statistical tables in the early chapters, but the book could use more in all of the chapters. It could also use a map of Arizona to help readers unfamiliar with its geography.

Melcher gives a more or less balanced presentations of the pro and con points of view concerning the role of women in a western state regarding issues related to family planning, but basically she is on the side of women making their own, informed choices in these matters.

The introductory chapter gives an excellent summary of the book’s contents. The book is of particular interest to women because they know that their ability to control their fertility affects all parts of their lives. It is also of general interest, for it gives insight into Western frontier life.

Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music at Kansas State University.

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