Women Harnessing the Law

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout this country’s history, the law hasn’t been consistently fair across gender lines, classifying women as second-class citizens and making assumptions about people based on gender stereotypes. But throughout that same history, women have harnessed the law to right these wrongs, changing the national conversation around issues as varied as medical privacy, marriage, caring for family members, and sexual harassment.

Let’s meet some of these trailblazers now!

Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate their Supreme Court victory.

The birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, but in Connecticut, contraception was outright banned by a law that predated the birth of the Pill by more than 80 years, imposing fines and jail time on people using any type of contraceptive device. Additionally, anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be birth-control users — including doctors and pharmacists — could be punished.

In 1961, in an act of civil disobedience, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic — and was promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts. In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had a right to birth control.

Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, the couple obtained a marriage certificate in Washington D.C., and were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were banished from the state, forcing the couple to leave their families and home behind. A series of court battles culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. Continue reading

When Contraception Was a Crime: Griswold v. Connecticut

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, both of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court's decision in favor of birth control access.

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of birth control access.

The right to access birth control was in the crosshairs last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that certain employers had the right to exclude emergency contraception from their employees’ health plans. But the Hobby Lobby case was just one in a long line of contraception-related cases decided by the Supreme Court, and while that outcome was a setback for the reproductive rights movement, history also is filled with decisions that helped advance the cause. One of those victories came 50 years ago this Sunday, on June 7, 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down a decisive win for contraception access in Griswold v. Connecticut.


Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in expanding access to birth control — but it was only a first step.


When the birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, it was a dream come true for anyone wanting to control her own reproduction. But in 30 states it was illegal to advertise contraception, and in two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, it was outright banned. In fact, anyone using birth control in Connecticut was at risk for a fine or imprisonment. These draconian laws didn’t stop people from seeking birth control from their doctors, but it did force them to engage in activities that were technically “criminal.”

Connecticut had been the birthplace, in 1844, of one of history’s most relentless anti-contraceptive crusaders, Anthony Comstock, whose Puritan upbringing spurred a nearly lifelong crusade against what he saw as the devices of immorality. Comstock was the driving force behind federal and state laws that banned birth control, and it’s estimated that he initiated as many as 4,000 arrests, one of the last of which was Bill Sanger, husband of Margaret Sanger, for distributing a pamphlet on family planning. Comstock died on September 21, 1915, months after Sanger’s arrest.

Connecticut’s anti-contraception law predated the birth of oral contraceptives by more than 80 years. It was so broadly worded that more old-fashioned family-planning methods, such as diaphragms and condoms, could also see their users fined or sent to jail. There was also equal punishment for anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be contraceptive users, meaning that doctors, pharmacists, and others could be punished for providing patients with birth control or information about it. Continue reading