The First-Generation Feminists on Sex, Contraception, and Self-building

[This is an excerpt from my article titled ‘The Malayalee sexual revolution: Sex, ‘liberation’ and family planning in Keralam’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 39,3 , 2005.]

….  From the late 19th century, disapproval of artificial contraception was often linked to anxieties in Malayalee society about realising the ideal modern Self against older socio-economic and cultural orders.  In turn, the project of modern Self-building was seen to be dependent on attaining a high degree of self-discipline, expressed, in particular, in sexual self-restraint (Devika 1999). The idea that vigorous sexual desire was pathological, the conviction that sexual self-control was central to Self-building, and the fear that artificial contraception would open up a Pandora’s Box of sexual chaos, were notions that were frequently voiced in the Malayalee public sphere from the 1930s onwards when artificial contraception began to be discussed.

In contrast to artificial contraception, natural contraception was seen to come unforcedly to the sexually disciplined, industrious subject.6  As Paul Mampilli, Member of Cochin Legislative Council in the 1930s, put it: if birth-control was to be attained, it could only be ‘… the control of the mind, by the exercise of will power.’7  While artificial contraception would be superfluous for the self-controlled individual, extending it to the not-yet-self-controlled majority might undermine the project of modern Self-building itself, for any sign that the people at large  sought or practised it would be evidence of deviation.  C.O. Ouseph voiced these fears in the Cochin Legislative Council in 1943:

…Some, who want to have the enjoyment of actions, want to avoid the obligations of it. Is it not immoral? … You are given the power to control yourself. Do you want to remain a man or unman yourself? The result of this resolution is an acceptance of defeat, an admission that the human will cannot control human nature. That, Sir, is dangerously immoral and contributes to continued slavery.8


Later opponents of artificial contraception advanced related objections. For instance, A.J. John, the Finance Minister in the Tiruvitamkoor-Kochi Cabinet, pointed out in 1951 that introducing artificial contraception to people ignorant of the rudiments of self-control and health care would invite health hazards, besides uncontrolled sexual acttivity.9  Only the social stigma attached to illegitimate births, it seemed, deterred such people. Artificial control would make it possible to evade this censor, removing  ‘external’ controls on those who had no ‘internal’ controls in the first place. In fact, almost every kind of 20th century community reformism in Keralam modernity (see Cheriyan 1999) had identified self-constraint as crucial to the shaping of modern communities.10  Not everything issuing out of the West, it was often commented, would incarnate modernity in Malayalee society, and indeed, as C.O. Ouseph put it, artificial contraception might even perpetuate ‘slavery’,11 which was certainly pre-modern. In fact, in Malayalee social/community reformism(s) of the late 19th/early 20th century, ‘freedom’ (swatantryam) was not defined as ‘freedom from all constraint’ but as ‘self-means for survival’, contrasted with tantonnittam (doing as one likes) (Devika 1999). Thus, in so far as it potentially undermined the actualisation of a disciplined society capable of a high degree of material production (for which sexual self-discipline was proposed as a pre-requisite), artificial contraception appeared to be socially regressive – ‘the modern against progress’.12  On the other hand, ‘Nature’s Regulation’, which balanced carnal pleasures with parental burdens, was projected as complementing the social regulation of sexual activity.13

A second and related set of criticisms stemmed from the suspicion that artificial contraception would upset sexual complementarity in the modern home and society at large,14  sexual complementarity being an important feature of all modern collectivities (not just the modern home). On the one hand it was feared that artificial contraception would make women ‘manly’: women may hanker after ‘manly’ callings, rejecting their ‘proper domain’. Even those who granted women social space beyond the modern home were suspicious of artificial contraception. In 1935, Mrs. Malloor Govinda Pillai, a prominent figure in Thiruvananthapuram (the capital of Tiruvitamkoor), sharply attacked artificial contraception as actually disadvantaging women. While unambiguously supporting paid employment and economic independence for women, she opposed artificial contraception as bad strategy, resulting in the unnecessary sacrifice of social prestige, upsetting body and mind. She recommended natural contraception to women who could not support children (Panikker 1954: xxxi-xxxii). Other critics were harsher, portraying users of artificial contraception as parasitic, sickly, immoral and hedonistic, and desiring illegitimate gender crossing. The Aryakeralam, criticising women supporters of artificial contraception, poured scornful invective on ‘educated’ women who were supposedly overly desirous of public space. They were dismissed as old maids of easy lives, trying to reverse of gender roles.  Such suspicions were still being voiced in the 1950s by highly educated, articulate and financially self-reliant Catholic women who favoured only natural contraception. Such women are not easily characterized as ‘conservative’.15  It was also feared that artificial contraception would impair female reproductive capacities (see Kurup 1938: 62-63; Nair 1932: 76-79), while natural contraception was perceived to be free from such ill effects.16  Besides, it was alleged that artificial contraception would turn chaste wives into prostitutes, making them objects of male sexual desire.17

Progressives and skeptics alike18 identifies the abandonment of sexual passivity by women as a sign of decadence, and it was no wonder that many of those who supported contraception limited themselves, at least initially, to support for self-control. Anna Chandy, the first Malayalee woman to earn a law degree and a noted women’s rights activist of the 1930s in Tiruvitamkoor, initially recommended self-control (though later, at the All-India Women’s Conference held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1936, she argued for artificial contraception on the feminist grounds of women’s rights over their bodies).19  In the 1950s, a prominent literary figure, K. Saraswati Amma, recommended artificial contraception to the masses but reserved self-discipline for women aspiring for a modern and liberated Self.20   R. Easwara Pillai and other staunch advocates of public roles for women advocated self-control.21  As for the journals, some – like Kesari and Sahodaran – unwaveringly supported artificial contraception, while other forward-looking publications, like Mahila and M.N. Nair Masika, published both viewpoints. In the Vanitalokam (Women’s World) column of the M.N. Nair Masika of 1936, E.N. Meenakshi Amma wrote thus:

Our women may run away scared when they hear about contraception. The best way to control the number of births is through self-control. Only those who find this impossible may seek other means. It is essential that a mother should have children only as far as her health and financial ability allow. Each woman has the responsibility to decide the means by which this may be achieved.22

In 1938, however, the same author argued against contraception in the same column. Citing a Japanese doctor, she now wrote against the idea that more pregnancies ruined a woman’s health:   ‘We know that for women, most illnesses are cured by childbirth…. Woman’s physique has been constructed for the purpose of giving birth. Therefore the basis of women’s health lies in giving birth.’23  In any case, most supporters and opponents of artificial contraception were only too ready to concede that numbers should be reduced, and that  ‘natural’ contraception was the most desirable and healthy means to this end. Artificial contraception did have committed proponents like the prominent women’s rights activist, Mrs. C.Kuttan Nair,24 but the point is that those who argued for paid employment and public roles for women did not necessarily agree on the advisability of artificial contraception.

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