Originally published in encore magazine, March 17, 2020
Like nearly everything else in March, next Thursday’s “She Rocks the Vote” exhibit at UNCW’s Randall Library has been postponed. Spearheaded by Randall’s humanities librarian Lisa Coats and Jennifer Le Zotte, assistant professor of U.S. history and material culture, the curated event to help celebrate Women’s History Month will have a new date as soon as possible.
“She Rocks the Vote” encompasses a history of birth control in North Carolina, and while Le Zotte says it is not specifically about political control of women, this exhibit connects political issues and women’s health. Its themes surrounding women’s history, health, voting rights, suffrage and feminism remain eerily timeless. They’re relevant to what we as a nation are experiencing right now amid an election season and public health crisis. The takeaway: to be informed, to seek information and sort through misinformation.
“One direct parallel I see are in news stories about people spraying their children with Lysol in order to prevent coronavirus,” Le Zotte says, “which is not the wisest way to do so and not medically advised. . . . Yes, Lysol kills germs but it also kills good germs and good bacteria and there are proper ways of using medical equipment.”
Lysol, apparently, has a long history of misuse. More on that in a moment.
As part of a statewide initiative “She Changed the World,” Coats and Le Zotte applied for funding through the State Library of North Carolina’s Institute of Museum and Library Services Diversity and Inclusion Mini-Grants program. Between Le Zotte and two history grad students, Kyra McDonald and Rebecca Mullins, they have collected an incredible stash of everything from weird and odd practices to historic WTF moments in contraception history.
“In the broad scope of things, as a historian, I get less and less surprised by what people do,” Le Zotte quips. “Artifacts include types of birth control used in the last century and about 120 years. We also talk a little bit about eugenics in North Carolina, which is pretty interesting history—going all the way up to the early 2000s when North Carolina offered reparations to victims of post-forced sterilization as part of that eugenics movement.”
While the exhibit highlights the extent of forced sterilization in North Carolina, it also includes a “Better Babies” handbook, complete with a large bronze coin; used for Better Baby contests held across the United States in the early 1900s. Designed to measure children’s health and educate in better child-rearing practices, the contests were more or less judged on ideal condition, looks and behavior of babies.
Also among exhibit materials are condoms made of vulcanized latex circa 1920s, packaged in what could pass as Altoid tins; an old diaphragm box with directions; and an “Effectiveness of Contraceptives” chart (1986-1997) with “Abstinence” and “Withdrawal” bookending a list of pregnancy prevention practices.
“We also have examples of types of birth control that are definitely not legitimate,” Le Zotte explains. “For example, people used to use a Lysol douche in order to prevent pregnancy, which led to a lot of health problems.”
The glass measuring receptacle rests in a rusted copper-toned stand, and just at the bottom peeps out a douche nozzle. The display is complete with a small, empty glass bottle of Lysol.
Displays also highlight product advertisements of the 1940s and ‘50s. During that time it was illegal to advertise or send information through the mail about birth control. Thus companies would use instructive wording like “cleanse unwanted materials” as a way around explicit labels of birth control.
“People ought to seek out legitimate scientific information and go by that rather than rumors and privately gleaned information,” Le Zotte iterates. “The significance of it in this historical story of birth-control misinformation stems from the fact there were laws against appropriate communication and scientific fact and data. So becoming a transparent and well-informed society is key to proper health management.”
With the exhibit’s broadly aligned theme of women in politics, Coats and Le Zotte invited keynote speaker Rep. Deb Butler to help tie the importance of civic engagement as it relates to women’s health and reproductive rights. Butler, who has been endorsed by Lillian’s List for a number of years, is running for re-election this fall.
“[Deb Butler] is just very approachable and accessible and very on-point,” Coats adds. “I always look for that—for people who are personable, who will talk to people, who will have conversations.”
Butler gained national attention in September 2019 when she refused to stand down as Republicans voted to override Governor Cooper’s veto of the state budget during a surprise vote on the anniversary of September 11 (when nearly all House Democrats were not present). A video of Butler addressing NC House Speaker Tim Moore (most memorably with “I will not yield!”) went viral within an hour.
“It was just surreal,” Butler remembers. “Then my phone started buzzing in my hand. . . . By the time I left the room [Twitter] was humming, and I went from 1,000 Twitter followers to 25,000 in one day.”
Butler hit a nerve, in a good way, and she tries to remember that as a means to incite others to do something in times of complacency.
“I think we’ve become too willing to let somebody else do the talking out of fear of failure or fear of criticism, out of fear of being in the spotlight,” she muses. “I think it’s about just finding the courage to stand up for what you believe and fight for it, consequences be damned. And it’s hard to do. But we’ve all got that capacity.”