IHR History and Gender in the Americas

IHR Gender and History in the Americas Seminar Series

Monday 6th October (17.30-19.30)            

Holden Room 103, Senate House, London

Charlie Jeffries (University of Cambridge)

Adolescent Women and Anti-Abortion Politics in Reagan’s Right

Since the 1990s, teenage female sexuality has been subject to increasingly explicit discussion in the political arena. The precedent for this appears to have been set by Clinton’s A-H Guidelines of Abstinence Education in his Social Security Act of 1996, wherein a paradigm of ‘healthy human sexuality’ was described as one that only occurs within the context of a heterosexual marriage. Today, abstinence campaigners, politicians, and teachers talk frankly about adolescent sexuality, albeit usually in terms of how to prevent its expression at all costs. However, before the American debate over the appropriateness of adolescent sex entered its current phase of explicit discourse, such a dialogue only ever took place implicitly, embedded in other long-running arguments. It is with this coded stage of discourse over teenage female sexuality that this paper is concerned: How did the Reagan administration discuss the issue of teenage women’s sexuality without ever naming it? Despite circumventing the topic at hand, some of Reagan’s federal policies on abortion dealt directly with young women’s access to it, and laid the groundwork for more explicit discourse on teenagers and abortion in the policies of George W. Bush. My research analyses Reagan’s 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act, and his unsuccessful efforts to advance a so-called ‘Squeal Rule’ over adolescent use of birth control in 1983, in order to demonstrate this discursive trend in Reagan-era reproductive health care. This paper explores the ways that Reagan and the New Right positioned their party and personal views on teenage female sexuality within their pro-family and anti-abortion agendas, and conflated adolescent sexuality with the ‘social ill’ of teenage pregnancy, in order to talk about teenage women’s sexual choices without ever really talking about them at all. In doing so, it contributes a new lens to historical studies of both adolescent sexuality and abortion politics in the US.

Subject to speaker consent, podcasts of the seminars are made available afterwards on the IHR’s History Spot page.

For further information, visit the website (http://www.history.ac.uk/events/seminars/370)                

The following seminar will be:

3rd November    Jacky Moore (Independent Scholar) Hidden Voices: Uncovering the History of First Nation Women


Mr Jon Coburn (Northumbria University), Dr Inge Dornan (Brunel University), Dr Dawn-Marie Gibson (RHUL), Dr Helen Glew (University of Westminster), Dr Althea Legal-Miller (UCL – Institute of the Americas), Professor Jay Kleinberg (Brunel University), Dr Sinead McEneaney (Saint Mary’s University), Dr Rachel Ritchie (Brunel University),  Dr Lee Sartain (Portsmouth University)


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