One day when I was a child my mother suggested I tidy the top of her dressing table. It was a plain deal piece of furniture crammed in the corner of the partitioned-off area of an old army hut that my parents called their bedroom. There wasn't much on it: a lipstick, a box of Coty face powder, some hair clips, a few bills. I soon got bored so I opened the top drawer. Inside was a little rectangular box, and inside that were some capsules that looked like brown jelly. I can't remember whether some were wrapped up or not; perhaps they were, but certainly some were exposed. I took them to my mother and asked her if they were lollies. She snatched them from my hand and said that I must never, never touch these again. It occurred to me later that, every now and then, a packet of about the same size would arrive in the mail and that the package wouldn't be opened in my presence.
They were, of course, contraceptive pessaries, something I would later, briefly, use to control my own fertility. Indeed, my mother slid me a packet on the eve of my wedding. I found them disgusting.
All of this is by way of saying that my first encounters with reproductive control were tinged with the belief that something illicit was going on, not talked about, and certainly not a topic for unmarried women. A prudishness was evolving in the late 1940s that burst into full incandescent bloom in the 1950s. It's well documented that women developed new freedoms during World War II, as they managed independent lives, did war work and brought up children on their own while fathers served in the forces. They had emerged from the shadows, and when men returned women were put back in their place behind their aprons. The kinder side of me thinks that it was not so much authoritarianism, or not all of it, as a primal urge to regenerate the species. All the same, as we wartime children arrived at our teen years, it made for lives that were hidden from our parents, hypocritical double standards, and worse, a reiteration of them when we ourselves married. The status quo had to be maintained. Yet we teenagers had had glimpses of freedom and seemingly forbidden fruits, particularly those of us who frequented dance halls and the rock'n'roll scene.
When I was 17 I fell in love with a man with whom I had frequent pleasurable sex. We fell into bed whenever we could, usually without precautions. I remember the day he said to me: "We're playing with fire, aren't we?" He meant, of course, that I might get pregnant. It was fine by him because he was planning to marry me anyway. He had already proposed.
Not long after, I fell out of love with him, and in love with someone else. But by that time, I was cautious. I had had a narrow escape, and by now the consequences of such abandon had been brought home to me. Friends got married in a hurry, or in their parents' front rooms with the minimum of witnesses. Young women disappeared for months at a time, and when they returned they were instinctively shunned. Older couples, if a girl was lucky, appeared to have impossibly late babies who grew up as the girl's sibling. At least the child stayed in the family, but most did not.
And then, of course, there was abortion. I didn't know much about that or how women went about having them. They were illegal. The images described in an underground way suggested some sort of active charnel house awash with blood, overseen by a manic baby murderer. Later, I came to understand that a doctor of my acquaintance, who was a gentle, civil man, had "helped out" some girls in our town in the orderly surroundings of his general practice; but he was the exception rather than the rule, and perhaps his reputation suffered a little as a result. But I also knew about a girl who had died after visiting another abortionist. And a friend had a botched abortion that rendered her sterile for the rest of her life.
A clearly very drunk and red-faced member of the Government stood at the door and shouted that we were a bunch of whores. Other swaying men appeared and berated us.
Terror, that's what it was. We lived in terror. Our bodies were ready for sex whether or not we had yet to find the right mate, but, back then, in the 1950s, the results could deliver shame and grief in equal measure, possible rejection by our parents, the lonely desperate giving of birth in cruel and unfeeling surroundings, the loss of children, bitterness and shame. The results have followed generations of people in search of their birth parents, and for many it's still an unresolved issue.
My own out-of-wedlock pregnancy scare was, in the end, just that, but it hastened the date of my marriage, one that would endure for the next 57 years; the right mate as it turned out. I got lucky. But we didn't have two beans to rub together, as the saying goes, and we were not ready for a baby. The doctor frowned on hearing this. It would be best, he thought, if I were to get on with things. I was 20 and healthy, after all. He reluctantly fitted me for a diaphragm. It probably wouldn't have made much difference; after I gave birth a couple of years later, I never conceived a lasting pregnancy again. Something had gone wrong, but I wasn't to know it then. I was still seeking birth control when someone mentioned at a coffee morning that there was a pill to stop one from getting pregnant. "Coffee mornings" were a euphemism for local mothers getting together while the children were at kindergarten and telling each other all about their lives.
We dressed up for these occasions in twinsets and pearl necklaces. Ideally, most of us wanted two children, although three were fine if they were spaced enough for us to catch our breath between pregnancies. It was the mid-1960s, we stayed home and looked after children, there was disapproval of women who worked outside of home (though I managed to break the mould somewhat by working from inside the home), we admired the whiteness of each other's napkins on the line, we preserved jam, and some slept with each other's husbands. There was still fear lurking beneath the surface of ordinary domestic lives.
Anyway, somebody in our group had read about "the Pill" being distributed to women of means, in America. There was talk that it would soon be available in New Zealand. The end of the messy, undignified birth-control methods we used, of our dependence on our partners to use condoms or to practise the rhythm method, or withdrawal, was in sight. Every drop of sperm counted, as couples discovered too often to their dismay. If this seems unduly intimate, for the majority of women the reproductive period of our lives, how we had our children, or not, is one of our central and most enduring narratives, the stories we tell and retell, whether it be to others or our secret selves.
I encountered the Pill somewhere in the late 1960s, and the term Anovlar 21 strikes a chord. It is almost certainly what was prescribed for me. By then, by one manner or another, including adoption, I had become the mother of two children, and briefly of three. I had also suffered some devastating miscarriages, and further attempts at pregnancy became unthinkable. I asked my doctor about the Pill and it was prescribed.
The little green pill seemed like a miracle at first. Unfortunately, it didn't agree with me. I felt nauseous all the time, with headaches, blurred vision and painfully swollen breasts. My reproductive life ended with a tubal ligation when I was in my early 30s. Yet for millions of women all over the world, life changed for the better. Women could plan their futures; think about occupations outside the home without fear of unplanned pregnancies, giving point and meaning to studying for professions; space their children in a manageable way; and, perhaps most of all, enjoy sex in a new and less inhibited way.
With an old woman's eyes I'm still slightly taken aback when I read regular columns about how to have the best sex, how often one might hope to have it, how the best orgasm can be achieved, and so on. It's not that I disapprove, it's simply that the focus of sexual activity has moved from childbearing to pleasure and the conversation around it has altered. In the 1970s, when the women's movement changed all our lives, and the Pill offered greater sexual freedom to choose alternative partners, orgasm, rather than children, became the ultimate expression of women's identity.
I was in Parliament, as was Margaret Sparrow, when the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act was passed in 1977, confirming abortion as a crime and sanctioning it only if two consultants agreed it was necessary for the mother's mental or physical health. A group of us hung out that evening in the office of Marilyn Waring, the young National Member of Parliament who had vigorously campaigned to legalise abortion and tried to persuade the Government, of which she was a member, to support her. I have never forgotten the abuse that was hurled into the room where we sat. A clearly very drunk and red-faced member of the Government stood at the door and shouted that we were a bunch of whores. Other swaying men appeared and berated us.
Sparrow has been quoted as saying that it was "one of the most despairing moments of [her] career". She was so disappointed, she said, asking how rational beings could come to such a conclusion. My own memory of that night is that the conclusion was reached not by rational human beings, but rather by drunk, belligerent men who saw the proposed bill as a threat to their domination over women.
However, the act that was passed, disagreeable as it was, opened a chink in their armour. There was a way around it, although it demands guile and good performances of mental impairment to negotiate an abortion through legal channels. Many are performed by doctors of conscience, within the act's prescription. Yet, here we are 40 years later, and the act has not changed. People, mostly men, are still arguing about the moral right of the foetus to survive until full-term birth, regardless of the welfare of the woman who bears it.
It is ironic that here in New Zealand people may legally have elective surgery to various parts of their body, including cosmetic surgery that alters their appearance or their body shape, and may decline medical interventions to save their life (except in the case of children whose parents may have refused it on religious grounds), yet women and their doctors risk being criminalised if a woman chooses the termination of an unplanned pregnancy brought about by a second party, unless she undergoes the demeaning process of proving unfitness for pregnancy.
What does the future hold for women's reproductive rights in this country? Will things ever change? I believe that they will. New Zealand has led the world in several areas of women's emancipation, notably the 1893 change to the electoral act that gave all women the right to vote. I do not believe that women have stopped fighting for justice and personal freedom. Everywhere I look, young people are changing in the way they see the world. They make mistakes from time to time, and a tragic few cannot see past the immediate despair of their circumstances, but there are many thousands more who recognise that the way forward is a more forgiving and tolerant society. Younger people are entering Parliament, and more of them are women. The rise of the left with its inclusive mix of young men and women convinces me that the old ideologies of the past are being left behind. The right of women to control their fertility will, I hope, be understood not just as a personal freedom, although that matters too, but also as a measure of social justice and equality, and of improved relationships between the sexes.
• Edited extract reproduced with permission from Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage, edited by Bronwyn Labrum and Published by Te Papa Press, $35. Available from all good bookstores.