How Gale’s Archives Supported My Thesis on the Politics of Contraception in South Africa, 1970s–80s

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Gale is committed to helping students discover research insights to advance learning and research. Gale Ambassadors are students who work within their own university to increase awareness of the Gale primary source collections available to their fellow students. Our Ambassadors study a variety of different disciplines, and all are open to receiving thoughts or questions from other students at their university about Gale Primary Sources.

│By Nonkoliso Andiswa Tshiki, Gale Ambassador at the University of Johannesburg│

Having to complete my Honours research paper in the era of Covid-19 left myself and many other students feeling stranded so far as to how to obtain valuable and relevant academic resources. Access to digitised resources quickly became vital to one’s success in academia and I am happy that I came across Gale Primary Sources when I did because they contributed greatly to the completion of my thesis. This blog will show how I utilised Gale’s Archives of Sexuality and Gender, and Women’s Studies Archive collections to explore my thesis topic – the Media and Technologies of Contraception in South Africa between the 1970s and 1980s.

Left: A screenshot of Archives of Sexuality and Gender. Right: A screenshot of Women’s Studies Archive.
Left: A screenshot of Archives of Sexuality and Gender. Right: A screenshot of Women’s Studies Archive. (Please note additional archives displaying than are available at the University of Johannesburg).

Focusing my search results using the platform filters

My dissertation was on the prevailing views held by scientists and medical practitioners on the legitimacy of the contraceptive technologies that were administered through the South African 1970s Family Planning Programme, in comparison to how those contraceptive technologies were reported through the media. Gale’s Women’s Studies Archive contains many primary sources from different centuries. Thus, I found that utilising the Publication Date filter assisted in narrowing my search to the exact period relevant to my thesis – the 1970s to the 1980s. How to use this filter can be seen highlighted green in the screenshots below.

A screenshot illustrating where to apply the Publication Date filter.
A screenshot illustrating where to apply the Publication Date filter.

A screenshot demonstrating the Publication Date filter has been applied to my search results.
A screenshot demonstrating the Publication Date filter has been applied to my search results.

The South African Family Planning Programme of the 1970s

The correlation between South Africa’s level of fertility, patterns, distinctions, methods, the apartheid philosophy and the country’s population regulation initiatives is complex. The detected changes in birth rates between the 1970s and the 1980s could have been a reflection of the socioeconomic situation and overall disparities of the apartheid political environment of South Africa. However, the birth control movement took a significant turn in the 1970s with the launch of its very first state-funded and owned Family Planning Programme. Many believe that the National Party-led government introduced the National Planning Programme as a reaction to what they supposedly identified as an alarming increase of the black population’s fertility rates in the early 1970s.

The appearance of health contraindication controversies

To some South African women, the expansion and introduction of more modernised reproduction control technologies such as oral contraceptive pills, injectables and the Intrauterine Device (IUD) provided a sense of sexual liberation, in the sense that they now possessed the power to control their reproductive health. However, this ‘dream come true’ was short-lived as numerous global media and medical controversial reports like this one were published which highlighted safety issues with chemical-based contraceptive methods. In South Africa these health contraindication controversies were perceived by many as colliding with the political environment at that time, and this could have heightened perceptions of suspected malicious motives by the National Party-led government to control South Africa’s population.

"Liver Tumors and the Pill." Her-Self: Community Women's Newspaper, Apr. 1974, p. 3. Women's Studies Archive
“Liver Tumors and the Pill.” Her-Self: Community Women’s Newspaper, Apr. 1974, p. 3. Women’s Studies Archive,
A screenshot of an article on one of the global contraceptive pills’ health contraindication. "Contraception." Women's Newspaper, 6 Mar. 1971, pp. 2+. Women's Studies Archive
A screenshot of an article on one of the global contraceptive pills’ health contraindication (a condition that serves as a reason not to take a certain medical treatment due to the harm that it would cause the patient). “Contraception.” Women’s Newspaper, 6 Mar. 1971, pp. 2+. Women’s Studies Archive

‘Targeted’ distribution and victimisation?

Some people believe that the continued provision of chemical contraceptives by South Africa’s National Party-led government in the 1970s to 1980s, despite the health risks that were aligned with the method, was actually a form of genocide; that the centralisation of the apartheid’s regulatory initiatives was in many ways based on the National Party-led government’s population concerns.

Sickle Cell disease is a condition that particularly affects the Black population, making it very significant, therefore, that oral contraceptives are potentially more dangerous for those with Sickle Cell disease. As the article below explains: “since oral contraceptives are known to produce changes in clotting as well as in oxygen availability in tissue it is only reasonable to assume that women with sickle cell problems may be at risk while taking birth control pills”. Consequently, the ‘targeted’ distribution (as some South African traditional leaders and anti-apartheid activists have stated) of oral contraceptive pills to African women might have been perceived as a way to victimise them.

Graedon, Joe. "Black Women, Sickle Cell and Oral Contraceptives." Her-Self: Community Women's Newspaper, December-January 1972-1973. Women's Studies Archive
Graedon, Joe. “Black Women, Sickle Cell and Oral Contraceptives.” Her-Self: Community Women’s Newspaper, December-January 1972-1973. Women’s Studies Archive
An image of Black South African women under apartheid marching for liberation.
An image of Black South African women under apartheid marching for liberation. Foot, Rose, and Judith Condon. “South Africa.” Women’s Voice, July 1976, p. Three. Archives of Sexuality and Gender

Multiple ways to approach a research topic

Completing my Honors research paper in the era of Covid-19 presented tremendous challenges, from the daunting exercise of choosing a research topic, to finding valuable resources to support my thesis. Plus my research topic was quite narrow, so finding resources that matched my topic was particularly difficult. Searching within Gale Primary Sources, however, I found a wide and varied range of valuable materials that I could utilise for my Honors thesis. Plus, throughout my university studies, I have learned that writing history is not so much about proving if certain events happened, as about contributing to the discourses around that historical event or concept. As well as content aligned to my topic, I found materials in Gale Primary Sources that provided different, alternative ways I could approach the essay, providing the means by which to explore and engage with numerous historical discourses.

If you enjoyed reading about Media, Technologies and Politics of Contraception in South Africa between the 1970s and 1980s, you might like:

If you would find additional guidance on using primary sources in your thesis, you might like:

Blog post cover image citation: A design created from an image by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition available on of a range of reproductive health supplies, combined with archive images from this blog post.

About the Author

Nonkoliso Andiswa Tshiki is a Gale student ambassador and Historical Studies Master’s student at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She is most passionate about the role of the media in the shaping of societal views and norms. Her work focuses on the representation of contraception in multiple languages in different media platforms during the period of the 1960s to the 1970s in South Africa. Nonkoliso wants to pursue a medical law qualification one day. In her spare time, she reads fiction and her favourite books are from the Hlomu book series which consist of Hlomu the Wife, Zandile the Resolute, Naledi: his Love, IQunga and Mess – by Dudu Busani Dube..