Notre Dame pissed off a lot of its law students this week when an email went out on an official listserv comparing women who use birth control to prostitute. The source of the comparison wasn't a Christian conservative, though — it was Gandhi. And the scandal shines some light on his none-too-friendly thoughts about contraception.
The email, sent out to all students on the Notre Dame Law School listserv, advertised an event in which "Professor Charlie Rice will present the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception and discuss the intrinsic links between contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Pizza will be provided." The invitation was followed by a number of quotes on birth control, from the Bible, Mother Theresa, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Then there was this:
"Contraceptives are an insult to womanhood. The difference between a prostitute and a woman using contraceptives is only this, that the former sells her body to several men, the latter sells it to one man." - Mahatma Gandhi
After students complained about the quote, sender Joshua Norcross, president of the school's Saint Thomas More Society, sent this apology:
I am deeply sorry for having offended many of you, whom I respect and care about, by including the Gandhi quote in my previous email to the student body. I was wrong to include that quote, and I regret that my actions reflected negatively on Notre Dame Law School and the Saint Thomas More Society. My sincere apologies.
The Dean of the law school also responded, saying that it wasn't the school's job to monitor content on the listserv, but that they'd review their policies. Not everyone is satisfied — one student wrote us that "while it will be great if Dean Newton changes the policy for emails sent through the school listserv, responsibility for this incident has been denied and the fact that such a hostile, closed-minded, rude environment has been created here has not been addressed." Something else that doesn't get addressed much: the fact that Gandhi was anti-birth control.
But the architect of India's independence actually made lots of statements to this effect. Daniel Vitz of GodSpy quotes him bemoaning the effect of birth control on marriage: "The perfection of the anti-conceptional practice and the methods of bringing about abortion has led to the emancipation of either sex from all moral restraint. No wonder marriage itself is laughed at." He also thought birth control helped men objectify women:
It is an insult to the fair sex to put up her case in support of birth-control by artificial methods. As it is, man has sufficiently degraded her for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her. I urge the advocates of artificial methods to consider the consequences. Any large use of the methods is likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond and in free love … Birth control to me is a dismal abyss.
And he thought contraception would lead to acceptance of gay sex:
If mutual consent makes a sexual act moral, whether within marriage or without, and, by parity of reasoning, even between members of the same sex, the whole basis of sexual morality is gone and nothing but misery and defect awaits the youth of the country … It is futile to hope that the use of contraceptives will be restricted to the mere regulation of progeny. There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life.
According to a 2010 biography by Jad Adams, Gandhi's own sexual practices were a little bit weird. He took a vow of chastity in his thirties, but then began sleeping with ever-younger women, naked, supposedly as a way of testing his resolve (but maybe just because he liked it — one of these women later said it was never a religious experiment). When he was assassinated, one of his bedmates was with him, but she was quickly spirited away and told not to write about her experiences. Indeed, people don't talk all that much about Gandhi's views on sex and contraception even today. Searches on "Gandhi birth control" and "Gandhi contraception" turn up few mainstream sources. Vitz writes that "Gandhi's positions on sex and marriage are not what you would expect from a hero of the Left. What's worse — from a secular liberal perspective — nothing more clearly reveals Gandhi's deeply conservative understanding of human sexuality and the relationship between a man and a woman — and only a man and a woman — than does his stance on artificial contraception." Vitz is coming at this from the right, but Gandhi's opposition to reproductive rights (and to gay sex) does tarnish his image as a civil rights hero.
This isn't to say we shouldn't learn from him or respect his other work. Plenty of male civil rights leaders have neglected women's rights (just as white feminists have sometimes neglected the rights of women of color). As Adams says, "Like many great men, Gandhi made up the rules as he went along" — and like many great and famous men, he said some things that turned out to be kind of shitty for women. This doesn't mean he wasn't great — it does mean, though, that when we praise him as a freedom fighter, we should be aware that conservatives are also using his words as an argument to take away our freedoms.