December 12-13, 7:30 p.m., Curtain Stage, Fine Arts Center
From Massachusetts prisoner to Supreme Court victor, Bill Baird, crusader for Women’s Reproductive Rights, is the focus of a new work resulting from collaboration among the History, Theater, Women’s Studies and Legal Studies departments.
UPDATE lease check out the new A Menace to Society companion website, a historical docudrama based on the life of Bill Baird.
Staged Reading: A Menace to Society
A collaboration between the UMass Amherst Departments of History, Theater, Women’s Studies, Legal Studies, and Special Collections and Archives.
On April 7, 1967 Bill Baird, father of four, was declared “a menace to society” and sentenced to three months in a rat-infested Charles Street Jail, Cambridge, Mass. for giving a can of contraceptive foam to an unmarried coed during a lecture tour on birth control. A year later, Baird led a demonstration at Zayre’s department store in Hadley, Mass, which sold contraceptives without legal consequence. In highlighting the arbitrariness of the law’s enforcement, Baird’s activism contributed to profound changes in our society, eventually leading to a Supreme Court ruling that extended the right to use contraceptives for all unmarried individuals.
Faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from the departments of History, Theater, Women’s Studies, Legal Studies, and Special Collections and Archives will collaborate in creating and performing a new work, presented as a script-in-hand staged reading, that explores this key moment in the history of reproductive rights.
Dec. 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m.
$5 general, $3 students/seniors
The Curtain Theater
Audience members are invited to remain after the performance for an extended Q&A session following both performances with members of the entire team involved in creating the production, as well as special guests.
Read Michael King’s comments on the recent production: The medium of the theater – with its ability to transform typically ordinary situations into captivating stories interlaced with underlying meaning – is a unique method to teach about the past. A recent event of the Feinberg Lecture Series, a play entitled Menace to Society performed at the Fine Arts Centers’ Curtain Stage, provided a brief insight into the history of reproductive rights in the United States. The intentionally dramatized historical documentary (docudrama) recounted the life of Bill Baird, an oft-ignored historical figure whose efforts contributed to a woman’s ability to use contraception. His work also helped to set the stage for the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
This docudrama was presented not as a finished product, but as the initial stage of a potentially excellent piece of theater. The remarkable speed of the play’s development (writers began drafting a script just two months ago in early October) underscored its potential. The power of the production’s message was strong despite the limited amount of rehearsal time and script-in-hand aspect of each character’s line delivery.
The story of Baird’s life is delivered through flashbacks of carefully chosen events scattered amongst the conversation of a mother and daughter discussing birth control and Baird’s impact on women’s rights. While the actor playing Baird remains consistent, a group of six generically-dressed actors and actresses fulfill varying roles through the production’s many scenes.
The play establishes a morbid and graphic tone in the opening scene as Baird recounts a story of a young woman perishing from a botched coat hanger abortion and how that experience precipitated his quest for female reproductive rights. The audience is then taken chronologically through events that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court case Baird v. Eisenstadt that legalized birth control on March 22, 1972. The production rapidly moves from the depiction of a younger Baird holding makeshift contraceptive workshops in the projects of New York and Boston to more high profile public lectures. It’s here that Baird effectively tests enforcement of the Massachusetts’ “Crimes Against Chastity, Decency and Good Order” law with the intention of being arrested. One of the production’s most chilling scenes is the dramatized interpretation of the protagonist’s three months spent enduring the deplorable conditions of Boston’s Charles Street Jail.
Finally, the production recounts Baird’s court victories, his simultaneous condemnation by many, and exaltation by few, as he achieved his goals. The audience is left with the scene of the same mother-daughter tandem marveling at Baird’s accomplishments through countless obstacles and a perpetually fierce opposition.
As the play explores Baird’s crusade against these archaic laws, we learn more about the individual – who through a lifetime of personal sacrifice – helped to drastically alter women’s reproductive rights. The production established the motivation for Baird’s seemingly revolutionary intentions early in the first act. It’s evident from Baird’s opening monologue that his extreme passion for pro-choice is derived from his belief in women’s rights and the concept that “to be wanted and loved is the fundamental right of every child.” He believes that it is a mistake to bring an unwanted child into the world, as he strives to strengthen the family unit by controlling something as fundamental as its size. Moreover, Baird interprets the law as a set of hard rules that nevertheless retains a malleable and evolutionary quality. The protagonist’s phrasing of “the law is below the people” during one of his many tirades against anti-birth control law creates a powerful image.
The post-play discussion featured Massachusetts State Representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst), as well as Mr. Baird himself. The wide-ranging discussion touched on issues such as the value of using oral histories as a means of research and the social issues associated with overpopulation, including the country’s maldistribution of wealth and resources. It also offered some historical background on the dichotomy between the state’s progressiveness on nearly all social issues with the exception of sex.
More significantly, it afforded Baird the opportunity to provide his own perspective directly to the audience. Baird reached out to the women in the audience with cautionary advice about the female civil rights struggle: “be aware that not all women are your supporters and that not all men are your enemies.” He also alluded to a key concept about human life valuation in the United States. He argued that women should be empowered and trusted by society to make decisions about their own bodies. Restricting a woman’s ability to use contraceptive, he argued, relegates the value of a typical female life to a decidedly lower status.
Much of the Baird’s words after the performance underscored the secondary theme of public memory’s lack of regard for the man who made birth control a fundamental right of every U.S. citizen. The play recounts some of his higher profile confrontations (prominent feminist Betty Friedan labeled him a “CIA agent” and the organization Planned Parenthood characterized him as an “embarrassment” and a “nut”). Moreover, it effectively communicates Baird’s personal feeling of betrayal at being rendered an overzealous revolutionary during the prime of his crusade. Baird suggested that individuals with problematic personalities are the only people capable of forcing significant change. We learn of Baird’s unconventional tactics and abrasive actions throughout the performance. The audience is consequently left to wonder how much of his success can be attributed to the nature of that conduct and if he could have attained similar results through different means.