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Birth control


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Lecture: "Fight for Birth Control" (HIUS157)

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Birth control

  1. 1. The Fight for Birth Control HIUS157/Prof. Rebecca Jo Plant
  2. 2. Key questions • Why did society’s general attitude toward birth control change? – From associating contraception with obscenity, to viewing it as a legitimate need • Why did women’s rights advocates alter their stance on birth control? – From seeing contraception as a threat, to viewing it as a central goal • How did authorities police the practice of abortion in the late 19th /early 20th centuries?
  3. 3. Falling birth rates • Average number of births per woman – 1800: 7.04 – 1900: 3.56 – 1920: 3.17 – 1940: 2.22 • Numbers mask considerable differences – Higher birth rates among immigrants and African Americans • But evened out over time – Ex: Birthrates for African-American women » 1900: 5.61; 1940: 2.87
  4. 4. What were people doing? • Periodic abstinence – BUT: Only in 1924 do people come to understand when women are fertile • Abortion – Incidence rose sharply in the 1840-1850s, esp. among married, MC women – AMA pursued campaign to criminalize abortion • But the practice remained common • Contraception – Information circulated widely until the 1870s • Condoms, sponges, “womb veils”
  5. 5. Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) • Victorian moralist • Founded NY Society for the Suppression for Vice in 1873 • Lobbied for Comstock Law (1873) – Banned “obscene” materials from being sent in the US mails – Defined contraceptive devices and information about contraception and abortion as “obscene” • Saw himself as protecting women
  6. 6. “Voluntary motherhood” • Supported by suffragists and other reformers in the 1870s and 1880s – Goal was to grant wives the right to refuse sex, not to sever the connection between sexuality and reproduction – Advocates opposed mechanical birth control; associated it with prostitution • Notion that birth control was “unnatural” • Underlying fear of male lust, promiscuity
  7. 7. Margaret Sanger A very different philosophy: “Romantic love is one thing; procreation is another. As long as the two are entangled together in an inextricable and inexplicable mess, it is not likely that any great success can be made of either.”
  8. 8. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) • Most influential crusader for legal and safe contraception, 1910s-1950s • Personal history: – Irish Catholic, working-class family – Mother endured 18 pregnancies; 11 live births; died at age 49 – Studied nursing; married William Sanger, bore three children – Moved to NY in 1910 and began working as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side • Story of Sadie Sachs
  9. 9. Early Sanger (pre 1917) • Immersed in radical politics – Influenced by Emma Goldman – Became active in radical labor movement – Gradually came to see birth control as the key to alleviating women’s oppression • 1914: Published Family Limitation – Explicit information on birth control techniques; some inaccurate – Birth control as a weapon in class warfare; the WC should go on a “birth strike”
  10. 10. Woman Rebel (1914) • Also published a radical paper – Slogan: “No Gods, No Masters.” • Aimed to raise consciousness among working women – “to stimulate working women to think of themselves and to build up a conscious fighting character” – To help girls “know just what to do or really what constitutes clean living without prudishness” • Reached out to prostitutes
  11. 11. Early Sanger, cont. • Facing arrest, Sanger fled to Europe • Influenced by European sex reformers, especially Havelock Ellis • Impressed by clinics in the Netherlands • 1916: Returned to US; opened birth control clinic in Brooklyn – Arrested, convicted and spent 30 days in jail – Trial led to NY federal court ruling that doctors could prescribe contraceptives to married patients for health reasons
  12. 12. Carrie Chapman Catt (1921) “Your reform is too narrow to appeal to me and too sordid. When the advocacy of contraception is combined with as strong a propaganda for continence (…in the interest of common decency), it will find me a more willing sponsor. That is, a million years of male control over the sustenance of women has made them sex slaves, which has produced two results: an oversexualizing of women and an oversexualizing of men.”
  13. 13. Charlotte Perkins Gilman • Primary objection: – Birth control would force women to wholly conform to male sexual desires; it would transform marriage in “unromantic, dutiful submission to male dominance.” • Eventually, though, she shifted from hostile stance to qualified support of legal birth – In the 1930s, she allied with Sanger
  14. 14. Later Sanger (after 1917) • Allied with doctors; wealthy benefactors – Birth control transformed into a medical issue • Should be dispensed by doctors/nurses – Helped secure funding for research on the Pill • Allied with eugenicists – Need to prevent the “unfit” from reproducing – Proposed a “civil service” exam for prospective parents • Increasingly active overseas – Growing interest in “population control”
  15. 15. Woman of a New Race • What is “woman’s error,” according to Sanger, and what is her “debt”? • What does Sanger mean when she talks about the “feminine spirit”? • What are her views on “continence”? • How does she view immigrants, the disabled, non- white races? • How did her book reflect postwar political concerns? • How does Sanger view abortion?
  16. 16. Assessing Sanger •Was she a sell out? •Or even worse, as the pro-life movement now argues on countless websites? •Or was she a Woman of Valor, as biographer Ellen Chesler argues?
  17. 17. References to birth control in popular culture, 1920-30s • Thinly veiled ads promised that BC would – Help wives stay “young” and “vital” – Help wives enjoy “companionate marriages” and sustain hubands’ interest in them – Allow women to be better, more energetic mothers • Ads portrayed BC as women’s responsibility – Often played on women’s anxieties
  18. 18. Ad for Lysol McCall’s, July 1928 “When they were first married, five years ago, they liked to dance together, go motoring together, play golf together. They still like to do those things together today. During years following her marriage she has protected her zest for living, her health and youthfulness, and ‘stayed young with him’ by the correct practice of feminine hygiene.”
  19. 19. Ad for Lysol Pictorial Review, 1926 “Always you find in these households a woman who has charm, gentleness, poise, and a certain untiring vitality which comes from knowing how to take care of herself.”
  20. 20. Growing acceptance in the 1930s • 1936: AMA endorsed BC – Finally began to support research, teaching in medical schools, etc. – Urged states to legalize • U.S. v. One Package (1936) – Overturned Comstock Law – Importation of contraceptives to the US ruled legal • By end of the 1930s, hundreds of BC clinics operating in the US
  21. 21. 1930s, cont. • Greater public acceptance and increased availability of birth control – Government reversed course • Anxious about swelling welfare rolls – Contraception widely available by mail • Even Sears Roebuck advertised “preventives” • Birth rate fell below replacement level for first time in American history • By 1940, only two states (MA and CT) still prohibited the dissemination of birth control to married couples
  22. 22. Evolution of public views • Ladies’ Home Journal survey (1938) – 79% women in favor of BC; 21% opposed – Catholics: 51% in favor; 49% opposed • “What do you regard as the most important reasons for birth control?” – 76% “Family income” – 24% “Birth of Defectives” – 1% “Happier Sex Relations”
  23. 23. Conclusions • Debates over BC/abortion have always been about women’s role in society – Significance of motherhood to women’s lives • Acceptance of BC rose when it was seen as improving motherhood/family life – Remained deeply controversial when associated with sex outside of marriage • Politics surrounding BC/abortion have always been connected to the politics of race and class; who should reproduce