birth control; issue of woman’s body, sex, and reproduction;


- End 1800s more than 25,000 US women dying from childbirth-related problems each year – "walking under the shadow of maternity", childbirth as "getting through your trial." Death from maternity-related causes 65 times greater than in 1980s. Risk in each pregnancy about one in 150; figuring that women delivered five live babies during childbearing years, then one in every thirty women expected to die in childbirth.

- better in other countries – in 1910 US one mother died for every 154 babies born alive; in Sweden lost just one mother for every 430 live births.

- "My friend, Mrs. John Howard has died as she has expected to, under the most aggravated circumstances that a woman can leave the world. She never gave birth to her child; but died in the effort. In this dreadful manner have six of my youthful contemporaries departed this life."


1800s "voluntary motherhood";

abstinence ["marital continence"]; rhythm method ["agenetic period"]; withdrawal;

- John Humphrey Noyes - concern over wife giving birth 5 times in 6 years, only one child lived - "After our last disappointment, I pledged my word to my wife that I would never again expose her to such fruitless suffering."

Oneida community - NY 1840s – woman has an "absolute right to determine when she will & will not be exposed to pregnancy."

Boston Gynecological Society 1871 condemned "the pathological results of conjugal fraud as practiced in so disgusting a manner at the so-called Oneida Community."



1870s women's rights movement

-       Elizabeth Cady Stanton


- "prevention of conception" "limitation of offspring" "preventives" "regulating reproduction" "limitation of the family" "regulators" "checks" "controlling the female system".

- homemade or commercial douches – "female syringes," "irrigators," "injctions" "sanitative washes," "purifying powders" "prevention powders" "defertilizing solution" "infecundating powders" and "anti-conception compounds.";

- 1884 Kansas City Medical Record, "So common has the art become that we are safe in saying a respectable minority of the society ladies, while providing for their wedding, also provide themselves with a perfectly adjusted syringe, which is at once kept within reach."

- 1832 book The Fruits of Philosophy by liberal doctor Charles Knowlton;

- condoms, ["baudruche", "French rubber goods,". "French male safes" "The French secret" "cundrums" "caps" "skins" "apex envelopes" "gentlemen’s protectors"]

- diaphragms ["womb veils," "female preventatives,’ "female protectors," "Victoria’s protectors" the "French pessary" or "FP"]

- sponges ["Mediterranean toilet sponges".]



- counter-attacks:

   - coitus interrruptus as cause of mental illness or even cancer

   - fear that physical devices (condoms, diaphragms, sponges) cause physical injury, nervous tension, or leave women sterile.

   - unnatural for women not to have children,

   - contraception encouraging promiscuity


After 1830s, increase in abortion rates in US – seen as OK if done before quickening,

"menstrual regulation," "ladies’ relief,", "curing irregularities" and "ridding oneself of an obstruction."


During 1800s, birth rate for white women fell almost by half, average number born to a white woman surviving to menopause dropped from 7.04 children in 1800 to 3.56 in 1900.


1860s & 1870s doctors’ campaign against abortion;

Lydia Pinkham’s compound – "female problems: -



1873 Comstock Law: "Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use"


Anthony Comstock head New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.


By definition, anything related to contraception or abortion was obscene. "Whoever… shall sell…lend… give away… publish… or have in his possession any obscene book, pamphlet, advertisement… or any medicine or any article whatsoever for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion… shall be imprisoned at hard labor… not less than six months… or fined not less than $100."


WWI rise of birth control movement

Anarchist Emma Goldman: "Woman's freedom & independence must come from refusing to bear children unless she wants them."

Deported from US 1919;


Margaret Sanger (1883-1966)

mother had 11 children & several miscarriages, dying age 49.

  - Sanger nursing work on New York's Lower East Side

1912 "What Every Girl Should Know"

"What Every Girl Should Know

- Nothing, by Order of the US Post Office."


newspaper The Woman Rebel: "I believe that woman is enslaved by sex conventions, by motherhood, by middle-class morality."

pamphlet "Family Limitation": "Birth control must not be set back by the false cry of obscenity.  Women must learn to know their own bodies." 

100,000 copies.

"Thousands of women bearing 12 to 16 children request me to send them this pamphlet.  300,000 mothers who lose their babies every year from poverty and neglect.  Are the old archaic laws to be respected above womanhood?  The women of America answer, no!" 

Brooklyn clinic 1916: "Mothers!  Can you afford to have a large family?  Do you want any more children?  If not, do not kill or take life, but prevent."  

500 women in 9 days.

Sanger month in jail for violating Comstock law; 


1921 American Birth Control League (ABCL)

   getting support from doctors, producing birth-control literature, supporting clinics, national political lobbying and publicity;


37,000 members at peak - Katherine Hepburn. Eleanor Roosevelt favored "planned families"

1936 poll - 79% women believed in birth control.

   Clinics in India, Japan



Sears catalog selling "preventives" (condoms);

1936 Supreme Court decision weakening Comstock laws;

1937 American Medical Association officially declared that contraception was legitimate medical service;

Sanger network of 300 birth control clinics;

1942 ABCL changed name to Planned Parenthood Association

"Modern life is based on control.  We control machines, the speed of our autos, and disease.  Let us control the size of our families to insure health & happiness."


1920s research on estrogen & progesterone,

1943 synthetic substitute for progesterone

financial support Katherine McCormick;

tests by Harvard OB/GYN John Rock, 1956. 


1960 Food & Drug Admin approved manufacture & sale of birth control pills – within five years, most popular contraceptive in US,

"sexual revolution"

Clare Boothe Luce: thanks to the pill, "modern woman is at last free, as a man is free, to dispose of her own body, to earn her living, to pursue the improvement of her mind, to try a successful career."


1964 Connecticut misdemeanor to "use any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception." 

Time: "Late every night in Conn, lights go out and tens of thousands of citizens proceed zestfully to break the law."

1965 Supreme Court "Griswold v. Connecticut" - constitutional right for married couples to use contraceptives;

1972 Supreme Court extended right to unmarried people;