17 Birth Control has never looked so good: A Revolutionary Period

Catelin Magel

Introduction

When individuals are asked to name some of history’s greatest advancements in the medical field, they are likely to respond by listing drugs such as penicillin or disease prevention methods such as vaccines.[1] However, one of the greatest breakthroughs in medicine is often forgotten: the creation of birth control. For starters, birth control (contraceptives) can be characterized as any method, medicine or device that is used in the prevention of pregnancy.[2] Over thousands of years, these methods have been used by individuals in some way or another and have received both praise and backlash at varying points in time. Specifically, this text will focus on the early 20th-century birth control movement within the United States and will explore the individual and organizational perspectives on this female reproductive rights revolution. Although it had previously existed, by the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of oral contraception had died due to a range of factors including the church’s values, the Comstock laws, and the morality of the medical community.[3] For instance, the church upheld that “sex without the purpose of procreation equals sex for pleasure, and sex for pleasure equals vice” which directly contradicted the purpose of birth control. An equally important force that was used to limit the reproductive rights of women was the Comstock Law of 1873, which made it a federal offense to spread birth control information through mail or across state lines.[4] By pushing congress to pass this bill, Anthony Comstock hoped to highlight the obscene and immoral nature of birth control.[5] Notably, in its own way, the medical community also took a stand against the birth control movement. Specifically, in the early 20th-century, health care professionals did so by withholding information on contraceptives, as even the distribution of information on birth control was considered illegal and breaking the law was considered immoral.

Yet, despite the existence of such powerful forces, there were many other social issues at hand that prohibited the birth control movement from gaining momentum. Amongst other things, this includes the perceived role that women played in society in the early 20th century. To be specific, women were commonly “relegated to the home” where they worked to fulfill their basic mission of being a wife and mother. Thus, women’s only reality became the act of childbearing and working to uphold the four central virtues of “piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.” However, because this so-called “cult of domesticity” encouraged women’s role as reproductive figures it was in direct contradiction with the birth control movement’s values of voluntary motherhood.

Evidently, there was a large range of social forces present in the early 20th century that actively worked against the birth control movement. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, activist Margaret Sanger became a pioneer for the birth control movement and helped overcome them. Specifically, Sanger’s interest in fighting for women’s reproductive rights stems from her time as a nurse in New York City, during which she witnessed starving children, dying mothers, and failed self-induced abortions. Seeing the inability of women to take care of both themselves and their children prompted Sanger to join the New York socialist party, after which she started writing a controversial column named “What every girl should know” and ultimately ended up publishing her own magazine “Women Rebel” in 1914. Then, in an effort to expand her reach, Margaret Sanger introduced the Birth Control Review in February of 1917 as a way to advocate for birth control in the greater, national spotlight.

The Birth Control Review was considered an extremely unique piece of work at its time, nothing of its scale had ever existed before and especially not written by a woman for women. In the creation of this magazine, Sanger and her editors used a mixture of academic and social arguments as a way to serve as the “leading voice for reproductive rights, legalization of birth control and “the protection of womanhood”.” Margaret Sanger’s vision was to alter the public opinion on birth control, and the Birth Control Review gave her the tools to do so. Specifically, Sanger was aware that it was poor women who were most in need of contraceptives, however, because the magazine was not able to legally provide this, it instead was used as a mechanism to justify birth control. Consequently, the magazine’s writers aimed to reach individuals in the middle and upper classes who could use their powerful status to legalize birth control.

The Birth Control Review included a range of content including poems, book reviews, and illustrations that highlighted perspectives all the way from members of the medical and judicial community to individuals who identified as husbands and wives.[6] Specifically, the primary source shown below, three personal stories included as articles in the Birth Control Review, focuses on the latter of these perspectives and the reasoning behind them.

As mentioned before, in the early 20th century, being a good wife and mother were seen as a woman’s basic mission and profession. With every marriage thus came the expectation that the female partner was responsible for childbearing while the male was expected to provide protection and financial security. This prominent patriarchal mentality debased the woman both mentally and physically, ultimately making her fully dependent on her husband, with her reproductive ability being her only valuable asset.[7] By making birth control illegal, a woman’s right to be in charge of her own body was disregarded. Women all across the country were desperate not to get pregnant.[8] Specifically, this is due to the inability of many working-class mothers to properly care for their children, as they were often sick, their children needed continuous attention and they were required to work along with their husbands to provide for their families. Consequently, in response to these burdensome conditions women at this time stated things such as, ”I would rather die than have another” (Letter no. 6) or “No woman can stand that and do all her work” (Letter no. 9).[9] More importantly, as exemplified within these letters, many women begged Margaret Sanger for information on birth control as the act of bearing children not only put a strain on their mental and physical health but also on their marriages.

On the other hand, it was commonly believed that men could survive on their own. As a result of this mentality, men were expected to provide protection to their wives, otherwise known as the weaker half of the relationship. However, this act of protection came at a price: a wife had to obey her husband. This concept is reinforced by a section within the article “The law at work”, a part of the primary source that outlines a husband’s perspective, where a fictional husband argues, “Marriage protected women and children, but the wife owed something to the husband.” Throughout this article of the birth control review, the author Jessie Ashley clearly emphasizes the divide between the roles played by women and men and marriage. Women were viewed as “birthing machines” while men were seen as the protectors of their families, who had the right to take ownership of their wives and their respective wombs. While women often thought of pregnancy as a burden, men considered it to be “the most beautiful and most natural profession”. Men’s oblivious perspective on bearing children is also expressed within the primary source when the husband questions, “Wasn’t it the woman’s happiness to have children?”[10]

All in all, over the past few decades, there have been many changes in attitudes towards birth control. While these days there are still individuals who oppose it, the majority of people are in favor of contraceptives. Officially, the first oral contraceptive was approved by the US food and drug commission in 1960, with the supreme court giving couples the right to use birth control five years later in 1965. Thus, during these years, females were officially granted greater reproductive freedom, a breakthrough that would not have been possible without Margaret Sanger and her establishment of the Birth Control Review.

The Birth Control Review (1918)

The Law at Work[11]

By Jessie Ashley[12]

The Husband:

I’VE KNOCKED and knocked, but she don’t answer and the baby’s crying something awful.” The girl stood in the doorway looking frightened yet resentful at being frightened. George Bernard, sitting with his newspaper before a bright fire, slowly turned towards her.

“Knock again, then go into the room,” he said. “Perhaps she has overslept.”

“I tried sir, but the door’s locked.”

“Locked?” echoed George startled. Then he rose. “I will go,” he said.

The door yielded at last, yielded suddenly, so that George almost fell forward. The bed was empty; the wails of a sickly baby came from the crib beside it. Across the room, the bathroom door was also shut and also locked and also yielded, slowly, but at last. The large white bathtub was almost full of water and Helen lay there with her yellow hair floating about her.

It was just too late to restore her, although they worked for hours. Her life was gone and the germ of life within her had been exterminated too.

She had written: “I cannot endure it so soon again. I will not go through it. Five babies in six years and another coming. No one would help me, so I must help myself”

Her husband left alone with five small children, bewildered, almost frantic, tried to think it out. Help her? How help her? Wasn’t it nature? Was he to blame? He loved her; she loved him. She had been gay and healthy.[13] Only within the last year or two she had grown nervous, ailing and weak.

She had told him she would not have another child, but women always said that, and when the whole thing was over, they were glad. It was nature; it was a woman’s part in life. And she had asked him to find out how to prevent having so many babies. But he was a moral man and loved his wife.[14] Of course, he wanted her; of course, he wanted children, not so fast perhaps, but that was nature. If people loved and were married, wasn’t it the woman’s happiness to have children?

He could not understand. How help her? What was wrong? Marriage gave them both rights and duties. Marriage protected women and children, but the wife owed something to the husband.[15] Surely that was fair, and surely the law recognized the husband’s rights.

He went round and round the circle-nature, religion, duty, happiness-over and over again.

How help her? How?

Letters from Women

Letter No. 6[16]

I AM A MOTHER of four living children and one dead, the oldest 10 and baby 22 months old. I am very nervous and sickly after my children. I would like you to advise me what to do to prevent from having any more, as I would rather die than have another. I am keeping away from my husband as much as I can, but it causes quarrel and almost separation. All my babies have had marasmus in the first year of their lives and I almost lost my baby last summer.[17] I always worry about my children so much. My husband works in a brass foundry.[18] It is not a very good job and living is so high that we have to live as cheap as possible. I’ve only got two rooms and kitchen and I do all my work and sewing, which is very hard for me. My husband is not of the best kind. He nags and finds fault with me. If it were not for my children, I would leave him. So please Mrs. Sanger, write and let me know what to use to prevent, I remain,

Mrs. M. T.

Letter No. 9[19]

I AM VERY MUCH in favor of birth control, as I speak for myself. I am the mother of nine children and if I could have prevented it without abortion there would never have been so many. Two of my children were born in one year and two more only thirteen months between. No woman can stand that and do all her own work, and now I have to sew to help support them, as my husband is not able to do hard work, and my baby is only 9 months. I sincerely hope for myself that you can send me information of some kind so I will not become pregnant again, for I cannot ever stand to come through it again, as my health is not good and I am 42 years old and certainly think I have had my share of it. Hoping you will send me this information, I remain,

Very sincerely yours, Mrs. H. E. B.


Catelin Magel is a freshman at Wake Forest University from Boston, MA. 


  1. Monique Ellis, “The Top 10 Medical Advances in History,” Proclinical (blog), November 2017, https://www.proclinical.com/blogs/2017-11/the-top-10-medical-advances-in-history.
  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “Birth Control Methods,” Office on Women’s Health (blog), 2017, https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/birth-control-methods.
  3. Jon Knowles, “A History of Birth Control Methods” (Katharine Dexter McCormick Library, January 2012), https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/2613/9611/6275/History_of_BC_Methods.pdf.
  4. Vanessa Murphree and KarlaK. Gower, “‘Making Birth Control Respectable’: The Birth Control Review, 1917-1928,” American Journalism 30, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 210–34, https://doi.org/10.1080/08821127.2013.788464.
  5. Sheraden Seward, “The Comstock Law (1873) | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia,” January 2009, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/comstock-law-1873.
  6. Murphree and Gower, “Making Birth Control Respectable.”
  7. Vesna Leskošek, “Historical Perspective on the Ideologies of Motherhood and Its Impact on Social Work,” Social Work & Society 9, no. 2 (2011), https://www.socwork.net/sws/article/view/270.
  8. Jay Kleinberg, “The No-Win Mom: Motherland in Twentieth-Century America,” Yale University Press 8, no. 2 (1999): 387–95.
  9. M. T., H. B., “Letters from Women,” The Birth Control Review, April 1918, 3 edition, sec. Letter no. 6,9 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015082132963&view=1up&seq=23.
  10. Jessie Ashley, “The Law At Work,” The Birth Control Review, 1918, 2 edition.
  11. Jessie Ashley, “The Law At Work,” The Birth Control Review, 1918, 2 edition.
  12. Jessie Ashley (1861-1919) was a pioneering woman lawyer and feminist who co-founded the National Birth Control League (1915) and was an editor of the Birth Control Review. “Jessie Ashley,” Women In Peace, accessed November 4, 2019, https://www.womeninpeace.org/a-names/2017/4/19/jessie-ashley.
  13. In this context the term “gay” was used to express “carefree” or “cheerful” emotions. “Gay,” accessed November 17, 2019, https://www.yourdictionary.com/gay.
  14. A moral man is a man who follows the rules of conduct within a group or society
  15. In this context, the husband believes that his wife owes him, children, a family
  16. M. T., “Letters from Women,” The Birth Control Review, 1918, 2 edition, sec. Letter no. 6.
  17. Marasmus is the process of wasting in infants and young children as a result of severe food malnutrition. Foram Mehta, “Marasmus: A Type of Malnutrition,” Medical News Today, accessed November 17, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313185.php.
  18. A brass foundry refers to a brass workshop. “Foundry (Noun)” (Merriam-Webster), accessed November 17, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/foundry.
  19. H. B., “Letters from Women,” The Birth Control Review, April 1918, 3 edition, sec. Letter no. 9, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015082132963&view=1up&seq=23.