'No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother,' said American nurse, sex educator and birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Yet the freedom she urged for was not a given in the early 20th century, and remained at the heart of the struggle of the women’s movement for decades onwards. In this chapter we discuss the fight for acceptance of contraceptive methods by pioneering women, first focusing on Marie Stopes.
In 1918 British author, scientist and activist Marie Stopes published her book on Married Love, the success of which encouraged Stopes to write a follow-up. Wise Parenthood: a Book for Married People, a manual on birth control, was published later that year.
Both publications received a lot of public attention and led to calls for help from readers. Because of those reactions, Stopes decided to initiate the public birth control campaign that would eventually become her most important legacy. Stopes’ campaign was both directed at practical support strategies as well as political advocacy and legislative change. She enjoyed the support of influential people, such as Lady Constance Lytton.
Even though the greater part of the readers of Married Love were members of the upper and middle class, Stopes wanted to reach all social classes with her work. This eventually led to the foundation of her first birth control clinic in March 1921, the very first of its kind in the United Kingdom. Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control was established at 61 Marlborough Road in Holloway, a working-class area in North London.
The establishment of the clinic marked the start of a new era in which married women and couples, for the first time, had the opportunity to receive a reliable and open education on reproductive health and birth control methods, and to take control over their fertility - completely free of charge.
Marie Stopes would go on to develop a network of regional clinics modelled after the London original. The high public interest in the clinics’ services sharply contrasts with the stigma that birth control continued to hold in working-class communities. Sex was taboo and even feminists avoided the subject of birth control until after World War I. Women were raised to believe that contraception was shameful and therefore visiting a birth control clinic was an act of subversion.
The societal disdain didn’t prevent women from seeking advice with Stopes about the three types of reproductive planning she promoted: preventing unwanted births, spacing children within the family and helping infertile couples to conceive. While opposed to abortions, Stopes instructed her midwives to educate women about the use of contraceptive technologies and worked together with manufacturers of devices such as the Pro-Race cervical cap and the Clinocap.
Even though Marie Stopes' work advanced the field of contraception and emancipation through reproductive choice significantly, her own motives for doing so weren't purely for the betterment of everyone's lives. Stopes was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, going so far as to advocate for compulsory sterilisation of those she considered 'unfit for parenthood'. Stopes believed that people of lower social status and non-white races or mixed-race relationships should not be allowed to procreate. Her book Radiant Motherhood quite explicitly states that she feels that the 'racially diseased' should be sterilised by x-ray, among other eugenics-inspired paragraphs. When Stopes died in 1958 she bequeathed her birth control clinics to the Eugenics Society.
Margaret Sanger and Katharine Dexter McCormick
Stopes’ activism inspired the birth control movement, not only in Britain but across the globe, particularly in formerly British colonies such as India and in the United States. America had its own strong voices in birth control activism as well. Most notably, Margaret Sanger was an obstetrical nurse who, working in the Lower East Side of New York City, was confronted daily with poverty, uncontrolled fertility, high rates of infant and maternal mortality and death from illegal abortions.
Sanger decided to act. The goal of her mission, which began around 1912, was to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Sanger’s preferred means of protest was the written word. Next to publishing books, articles and pamphlets, she institutionalised her efforts by founding America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916.
Sanger’s actions were met with a lot of opposition. At that time in the United States, it was forbidden by law to publish facts about contraception. This obstacle did not stop Sanger, though one of her publications led to her being arrested in 1914 on the grounds of violating obscenity laws. While not without criticism, Sanger also received a lot of public support and, in the end, her encounters with the court turned out to be beneficial for the cause: Sanger succeeded at getting permission for physicians to advise patients on birth control. This initiated the reinterpretation of the Comstock Act of 1873, which labelled literature on contraceptive methods as obscene.
Despite questions surrounding Sanger’s motivations for promoting birth control and her allegiance to eugenics - the idea that selective breeding could benefit the future of humankind - her work is still recognised as a sizable contribution to the development of the pill and the promotion of birth control. Her speech 'Children's Era', (1925) ranks at n°81 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century and Sanger was immortalised as the inspiration for the comic-book character Wonder Woman.
The story of Margaret Sanger is intertwined with that of another pioneering advocate for birth control: Katharine Dexter McCormick. In the 1920s, the two women started to collaborate and managed, among others, to smuggle diaphragms into the country for use in Sanger’s clinics. After her wealthy husband passed away in 1947, McCormick inherited millions and increasingly devoted her attention to activism.
It was Sanger who introduced her to the idea of a birth control pill. McCormick was convinced immediately of the importance of female-controlled contraception. Thanks to Sanger she became the financial backer of Dr Gregory Pincus and took on a supervisory role in the development of the pill. Despite these groundbreaking activities, McCormick’s accomplishments were long forgotten, with her legacy only recently gained recognition.
Their awareness raising efforts would be continued by other trailblazers such as Planned Parenthood or Family Planning organisations, which help couples to regulate the number and spacing of children within a family.