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Women and Their Fight For and Against Contraceptives and Rights in the 1920s

Published onDec 01, 2022
Women and Their Fight For and Against Contraceptives and Rights in the 1920s

While the term “birth control” may not have existed until the early 1900s, the idea of birth control has been around for thousands of years, dating back to 1850 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.1 Men and women, whether for religious reasons, personal reasons, economic reasons, or others, have always expressed a desire to have control over their bodies and to feel personally empowered when it comes to starting families. Due to the lack of legal and safe birth control options, many women experienced struggles that would affect them for a lifetime because they weren't able to control getting pregnant, did not have sufficient economic resources to raise a family, or were too young.

Because of previous ideas of women along with religious beliefs, the topic of contraception was a taboo topic for centuries (and some would still consider it taboo in current times). Nonetheless, women such as Margaret Sanger broke the ice in the 1910s and 1920s by fiercely advocating for contraception education, birth control clinics, and female empowerment while simultaneously countering people such as Anthony Comstock, whose Comstock Law of 1873 said contraceptives were “obscene and inaugurated a century of indignities associated with birth control’s illicit status.”2 Unfortunately, both women and men supported Comstock and the ideas that contraception supported promiscuity and unnatural methods with non-procreative reproduction sex.3 However, when Sanger and other advocates such as Katharine McCormick and Emma Goldman started to open women’s eyes to family planning with greater options, the movement grew wildly in popularity. In addition to the continuous growth of the birth control movement, the year of 1920 was also vitally important for the women's movement in general in the United States because of the ratification of the 19th amendment that eliminated gender as a barrier to voting. Overall, at this time, the general agency of women was increasing; sadly, not all women believed this was a good thing and some consistently fought against more progressive ideas.

What is Discussed?

In this analysis, two primary sources, one written by a woman against contraception methods and one written by women who are begging for contraception for various reasons, will be compared and contrasted. The analysis explores why women would or would not stand for greater access to contraception and dives into contradictions of the debate in the 1920’s (when both narratives were written).

Primary Source Comparison

The two primary sources that will be explored in this analysis are “Birth Control” by a Catholic Medical Women and “Motherhood in Bondage” by Margaret Sanger. “Birth Control” is an article written by a Catholic woman whose chief arguments against contraception are that it is against nature, against medical opinion, and against the Catholic church.4 One interesting portion of this article was the section arguing that professionals in the medical field strongly discouraged the use of contraceptives. After naming a few experts, the author of the article goes on to say the doctors “unanimously agreed that the use of these by women during their early married life often led to their being unable to bear children later on when they might wish to do so.” However, the birth control device, the diaphragm, is what most women were using at the time of this article, and it was considered to be “cheap to manufacture, simple to instruct, effective, and free of side effects.”5 There was little medical research that showed using the diaphragm was unsafe and this is supported by the fact that Margaret Sanger advocated for this device and openly distributed them illegally, knowing that it was 92-96% effective and safe when used correctly and with spermicide gel.6

This idea that medical professionals said birth control was unsafe is intriguing when compared to a letter in the other primary source, “Motherhood in Bondage.” “Motherhood in Bondage” is a collection of detailed letters sent to Margaret Sanger, supporting her in her fight and begging for wider birth control access for all women. The book is filled with first person narratives of struggles due to lack of contraceptives. In chapter 15, letter number 5, a woman complains: “I have asked my doctor oh! so many times to tell me something to do to prevent contraception, but he won’t tell.”7 The fact that in one source doctors are claiming birth control is dangerous without evidence but in another they will not even enlighten their patients made me question; what were the real intentions of the doctors treating these struggling women? Were the intentions to protect their patients and their livelihood or influence them and make them live in concordance with their own personal beliefs? Of course, before the devices were made legal, doctors probably couldn't openly advocate for them, but the fact that they sent so many women home with destroyed bodies due to repetitive childbirth, knowing that would probably come in 9 months later and destroy their bodies even more, is unfortunate to say the least.

To continue analyzing the same letter from “Motherhood in Bondage,” we see that the woman writing the letter admits she is a Catholic, which is brave considering one of the biggest reasons people fought against contraceptive methods was because it went against religious teachings, especially in Catholicism. The woman seems to be trying to grasp how having control of not bringing children into a world that they can't be supported in is a sin, and she even admits that she knows “deep down in her heart she is not sinning by trying to prevent.”8 “Birth Control” by a Catholic Medical Woman directly contrasts this view and strongly claims that only abstinence or planning sexual activity around a woman’s cycle is permitted and religiously tolerated. But it's important to remember that this restriction by Catholics was, and is, just a social construct. There was no real reason why women shouldn't be able to limit pregnancies with a barrier/chemical contraceptive but the deeply-rooted, religious social constructs that dominated the 1920s allowed arguments, such as those seen in our primary source “Birth Control,” to maintain authority and power over the less fortunate women such as those who contributed to “Motherhood of Bondage.”

Conclusion: Decision Making IS Empowerment

The social constructions of sin, motherhood, female empowerment and religious beliefs all played a huge role in the debate over contraception in the 1920s. Luckily, advocates such as Margaret Sanger were persistent, were able to gain supporters, and mobilize many women. Eventually, access to contraceptives and education about reproduction and family planning was more widely offered. However, the protests against women having the power to decide things for themselves are still present today. In this age, contraception has been very widely accepted by most, however newer hot topics such as abortion have taken front stage. While some would argue that having access to contraceptive methods in the 1920s versus having had an abortion in 2022 are completely different things, I think it comes down to the idea that any human being should have the right to make decisions affecting their own body. The right of having a decision to make should always be allowed; whether that be to use a contraceptive, to not have an abortion, or vice versa… the decision should always be our own.

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