Thursday, January 10, 2013

Turn of the Century Birth Control Movement in America (1800s - early 1900s)

"Your honor," says Comstock, "this woman gave birth to a naked child!"
Political cartoon, The Masses, September, 1915
The document I found in the Special Collections of UIC Library was a five page text recording the minutes of a meeting of the Birth Control Conference of the Chicago Woman’s Aid. The conference was held Thursday, December 5, 1929. It was found in box 15, folder 135 of Chicago Women’s Aid Records. It starts out with Dr. William Allen Pusey gratefully thanking Dr. Rachelle Yarros and Dr. Bacon for their continued commitment in the birth control movement. Dr. Yarros was a resident at Hull House and was a strong advocate of birth control in Chicago in the early 1900s.

            The following points were made in the document:

The Comstock Law of 1879 categorized the dissemination of information on birth control as an obscenity. Half the states had enacted such obstructive laws, and in so doing, no medical textbook which contained information on birth control could be mailed within the United States without the threat of prosecution. There was only one medical school (no name given) which the members of the Birth Control Conference were aware of which educated to its students on contraception.

            Legal, medical, sociological, and ethic paragraphs were given as logical reasons for birth control. A paragraph was devoted to each one of these topics.

            It was pointed out that the laws that vary state-by-state are inconsistent and illogical. A comparison was made between the laws in New Mexico which allowed doctors to advise patients on birth control as they saw fit versus the Connecticut law under which women were allowed to use any method at all for birth control.

            A case was made for research in methods of contraception. War, famine, and disease as a result of overpopulation were addressed. There is a paragraph alluding to Eugenics, in which the case was made for the possible compulsory sterilization of “unfit” individuals. “The fact that some of the most unfit class of all – diseased and defective and parasitic – will not use contraceptive information or cannot be taught it, is a grave danger to the race” (p 3).  This rather broad statement, however, does not define specific criteria of who should be considered “unfit,” who would be the ones to pass such judgment, or how this policy would be implemented. This is a deeply complicated ethical issue which brings up questions about how class and ethnicity were perceived by members of more privileged groups in society.

            The statement that “the mother of a growing family is presumably more valuable than one more child and should not be sacrificed for such” (Ibid) is a relevant question which is still being brought up today in political discussions regarding whether a women should get an abortion if it would save her life.

            The most striking part of this document was the following quote: “We as men believe that if we had to undergo sickness, disfigurement, limitation of activities, discomfort, pain, danger, and sometimes death for the birth of a child, we would insist that it was our absolute right to choose our own time for the process. Therefore, we believe this an essential and absolute right of women and encourage them to claim such right” (Ibid). This is followed by the signing of the document by eighteen men, many of whom were doctors. To have so many men make such a strong and passionate statement is truly significant, especially at a time when women were typically expected to just look forward to motherhood and not concern themselves with the health risks involved in pregnancy.

            A prominent aspect of this document is the statement by Dr. Irving F. Stein of the Michael Reese Hospital that “intelligent women needed no means of information and help, but it was the ignorant women who were much in need of assistance and active advice. The method to be employed by the ignorant woman must be simple and effective.” However, nowhere in the document was it delineated what particular standards applied to the categories of ‘intelligent’ and ‘ignorant’. This statement may illustrate the perception at the time, that intelligence was an innate quality which only ‘certain people’ posses (i.e. the middle- and upper-class), while the working-class were viewed as ‘ignorant.’

            Of particular interest is the speech by Joseph L. Baer, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist for twenty-five years, in which he described being reprimanded by his seniors at Michael Reese Hospital for giving lectures on birth control at a woman’s club (no name given) and at the Drake Hotel. The paper mentioned that Dr. Baer had studied medicine in Vienna and Berlin and was acquainted with the German laws concerning birth control. Throughout the 1920s German law allowed for distribution and use of birth control. Condoms and cervical caps were legal but expensive in Germany; therefore, the most common form of birth control was coitus interruptus (Stephenson, 37).

            This paper is representative of other items in the collection because it addressed how contraception was viewed in its day. The document mentioned that the American Birth Control League received five thousand letters in one year asking for information on birth control. Despite the public demand for such information, the Comstock Laws still held doctors and patients alike captive for fear of fines and imprisonment.

            The early twentieth century was an active period in the birth control movement. Mary Ware Dennett (1872-1947) founded the National Voluntary Parenthood League in 1919 and was a prominent birth control and sex education activist. Dennett utilized First Amendment rights to discuss birth control and worked tirelessly to have birth control decriminalized (Cott, 90).

            Many doctors, nurses, and lecturers were arrested under the similar violations of the Comstock Laws, most notably Margaret Sanger (1879-1966); she played a pivotal role in the fight for the right to distribute birth control information and pamphlets to the public. She was arrested numerous times for violating the Comstock Laws and fought those laws within the court system. She formed the American Birth Control League in 1921, and developed a different philosophy regarding birth control than Dennett. Sanger initially had a more socialist stance, having worked as a nurse in working-class communities, but she shifted to the eugenic standpoint of better babies. She fought for the right of “doctors only” to distribute birth control and educate the public on the matter. This stance garnered the American Birth Control League great appeal among women in America; by 1926, the League declared to have thirty-seven thousand members, with close to 90% being female (Cott, 91).

            Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was an ardent supporter of Sanger. Goldman toured the United States speaking about birth control options and distributing Sanger’s pamphlet Family limitation. Goldman’s lover, Ben Reitman, worked tirelessly to promote birth control. Reitman was nicknamed “the Hobo Doctor” because of his work with the downtrodden of society; the poor, the immigrants, prostitutes, hobos, etc. In 1916, the couple was arrested for endorsing birth control. Reitman served a six month sentence in jail, after which, the romantic relationship with Goldman ended (Reitman papers, 1).

            Sanger’s Family Limitation pamphlet caught the attention of Comstock. In 1915, she was found guilty of nine counts of violating the Obscenity Laws and faced forty-five years in prison. This prompted her to escape to Europe, leaving her husband, architect William Sanger, behind in New York. Mr. Sanger was harassed by Anthony Comstock to disclose the whereabouts of his wife, to which he staunchly refused (D’Emilio, 222).

            Access to and knowledge about birth control differed according to economic class and education. Sanger’s Clinical Research Bureau conducted a survey of their clients and discovered that the most urban working-class couples used the withdrawal method (coitus interruptus) as the most common form of birth control (no numbers given). This method proved itself to be inadequate by the high incidence of unplanned pregnancies and frequency of abortion, especially among couples with less education.  More than half of the working-class women interviewed said they did not use any form of birth control, whereas one third stated that they were “careful” with the timing of intercourse and “stayed away” from their husbands. One woman said that when she rejected her husband’s advances after the birth of their second child, he abandoned the family (D’Emilio, 246).

            There was also a noticeable difference in use of birth control according to race. Of those couples who used birth control, whites were prone to use the withdrawal method and condoms, whereas black couples relied on female douching (D’Emilio, 247). This is interesting, because I attended a Black Woman’s Health Conference about 10 years ago which had a lecture discussing the high incidence of douching as a form of birth control within the Black community. They touched upon the health risks of douching and how ineffective it is as a birth control method. Douching has been proven to destabilize the natural pHH level and culture of the vaginal environment, douching is deemed unhealthy by the medical community. It increases the likelihood of contracting various infections, one of which is PID (Pelvic Inflammatory Disease) (CDC).

            The logic behind douching as a method of contraception is based on the belief that sperm remains within the vagina after intercourse. Although some ejaculate may still be present, most of it has already passed through the cervical os before a douche can be utilized and is already inside the uterus, thus inaccessible. Douching is still commonly used in America, despite the health risks. It is estimated that 20 – 40 percent of American women douche, mainly among African Americans, Hispanics and teens (Douching).

             There was one birth control advocate I researched who predated the Comstock Laws of 1873; this was John Noyes (1811-1886), founder of the Oneida Community. His birth control method of sex without ejaculation attracted letters from thousands of people throughout the United States, thus prompting him to write a pamphlet describing the technique and the sexosophy behind it in Male Continence, which was first published in 1872. This method was practiced among the Oneida Community since it was founded in 1848. Unfortunately for Noyes, the Comstock laws came into effect just a year later, prohibiting such material to be distributed to the general public.

            Noyes stated his sexosophy in the following terms, “The mouth has three distinct functions, viz., those of breathing, eating, and speaking. Two of these, breathing and eating, are purely physical; and these we have in common with the brutes. The third function that of speaking, is social, and subservient to the intellectual and spiritual. In this we rise above the brutes. They are destitute of it except in a very inferior degree. So, the two primary functions of the sexual organs - the urinary and reproductive - are physical, and we have them in common with the brutes. The third, viz., the amative, is social, and subservient to the spiritual. In this again we rise above the brutes. They have it only as a bait to the reproductive. As speech, the distinctive glory of man, is the superior function of the mouth, so the social office of the sexual organs is their superior function, and that which gives man a position above the brutes” (Noyes, 12).

            In closing, I found this document to be an eye-opening window into the value systems of the time and I gained a better understanding of the obstacles birth control advocates faced in their struggle to make information on contraception accessible to the public. The fact that we as a country are still battling some of the same issues nearly a century later is striking. Access to birth control continues to be a heated topic in the highest branches of government to this day. The question of comprehensive sex education for teenagers is remains an unresolved issue, despite the fact that America has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the industrialized world (Adolescent). It is remarkable how the more things change, the more they stay the same.


                Ben Reitman Papers, UIC Special Collections, An inventory of the collection at the University of Illinois at Chicago

                Birth Control Conference Minutes held December 5, 1929, in: Chicago Women’s Aid Records, Box 15, Folder 135, at University of Illinois at Chicago, Special Collections

                Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, PID facts,

                Cott, Nancy, F, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, Yale University Press, New York, 1987

                D’Emilio, John, Freedman, Estelle, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Perennial Library, New York, 1988

                Douching Fact Sheet,

                Noyes, John, Male Continence, 1872,


                Singh, S, Darroch, J E, Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: Levels and Trends in Developed Countries, Family Planning Perspectives, Volume 32, Number 1, January/February 1999

                Stephenson, Jill, Women in Nazi Germany, Pearson/Longman, London, 2001

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