On January 17, 1916, the eve of her scheduled obscenity trial, Margaret Sanger addressed a gathering of supporters. A political radical and former nurse who would go on to found Planned Parenthood, Sanger had been indicted for the distribution of her fiery paper “The Woman Rebel,” which advocated contraception. More than a hundred guests attended a dinner to listen to the comely wife and mother who had caused such a stir. The prepared text of her speech proclaimed–with typographical fervor presumably matched in her delivery–“THERE is nothing new, nothing radical in birth control. Aristotle advocated it; Plato advocated it; all our great and modern thinkers have advocated it!”
It was true that contraception–Sanger and her comrades coined the term “birth control” in 1914–had been practiced, or attempted, for millennia; ancient Egyptians had blocked sperm with a paste made of crocodile dung. But in the United States at the time, birth control was legally restricted and widely inaccessible, especially for the poor. In the previous century, a thriving market in prophylactics had provoked a conservative crackdown. The federal Comstock Act, passed in 1873, made it illegal to send “obscene” materials, including contraceptive devices and information, through the mail. Although the manufacture and sale of the devices were generally allowed, various state laws prohibited advertisements, doctors’ prescriptions and use. These legal constraints, combined with the expense and taboo, meant, for many couples, coitus interruptus or pregnancy–or, frequently, both.
Birth control’s enemies worried that it would encourage fornication and subvert traditional gender roles. (Their fears were, of course, not unfounded.) According to the Catholic Church, sex, even in marriage, was for procreation alone, and contraception would debase conjugal relations. Some called it “child murder.” Essentially, all of the objections to birth control anticipated those more familiar today in reference to abortion.
On behalf of fertility control, several distinct cases were beginning to emerge in Europe and the United States. In economies that no longer relied on farm labor, ordinary couples sought to limit their families for financial reasons. Emma Goldman, the American feminist and anarchist, perceived birth control’s promise for sexual freedom. Neo-Malthusians warned of explosive population growth, while eugenicists aspired to halt the reproduction of the “unfit.” In her speech that winter night, Sanger, for her part, focused on the wretched conditions of the poor, forced by lack of contraception to multiply their hungry offspring. But she never met a rationale for birth control she didn’t like, and over the course of her career she invoked them all.
The mother of the birth control movement took an unorthodox approach to activism. Rather than seeking solutions to a given problem, she found a solution–she called birth control her religion–and continually identified ills she thought it could remedy. In part this was sheer political calculation. At the time, eugenics, for instance, was considered progressive, and she hoped it would lend credibility to her suspect cause. But if Sanger was pragmatic to a fault, she wasn’t a cynic; she seems to have truly believed in birth control’s eclectic applications.
Today, of course, the most controversial of these is the disgraced philosophy of eugenics, which attempted to apply the principles of horse and dog breeding to human reproduction in order to improve the human race. By the 1920s, eugenics courses were taught at American universities, and fairs sponsored “fitter families” contests. Sanger was never a bona fide eugenicist: She always disdained a key component of the eugenics program–encouraging the “fit” to breed prolifically–and eugenicists for the most part shunned her. But she accepted their premises regarding the “unfit,” and she borrowed their metaphors. In 1924 she compared ideal childbearing to the careful strategizing of the gardener: “How are we to breed a race of human thoroughbreds unless we follow the same plan? We must make this country into a garden of children instead of a disorderly back lot overrun with human weeds.”