The Beginnings of a Movement

During the 1800s, industrialization and urbanization in the United States greatly increased the number of women seeking birth control and abortion for many reasons. Family structure changed as there was not a need for large families to support farms in the city. Women began to join the workforce, and employers would be less likely to hire them if they became pregnant or had children. Soon, the U.S. passed the Comstock Act in 1873 limiting the circulation of anything “obscene.” Because of this, women lost access to information about birth control and contraceptive devices. Consequently, activists like Margaret Sanger began an effort to reclaim their reproductive rights in the early 20thcentury. This is known as the birth control movement.

The birth control movement was shaped by a complex entanglement of agendas, beliefs, ethics, events, and discourses. The 1930s gave way to a historical backdrop painted with change from shifting gender roles to new immigration policies. Concern with genetic purity became a primary focus for scientists of this era, and eugenic ideology became an influential part of the intellectual context. Early birth control activists had difficulty mobilizing a movement for an issue that was seen as illegitimate at its best and as moral depravity at its worst. Activists utilized the established professions of medicine and science to legitimize birth control as a cause and remove the stigma of promiscuity from it.

Cover Drawing of the November 1923 Issue of The Birth Control Review

A drawing used for the November 1923 issue of The Birth Control Review.

However, the presence of eugenics created ideological tension with the then-radical feminism that characrerized the movement. Women's rights advocates of the late 1800s originally fought for "voluntary motherhood," a tool to aid women in advancing their roles in the home as wives and mothers. Themes of this era continued to motivate women, mainly upper-class white women, to fight for access to birth control. These activists were careful to separate contraceptive devices like the diaphragm from abortion and sterilization. Other activists fought to educate working class women and enable them to make decisions concerning their reproductive health. 

Much of the birth control movement coincided with the Great Depression, and economic hardship among the lower class furthered the need for contraceptives. Often mothers of poverty-stricken families begged nurses like Sanger to help them stop having children they could not afford to take care of. Women from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum ultimately wanted to take control of their body for one reason or another. In spite of this, it is clear that economically-advantaged, white women dominated activist strategies.