The Woman Rebel

Starting in the 1830s, a state-by-state drive to prohibit abortion developed and was largely successful by 1880. It was spurred by a backlash against the women’s rights movement that reflected anxieties about women deserting their conventional position as mothers, and by professionalizing physicians eager to restrict their competition from “irregular” practitioners, many of them offering abortion services. Then in 1873 all birth-control information was specifically included within the definition of the obscene and was therefore barred from interstate commerce by the federal Comstock Act.

Nevertheless the steady decline of the U. S. birthrate in the nineteenth century suggests that some traditional birth-control methods were widely used despite legal prohibition, notably, abortion, coitus interrupts, and douches. Stronger in the United States were birth-control programs rooted in antebellum reform movements, both secular and religious. They advocated birth control to control population, to prevent the spread of hereditary disease, to improve the hereditary “stock” (early versions of eugenics), to liberate women from reproductive drudgery, and sometimes to permit greater sexual freedom.

In the 1820s, neo-Malthusian ideas were integrated into the experimental socialism associated with Robert Dale Owen and feminist Frances Wright. These secular socialists were soon joined by religious radicals who also promoted birth control, but in different forms. The Second Great Awakening had given rise to a “perfectionist” mode of thoughtheretical in relation to orthodox forms of Protestantism because it emphasized the possibility of perfecting earthly life.

Also committed to improving women’s condition and public health generally, these religious socialists rejected contraception as artificial and instead tried to effect birth control by changing the nature of sexual activity itself. For example, the Oneida community in the 1840s, ruled autocratically by John Humphrey Noyes, practiced male continence, a regimen in which men refrained from ejaculation altogether, and reproductive sex was practiced only by couples appointed by Noyes for the purpose of breeding superior people. He and his supporters believed that male continence not only built self-discipline but heightened sexual pleasure.

In the second half of the century, “Free Lovers” further developed these noncontraceptive forms of birth control, recommending withdrawal or sexual activity other than intercourse. Feminist socialist physician Alice Stockham designed a sexual system called “Karezza” that required both men and women to avoid orgasm and, she believed, intensified and prolonged pleasure. In the first decades of the twentieth century a renewed birth-control movement arose among feminists associated particularly with the Socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and took a militant turn in demanding the legalization of contraception.

As urban radicals grew more daring sexually, they discovered the use of vaginal diaphragms in Europe. Emma Goldman of the IWW and Margaret Sanger of the Socialist party visited clinics in Holland where women were fitted with diaphragms. When these two women adopted civil disobedience as a means of dramatizing the issue in the United States, distributing prohibited leaflets about contraception and opening illegal birth-control clinics, the Left leadership remained uninterested, but rank-and-file women responded with enthusiasm. Between 1914 and 1918 birth-control leagues developed in every major city of the United States.

When these activists offered contraceptive information and services, they were deluged with clients. When they were arrested, their political defenses publicized contraception and created an even more avid demand for it. In the late 1960s the renewed women’s liberation movement again changed the terms of understanding of reproduction-control politics. The women’s movement viewed birth control as part of an overall campaign for women’s self-determination and began to distinguish that goal from those of family planning or population control.

This orientation was influenced by the introduction of birth-control pills in 1960, which were mass-marketed so successfully that within a year 1 million women in the United States were using them. The “pill” had a twofold effect: its availability accustomed a generation of women to sex without fear of reproduction, and feminist exposure of its health dangers and discomforts, some of them hidden by the great pharmaceutical companies that were reaping vast profits from this new market, decreased women’s trust in professionals and sparked a powerful women’s health movement. The feminist campaign coalesced around the issue of abortion.

The campaign for legal abortion in the 1960s began not with feminists but with civil libertarians and physicians, and the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 continued the tradition of defending physicians’ discretion. The women’s movement began to insist on a broader program, supporting reproductive self-determination and criticizing forced sterilization, unsafe contraception, and unnecessary hysterectomies and cesarean sections. This movement had considerable impact, forcing governments to adopt regulations for informed consent in sterilization procedures, for example.

In response a widespread antiabortion movement arose, organized first by the Catholic hierarchy but soon becoming more ecumenical and receiving support notably from fundamentalist Protestants. It remains a largely religious movement. Unlike the nineteenth-century antiabortion movement, which spoke explicitly of prohibiting abortion in order to enforce women’s domesticity, the late-twentieth-century movement, known by the slogan “right-to-life,” defined itself as defending the rights of fetuses? Document 1 Margaret Sanger burst on the scene in 1914 with the publication of the first issue of The Woman Rebel.

The tabloid described itself as “A Monthly Paper of Militant Thought. ” Testimony to the editor’s radical political commitments was the reprinting of the Preamble to the Charter of the Industrial Workers of the Word: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system. It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.

Making contraceptive devices available, then, was part of a much larger project of radical social change, embracing the liberation of women and the working class. Document 2 The Second issue of The Woman Rebel announced that the United States postmaster had declared the newspaper unmailable under section 211 of the United States Criminal Code. Copies of that issue and subsequent ones were confiscated. The man most responsible for marshaling support for such legislation, then seeing it enforced, was Anthony Cornstock, who had a long career during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a crusader against vice.

Document 3 Just before she was to be arrested for distributing contraceptive information, Sanger fled America for England, where she spent her time among European radicals, reformers, and family-planning professionals. But a few months later, her husband, William Sanger, was arrested by Anthony Cornstock in New York City, and then imprisoned for purveying lewd materials. Margaret Sanger returned to New York, where she knew she would face trial. She eventually acquitted, but in the meantime, she lectured, wrote essays, and opened the nation’s first family-planning clinic.

Document 3 comes from the introduction to a book Sanger edited called The Case for Birth Control (1917). In this essay, she summarized much of the argument she had been advertising since returning to the United States. While her commitment to poor and working women is still evident here, her style had changed considerably since The Woman Rebel. Sanger was in the midst of concentrating all of her efforts on birth control, distancing herself from the radical positions she had staked out earlier. She thought this was a way to achieve one of her important goals. Document 4

Michael P. Dowling was a member of the Society of Jesus, and as a Jesuit, he articulated a position familiar to the Catholic Church and its followers. Document 4 is an excerpted from his pamphlet Race-Suicide (1915), which couched arguments against birth control in the language of duty, self-sacrifice, religious obligation, and family values. Where as Sanger argued for the right of women and the poor to make individual decisions about contraception, Dowling appealed to the good of the community which he asserted took precedence over personal needs or desires. Document 6

The following debate took place in New York City in 1920, Margaret Sanger and Winter Russell addressed the issues: “Resolved, that the spreading of birth control knowledge to the welfare of humanity. ” Freedom of speech was an issue that had got Winter Russell, A New York City attorney, in trouble on the eve of World War 1. His disavowal of military preparedness and his espousal of pacifism on Christian grounds were cause for considerable official and public censure. Yet, when it came to contraception, he implied that restricting the flow of information served a higher good.

While Russell’s rhetoric is more emotional than Sanger’s they both asserted “scientific” claims. Russell declared it a “law of nature” that there could be no pleasure without cost, and that it was akin to alchemy to think otherwise. Russell depicted a world of Darwinian struggle that limited human freedom and happiness. Sanger appealed less to scientific metaphors and more to scientific method. She argued her case fully in the style of the Progressive Era: fact-laden, scientific, and analytical. She now spoke in terms of middle-class reform, not working-class or feminist rebellion.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.