The Dark History of Contraception

The far right-wing history of contraception might shock a few of you.

I know it surprised me when I started working on this post. 

Originally, I was just curious. I wanted to know when condoms were invented, and what methods were used prior to the invention of the rubber condom. 

What I found was a “hornet’s nest,” and a rather vile pit of racism, classism, and eugenics. 

There are two names that show up frequently when researching the history of modern contraception: Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes. 

Margaret Sanger was an abortion proponent and the founder of what we now call Planned Parenthood. Arrested several times, she was a revolving feature in early 20th century New York City, repeatedly opening clinics, having them shut down, and handing out “inflammatory” and “controversial” literature on contraception to the women of the area. 

Across the pond, Marie Stopes rose to fame in 1918 with her book Married Love, which was all about healthy sexual relationships between married couples. Throughout the 20s and 30s, she opened clinics throughout England to educate women on contraception. She did not support abortion and helped track down and prosecute providers. 

However, both Stopes and Sanger had a common link, and that was their reasons for wanting to support birth control: eugenics

Both women believed that it was their duty to purify and strengthen the white race, advocating for the sterilization of the “unfit” (disabled). Stopes went so far as to say that bi-racial people should be sterilized, and was a supporter of Adolf Hitler. She even cut her own son out of her will when he married a disabled woman. She was anti-semetic, homophobic, and passionately racist.

Neither of this women will be nominated for Sainthood any time soon (partially because they pissed off the Catholic church so badly through their support of women’s suffrage, birth control, and abortion), but their work continues to be important today. 

The work of both women changed the future for women and men, both married and unmarried. Today couples can choose when they have children, allowing them to grow up in safer and more stable environments with access to healthcare and education they might not otherwise have. 

Into the 1960s women with children were frequently barred from employment, especially higher paying employment. They were seen as “amoral,” regardless of the circumstances of their pregnancy. Unmarried with a kid mean unfit for the workplace. Married women had a veneer of respectability, but were “needed at home,” and were “neglecting their responsibilities” by working outside of it. 

Access to birth control improved health for women the world over. Now women who were physically incapable of carrying a child to term didn’t have to suffer through pregnancy and miscarriage or stillbirth. Poor women wouldn’t have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their obligatory children. If a woman didn’t feel she could have a child in a healthy manner, she could skip it entirely. 

Margaret Sanger spearheaded work on hormonal birth control. She wanted something that put control in the hands of women; something that could be used daily, was easy to manage, and could be used subtly. She began advocating for HBC in the 1910s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s she got the funding and convinced a laboratory to take on the work. It would be 1964 before married women in all states had access to HBC, and another ten years before unmarried women could get it. 

HBC led to so many advances in women’s medicine, and now is used not just to prevent pregnancy, but to treat other medical conditions. I myself have 3 different hormonal imbalances. Without HBC I would spent about 50% of my time either sobbing in a corner or laying in bed unable to move due to severe pain. Estrogen is also the vehicle that drives T3 around the body, which means HBC helps my thyroid and thyroid medication function better. It also helps balance the chemicals in my brain that contribute to my anxiety and depression. 

I’m not arguing that these women were angels. Like many famous men in history, their actions did a great deal of good for many people, while their attitudes endangered many others. But there is no doubt that what they did changed the course of the world and today has improved the lives of millions. 

Further Reading:
The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig
The Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister
Wiki: Birth Control 
History of Contraception 
Birth Control History
History of Birth Control 
Marie Stopes Carmichael 
Marie Stopes 
Marie Stopes in Downton Abbey 
Early Birth Control 
Wiki: Marie Stopes
Married Love & Birth Control 

Like what you see? Check out Would this Kill Me in the 1800s: Anemia