A History of Birth Control
Clearing Up Misconceptions
The Failure of Rhythm and 'Just Say No' continued...
Similarly, another early effort at behavioral birth control
failed during the first World War. Dismayed at the high rates of sexually
transmitted disease that were disabling their soldiers, armies and navies
issued condoms to their fighting men. The U.S., however, attempted to teach
"continence" -- that is, abstinence -- to their troops. Few U.S. troops
obeyed this command, and many obtained condoms while abroad.
Ironically, these likely were American-made condoms, as the war
made U.S. manufacturers the leaders in the field. After the war, soldiers
brought their new-found knowledge home with them. Condoms became legal in 1918,
the same year the war ended.
Tone sees a lesson in this experience.
"We are way behind in what we say to young people," she
says. "The best example is World War I, where the official government line
was that abstinence would make you stronger. But no more than 30% of soldiers
"We saw this in the Reagan era with the just-say-no
approach to drugs, and this has carried over to sex," she continues.
"We would prefer to think young people would be able to resist these urges
that are universal, and we fool ourselves. We spend less money on birth control
because we think if a person does get pregnant or an STD, it is just their own
fault -- they weren't disciplined enough."
By the 1920s, the U.S. birth rate dropped by half --
statistical evidence that the explosion of condom sales and a more modern
approach to the rhythm method were in widespread use. Condom reliability was
still terrible by modern standards -- but people achieved effective birth
control by combining use of condoms, the rhythm method, male withdrawal,
diaphragms, and/or intrauterine devices.
Feminism and Contraception
Early feminists sought to improve the lot of women by gaining
increased respect for their traditional roles. This strategy made it difficult
for them to endorse contraception.
"In the late 19th century, many suffrage leaders frowned on
birth control because that meant condoms: which they saw as linked to the
brothel, to giving men free reign to cheat on their wives, and to a negative
effect on the family," Tone says. "They felt it was important for women
to gain political and social power by defending their roles as mothers and
protectors of virtue."
Even Victoria Woodhull, who in the late 1900s advocated free
love, felt that only "natural" contraception was acceptable. She
nevertheless paved the way for future feminists by insisting that women should
have the power to time their own pregnancies.
"Advocates of voluntary motherhood urged the use of birth
control so their family could look like what they wanted it to look like --
three kids, say, and a woman without a ruined body," Tone says. "By the
time of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, feminists felt that all individuals
should have access to safe birth control or else women -- working women in
particular -- would be disadvantaged. That was one of Margaret Sanger's great
contributions: She illuminated the struggle for control of women's bodies.