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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 were abstaining.


"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.

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