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Birth Control Health Center

A History of Birth Control

Clearing Up Misconceptions
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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.

 

"Sanger and her patron Katharine McCormick felt that not only should women of all classes have quality birth control, but it should be a type of birth control that women have power over. They felt the only way women could be liberated was to have the unilateral power to control sexuality."

 

McCormick's husband, Cyrus McCormick -- heir to the International Harvester Company fortune -- was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fearing that the disease was inherited, she resolved never to have children -- and dedicated huge sums to the search for woman-controlled contraception.

 

This research resulted in the development of the birth control pill. Early versions of the pill contained huge doses of estrogen -- and were approved after clinical tests that would be considered totally inadequate by today's standards for drug approval. The high rate of side effects from the pill -- and the later scandal involving the aggressive marketing and defense of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device, despite the manufacturer's knowledge of safety problems -- led many women to question why birth control had to be aimed at women instead of men.

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