There is a common theme found in both the birth control and sterilization movements: that of misconception and its consequences. In regards to the birth control movement, people like Anthony Comstock misconceived who took contraception, thinking promiscuous unmarried people (or married people looking to cheat on their partners) were the buyers; the consequence of this was its effect on the poor married women who actually needed it, and the further poverty and death it caused them. Secondly, there was the misconception of the “bad” mother promoted by supporters of the sterilization movement, and the consequences on often non-consenting working-class people targeted. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the birth control movement and the sterilization movement were both plagued by misconceptions, and these misconceptions largely resulted in consequences affecting the working-class.
Misconceptions came from Comstock supporters who believed that legal contraception would promote promiscuity in American society. Andrea Tone outlines the beliefs of the Social Purity Crusaders well in “Black Market Birth Control: Contraceptive Entrepreneurship and Criminality in the Gilded Age” when she says their fear was in the idea that contraceptives freed “sex from the constraints of marriage and childbearing” (Tone, 440). People like Comstock believed contraceptives were abused by the unmarried, or married people looking to cheat on their spouses; however, was this the case? Who was actually using contraceptives, and who was affected by the illegality of them? Perhaps to the surprise of people like Comstock, many married couples sought birth control. Tone’s story of the Janins, newlyweds seeking birth control because of Violet’s physical health issues, outlines this and highlights an important aspect that Comstock and his associates either didn’t consider or didn’t care about: many married people were taking contraception out of necessity. To take this a step further many working-class married people were taking contraception out of necessity. As Iris notes in “The Increasing Politicization of Sexual Bodies,” Comstock supporters “were incredibly classist and sexist in their hunt against sexual materials and birth control.” I definitely agree with this, and I would like to expand on that classism in regards to birth control.
To highlight this idea, we can turn to four letters written to Margaret Sanger, as all were written by married women and all four women expressed monetary issues. One woman wrote “[I] don’t think it is right to go on raising children when [I] know [I] have nothing to feed or clothe them on” (Peiss, 317). Another explained she never learned “the facts that a young girl should know” and that she’d never even heard of Birth Control Clinics (Peiss, 318). So, what is the result of withholding information and resources from these women? Larger families and/or increased infant mortality, according to Margaret Sanger. Sanger wrote that “large families and poverty went hand in hand” and that “three hundred thousand babies under one year of age die in the United States every year from poverty and neglect” (Sanger, 312-313). It is the working-class that suffered from the illegality of birth control, and, despite the misconception, many were married.
Similar to proponents of the Comstock Act, proponents of the sterilization movement created a mistaken belief that there existed “bad” mothers who should not have the right to reproduce. In “Eugenics, Sterilization, and Social Welfare,” Molly Ladd-Taylor describes this created misconception and its unfortunate consequences targeting working-class women, saying proponents of sterilization created an image “of the irresponsible and sexually active “bad” mother, unfit to raise – or even bear – the nation’s citizens” (Ladd-Taylor, 329). Carry Buck is an example of the consequences working-class women faced because of this image. Buck, an unmarried mother, was deemed unfit to have children and “feebleminded,” and the Supreme Court upheld her forced sterilization because “her welfare and that of society [would] be promoted” (Whitehead, 316). Carry Buck was not “feebleminded.” She was a working-class single mother who was targeted due to class bias. The implications extend beyond Buck, as “a substantial number of the more than 33,000 people legally sterilized by 1939 had the procedure done without their knowledge or against their will” (Ladd-Taylor, 330). The consequence of this false image of the “bad” mother was that working-class women were targets of sterilization; Ladd-Taylor states that working-class people “were three times as likely to be sterilized” (Ladd-Taylor, 332). The consequences of this misconception of the “bad” mother created by proponents of sterilization extend into modern-day America. Ladd-Taylor writes that mothers on welfare are sometimes court-ordered to use contraception and they can be denied benefits “if they do not work, go to school, or even – for those under 18 – if they do not live at home” (Ladd-Taylor, 336).
Misconceptions can have harsh consequences, as is evidenced by those of the proponents of the Comstock Act and the proponents of sterilization. The working-class was and is largely affected by misconceptions regarding sexuality. The image of the “bad” mother still exists today, despite its invalidity. Women’s rights to affordable contraception is still debated, despite the need. Because of modern-day similarities, it is important to look at history’s misconceptions and their consequences.
Ladd-Taylor, Molly. “Eugenics, Sterilization, and Social Welfare.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 327-336.
Sanger, Margaret. “The Case for Birth Control,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 311-314.
Tone, Andrea. “Black Market Birth Control: Contraceptive Entrepreneurship and Criminality in the Gilded Age,” Journal of American History 87.2 (Sep. 2000) 435-459.
“Women Write Margaret Sanger for Birth Control Advice, 1924, 1930, 1935, 1936,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 316-318.