Birth Control: The Fight for Sexual Freedom

by Bella Magdaleno

            Margaret Sanger, as a birth control activist, nurse, and writer, founded the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. Her work later led to the formation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She wanted to challenge the laws against limiting childbirth. Michael Helquist noted in “Lewd, Obscene and Indecent,” that “Family Limitation,” the birth control pamphlet, provided “an argument for reproductive rights from a feminist perspective, one that valued women’s freedom and control of their personal and economic lives.” (274) Knowledge about birth control and women’s health was not only influenced by the hard work of the suffrage movement, but also it continued to influence women to become independent and fight for equality. Together the suffrage and women’s sexual and health movement introduced a new woman to the world. A woman who was strong, independent, passionate, and not afraid. This woman won equality.

          Helquist discusses the history of birth control, focusing on Sanger’s impact. He also expands on the process of the creation of Sanger’s pamphlet, Family Limitation. Sanger’s view as a feminist and her growth throughout her journey and the struggles she faced from society are all examined throughout his article. Many were often arrested and charged for distributing obscene materials, including Sanger and a friend of hers, Marie Equi, in Portland on June 29, 1916. As a physician, lesbian, feminist, and activist, Equi revised the Portland edition of Family Limitation. Equi’s personal comments in the Portland edition of this pamphlet is what made it so unique. She wanted to expand the role of preventing pregnancy to men as well as women, encouraging them to accept their responsibility. Overall, the hardships they faced made them push hard and fight to spread their message. America needed more common sense and less chastity on birth control.

          There was a double sexual standard relating to birth control and sexuality. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman commented on this in, Intimate Matters: “At the same time, these marriages had to contend with the cultural assumption that men were by nature lustful, as well as with the influences that men who has access to prostitution brought to their domestic life. Although the gulf between male and female could be bridged, it also provided a source of tension and change.” (173) They discuss in depth the controversy with sexuality and exploring one’s sexuality and identity. D’Emilio and Freedman compared the relations of a marriage and the roles within one. Men were expected to have sex before marriage whereas women were expected to have sex after marriage. Katharine B. Davis put together a sex survey on women in middle-class marriages in the early 1900s. She found that seventy-four percent of women use some form of contraceptive and thirty percent of women felt their sexual desires to be as strong as their spouses. Furthermore, the fight for sexual freedom was also expressed in the article. Teachers often argued to their students that masturbation was unhealthy and led to insanity. Activists fought back by encouraging the improvement of sex education in schools. They got a victory when the National Education Association agreed to indorse sexual education.

          Kimberly Jensen noted in Oregon’s Doctor to the World, how women made progress with the vote, “Women doctors owed a debt to suffragists for their career opportunities” (103) and the suffrage movement changed the medical field for women. She also stated, “The ballot was a necessary tool for constructive resistance” (98). After Oregon women achieved suffrage in 1912, “Esther Lovejoy and other Oregon women were conscious of the power of their right to the ballot and of the opportunities for women to act politically, including participating in party politics, lobbying, elections, and office holding.” (114) Throughout this article, Jensen shares the experiences of women going through activism, their journey, and why they are fighting for women’s rights.

“Mrs. San[ger] Starts Out on Birth Control Campaign,” Daily Capital Journal, April 1, 1916, 12.
         In April of 1916, the editors of Salem’s Daily Capital Journal published a quote from Sanger in an article titled, “Mrs. San[ger] Starts Out on Birth Control Campaign.” Sanger noted: “‘That is what birth control knowledge is for: to show women under what conditions it is best for them to bear children. Birth control does not necessarily make for either larger or smaller families: it simply insures, through the mother’s knowledge, a square deal and a fair chance for whatever children are born.’” Sanger wanted to focus on the positivity knowledge can bring and how powerful a tool it really is. Throughout this article, Sanger’s activities are discussed, such as making speeches on birth control and organizing to help spread the truth about the matter. She hoped to inspire American women across the country to make a difference. 

“Catholic Opinion on Birth Control is Given,” Sunday Oregonian, March 5, 1916, 15.

          In March of 1916, “Catholic Opinion On Birth Control is Given,” the Sunday Oregonian published John A. Ryan D.D., a noted Catholic theologian of St. Paul, Minnesota, and his thoughts on birth control. “‘I regard the practice which your organization desires to promote as immoral, degrading and stupid.’” Ryan believes that birth control is sinful because the use in unnatural. He comments how as humans we have a gift to reproduce and to not use that would be wrong, therefore all contraceptives should be put to a stop.

“Increase in Population Declared to Be Menace,” Sunday Oregonian, June 13, 1920, Sec. 4:3.

            In June 1920, “Increase in Population Declared to Be Menace,” the Sunday Oregonian broadcasted, “Statisticians asks whether medical men in future will favor birth control.” The fact that this article referenced “medical men” just further proves how society viewed it was a man who made decisions. This article brings up the issue of overpopulation and if they have the means to put a stop to it, at what cost would they go to accomplish that?

“Growth of Population Presents Problem,” Sunday Oregonian, July 25, 1920, Magazine Section: 6.

            A main reason why some considered birth control was the growth of the world population. Some feared that Earth would not be sustainable for the amount of life it contained, as stated in the Sunday Oregonian, “Growth of Population Presents Problem,” on July 25, 1920. G. H. Knibbs, a statistician for the commonwealth of Australia, raises the question whether the “future will take a stand in favor of so colossal a population that the masses will scarcely be provided with the bare necessaries of life, or will they favor birth control and limitation of birth in such a manner that the population of the Earth shall never be greater than can be adequately provided for on a high plane of physical, mental and moral existence?” This article further addresses the issue with overpopulation and the lack of supple of natural resources. Scientists are fearful that humans will take over and destroy the Earth.

            Birth control allows women to be sexually active without worrying about an unwanted pregnancy. Knowledge of women’s health was often unreachable, especially to working class women at the time. Something as important as health care should never be kept from any person, no matter their race, gender, or identity. With women now in the medical field, health care greatly improved as women were taking charge and productively making a change. Men’s views are not always negative, as there is not only a stigma of women’s sexual natures, but also of men. Men are held to this unrealistic expectation of always wanting sex or being sexually active and when one does not fit that mold they are deemed as ‘not man enough.’ Just as with women, those women who are sexually active or actually enjoy sex and do not fit this pure mold of the perfect women are not ‘feminine.’ Men who didn’t want sex or wanted to wait until marriage to become sexually active were often called ‘weak’ or ‘gay.’ And women who did want to be sexually active for their own pleasure were criticized. One’s own personal sexual desires should not be anybody’s business but their own.

            There was a lot of controversy around the discussion of birth control because it openly talked about sex, specifically women’s sexual activity. During this time, many Americans believed openly discussing women’s sexuality would lead to ‘impure’ thoughts and actions. But that didn’t stop some women who wanted to spread the truth. Now with voting abilities, women starting improving their lives, like with medical care, such as birth control, or with the school systems. We would not be as advanced today if our nation waited longer to give women the vote. Not only was there the progressive change in politics with the vote, there was also a major change in how women perceived themselves. The suffrage movement inspired women to be independent and view themselves as powerful beings. This contributed to how they viewed sex as well. Sex was usually male dominant, but with this new power women controlled, they felt it was time for a change. Women took charge of their lives and did wonders.

Primary Sources:

“Increase in Population Declared to Be Menace,” Sunday Oregonian, June 13, 1920, Sec. 4:3.

“Growth of Population Presents Problem,” Sunday Oregonian, July 25, 1920, Magazine Section: 6.

“Mrs. San[ger] Starts Out on Birth Control Campaign,” Daily Capital Journal, April 1, 1916, 12.

“Catholic Opinion on Birth Control is Given,” Sunday Oregonian, March 5, 1916, Sec 1:15.

Secondary Sources:

Jensen, Kimberly. Oregon’s Doctor to the World: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and a Life in Activism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

D’Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman.  Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Helquist, Michael. “Lewd, Obscene, and Indecent: The 1916 Portland Edition of Family Limitation,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 117 no. 2 (Summer 2016): 274-287.

About the Author:

Bella Magdaleno participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2018 Nineteenth Amendment course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Bella is an ASL Studies major and has a passion for activism, environmentalism, and photography.