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Reading David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America

            David M. Kennedy’s first book, derived from an American Studies doctoral dissertation in the then newly established Yale interdisciplinary program, is an examination of the role of Margaret Sanger’s efforts to legalize access to contraception.  Chronologically, Kennedy restrains his study to the years from 1912 to World War II when Sanger was effectively the primary spokesperson for liberalizing laws that restricted the dissemination of information about contraception in the mails as well as restrained doctors from prescribing contraceptive devices.
            Kennedy’s study is not, however, a standard biography of Sanger, but instead a close and critical account of her transformation from social critic and radical in the 1910s to a spokesperson for increasing and widespread middle class values in the 1940s, including rational family planning.  In the 1900s and 1910s Sanger emerged from the radical movements of socialists and anarchists struggling in the press and in lyceums to articulate programs for improving the lives and conditions of the working poor.  Access and knowledge about contraceptive devices, discernible in lower birth rates, was clearly widely understood by the middle and upper classes.  Over the 1930s and 1940s, however, Sanger’s target audience shifted from advocacy for the working poor to an alliance with middle class social reformers who desired access to family planning options in their efforts to sustain their own class privileges while also regulating the poor.  Kennedy is justly critical of Sanger’s evolution from social radical to mainstream spokesperson, someone whose ideas would become endorsed by a bipartisan Truman/Eisenhower population reduction program in the late 1950s.
            The study traces Sanger’s early battles with the Comstock era bans on the distribution of obscene material which prevented mail ordering of contraceptive devices, prevented the mailing of medical advice, and restricted pharmacists from marketing contraceptive materials.  A series of public contests, in print and court, ultimately converged in the 1910s and 1920s with both the increased sexual activity of Americans in the Jazz Age as well as increased recognition in the late Progressive era for regulation of population growth.  Increasingly in the 1930s and 1940s doctors justified “child spacing” efforts to preserve the health of mothers.  In the same depression years, rational family planning to reduce generational poverty became uncontroversial while the empowerment of women in households devastated by male unemployment in the 1930s or absentee heads of household in the war years further eroded opposition to birth control.
            Kennedy’s work traces Sanger’s political struggle to create a free space for discussion of contraception, but parallel to Sanger’s public contest were genuine transformation in morality within Catholic and Protestant ministries, medical advances that ultimately sought to professionalize birth control, and changes in the law culminating in the 1965 Griswold v Connecticut Supreme Court case that asserted a “right to marital privacy” combined with doctor/patient confidentiality that removed all legal restrictions on disseminating information and/or materials for family planning.  These changes in morality, medicine, and law would provide the social context for the embrace by the middle class of birth control, ushering in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.
            Although Kennedy is right to be critical of Sanger’s support of eugenics and her increasing moderation, perhaps even conservative transformation, the book remains the best place to start understanding the decades-long struggle to secure access to birth control.  Thanks to the election success of the GOP last fall, dozens of states, in conjunction with the Congressional attack on Planned Parenthood, are proposing and passing legislation intended to restrict access by women to contraception.  Increasingly, the anti-abortion movement is moving toward opposition to any family planning as programs that are demonstrated to reduce abortions by reducing unplanned contraception fall to ideologically motivated budget cuts.  Kennedy’s study provides just the necessary reminder of the struggle that Sanger and other women (and a few male medical professionals and feminist men) waged to secure rights now at risk eroding.
Further works on birth control include Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: The History of Birth Control in America (1976, 1990), and her extended revision of that work, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America (2002), Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires (2002), and Elaine Tyler May’s America and The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2010).

David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America (Yale, 1970)
Yale Publications in American Studies No. 18
Winner of the Bancroft Prize 1971


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