Monday, May 20, 2013
Guest Post by Allison Barker
Most folks have at least heard of Margaret Sanger, the 20th century feminist and proponent of birth control access. Focusing on her work from the 1920s onward, Sanger faced a not-so-unique dilemma. A not-so-unique dilemma faced by many past and present progressive movements: the separation of an issue (in this case, women’s access to birth control) from the oppressed group struggling to achieve their goals. We’ve seen this in the woman suffrage movement (moving the focus from woman suffrage to arguments of state pride and the benefits for male voters) as well as the modern LGBTQ rights movement (moving the focus from the voices within the LGBTQ community to awarding non-LGBTQ people for their behaviors/achievements).
One particular dilemma faced is outlined in various sections of Andrea Tone’s book, Devices & Desires. Sanger, infamous for her then-illegal birth control clinic in New York established in 1916, envisioned a populist approach to contraception “where women from all walks of life could use contraceptives without reliance on doctors” [ Sanger soon distanced herself from this approach, as well as distancing her birth control advocacy from women’s rights. 118]. Instead of advocating for birth control as a woman’s right to contraception, Sanger chose to focus on birth control from a medical standpoint.
During the 1920s Sanger was committed to inexpensive/free birth control for women (without the need for a doctor). Period. It was a radical idea for the time, one that not even the National Woman’s Party (formed by Alice Paul) would support. Sanger quickly learned two things: the extent of sexual reform was extremely limited in the early 20th century, and the political and social influence of medical science was greatly increasing. “Narrowing her agenda, she sought birth control allies through an ideology that trumpeted women’s health over their civil liberties and cast doctors, not patients, as agents of contraceptive choice” [, 125]. Sanger also began to oppose over-the-counter contraceptives “whose use bypassed physician expertise” [Tone, 125-126].
Herein lays the dilemma. Sanger’s focus on contraceptives as purely a medical issue accomplished two things: it created distance from the woman’s movement (which was costing Sanger many male allies) and began to bring doctors and physicians (who were dominantly male) into Sanger’s corner. Do to Sanger’s efforts (and ironically the Comstock Laws, which permitted prescriptions by physicians), birth control could now be watched over by experienced medical professionals further legitimizing contraceptives, but at the cost of putting health above patients’ rights.
Sanger became stuck in an interesting pickle on the topic of women’s rights. On one side she opposed the use of condoms “because they forced women to depend on men for fertility control,” [but due to her result-motivated approach to the medicalization of birth control, “doctors’ power [increased] over women’s bodies” 126] [ 138].
Unfortunately for Margaret Sanger, her ideals regarding accessible and safe birth control for women became a by-product of her time. The early 20th century was not a friendly time regarding both the morality of women’s rights and of contraceptives. The era was ripe with ideas similar to those of Anthony Comstock in regards to equating birth control to promiscuity and murder (in the case of abortion). Sanger needed to ally herself with doctors and big businesses (suppliers of contraceptives) and put medical science before patients’ rights in order to make any progress during a very restrictive era. It is important to note that while Sanger advocated for medical involvement in contraception, she understood that working-class peoples (the demographic she primarily focused on in her clinics) would have restricted access to medical professionals. Tone ends the chapter stating that “to her [Sanger’s] credit, she never gave up her goal of quality birth control for all” [ But due to the volatile nature of morality (such as the morality that drove Anthony Comstock’s obscenity crusade) on the topic of women’s issues in the early 20th century, it is impressive what Sanger managed to accomplish. 149].