Monday, May 13, 2013
Guest Post by Liz Girres
The Creation and Use of Birth Control in Different Socioeconomic Classes
Socioeconomic status has always played a part in who could create or obtain birth control. When the Comstock act was first passed in 1873, major companies had to stay out of the illegal distribution of birth control as to not harm their reputation [Andrea Tone, “Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001): 1-87.]. That being said, not all of them did. Samuel Colgate was president of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), and heir to a soap company [Tone, 28]. Even though he was fighting against obscenities, he put out a pamphlet about how Vaseline was a good contraceptive [Tone, 28]. He wanted to oppose obscenities but profit from them at the same time. Colgate was part of the elite class and was never charged for distribution of lewd materials. This exemplifies the biased enforcement of the Comstock Act. More often than not it was the smaller business owners that got arrested.
It makes sense that bigger businesses would get more leeway when it came to the distribution of birth control. They had money and money is power. They were able to disguise their intentions in seemingly harmless ads. One example of an ad was for “Sanitary Sponges for Ladies” [Tone, 38]. They were sold under the pretense that women needed to keep their vaginas sanitary. When they were full of antiseptics they would get rid of germs [Tone, 38]. However, it was obvious that the real purpose was to kill sperm and prevent pregnancy. The bigger businesses were able to get away with advertising contraceptives because of their already respectable names.
Margaret Sanger believed that the elite class had more access to better birth control than the working class [Tone, 79]. She saw women in the tenements that seemed to be in desperate need of birth control. She saw women waiting to get an abortion because they couldn’t afford preventive birth control [Tone, 79]. She thought that the upper class has more knowledge of birth control than the working class. The ignorance of the working class led them to rely on gossip about birth control. They also didn’t have as much money to pay for the products [Tone, 80]. However, many scholars believe that Sanger exaggerated a lot. Her conclusions didn’t always match up with what she described [Tone, 80]. If a woman was able to pay five dollars for an abortion, why couldn’t she have just bought a twenty-five cent condom to begin with [Tone, 80]?
Logically, the availability of birth control to both classes makes sense. The upper class had more money to pay for it and more resources to find it. The lower class had more need for it and shared with each other different methods and places to get it. It seems likely that the lower class had a greater need for contraceptives. They had large families that needed to be fed on a lower salary. Spending a few cents on contraceptives could save them a lot in the future. They would have less stress and will be able to take care of their other kids better.
The use of contraceptives in different classes is significant because of its implications on the health of women. Some of the methods were very unsafe and could cause a lot of harm. Condoms were reused multiple times, which could have led to infection and the spread of disease. IUDs could be made my anybody, and were often made of metal, glass, or wood [Tone, 61]. In the lower classes, they did not have money to afford a doctor and women could die from using certain forms of birth control. The upper class had doctors and possibly more knowledge of safe forms of birth control. Socioeconomic factors played a big role in the distribution, conviction, and use of different people.