The coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of FDA approval of the birth-control pill occurring on Mother’s Day this year is just too much for major media outlets to resist. The Denver Post has a decent story with a local history angle, and Gail Collins’s column on this subject is at the top of the most e-mailed and viewed stories of the day over at The New York Times as of 8 a.m. MDT (that’s 10 a.m. for you provincial easterners.) While I think it’s great that Elaine Tyler May’s new book America and The Pill is getting all of this publicity, if you read only the publicity for her book and the various media representations of the history of birth control in North America, you’d think that it began with Margaret Sanger and the vulcanization of rubber, and ended with The Pill. This is a disturbingly technologically-driven narrative of the history of contraception, which as any women’s historian who knows about anything before the twentieth century can tell you is extremely short-sighted and ignores the efforts of women to control their fertility before (male) scientists and (male) physicians decided to help the girls out.
Susan Klepp, author of Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820, explained on The Page 99 Test blog in January that the narrative of contraceptive history that starts with Margaret Sanger is merely a “supply-side version–there was a demand for contraception that Sanger supplied” She continued:
But when did women and men begin to demand access to birth control information? When did they come to prefer small family sizes? After all for most of history large numbers of children were seen as valuable assets–bringing parents free labor, prestige, support in old age and more.
Revolutionary Conceptions traces that change in attitudes on family size to the era of the American Revolution. Americans were vowing not to be the slaves of Britain, they demanded liberty and independence. These ideas spread, not just among politicians, but among rich and poor, free and slave, men and women. Women came to seek equality in marriage, more options in life, and better treatment of children, especially daughters–goals that could be accomplished through family planning.
Of course, individual efforts to control one’s fertility can be found througout human history. But Klepp’s book is a necessary companion to May’s book if readers want to understand the long and deep history of contraception in America. It’s important to demonstrate that birth control wasn’t the invention of “dangerous radicals” like Margaret Sanger in the first half of the twentieth century and promulgated by feminist “sluts” in the second half of the century. There was value placed on having smaller families nearly 200 years before the pill was invented.
The story of birth control in America is not a story driven by technology–it’s a story driven by women’s desires to preserve their own health and family resources by investing more time and money into the care and raising of fewer children. And, isn’t it an exceedingly clever trick for Klepp to tie the history of family limitation to the era of the nation’s founding? “Founding Fathers” indeed.