Contraception before The Pill

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.

21 thoughts on “Contraception before The Pill

  1. Wonderful point about contraception being driven not by technology, but the desire for women to exercise control over their lives. And the Klepp book is going on my women’s history syllabus. I ran across Elaine Tyler May being interviewed by Christina Hoff Sommers on Book TV (C-Span 2) the other day. She calmly and serenely rebuffed Sommers’s antifeminist rants over and over again. It’s worth a watch if you have some time.


  2. Thanks, widgeon, for the link. I don’t know if I can stand watching Sommers, who is so patently dishonest. Who gives her these platforms, as though she’s a real scholar and has anything to say about women’s history?

    I should add: I’m not accusing May of ignoring the longer, deeper history of contraception in America. Her book on The Pill is a valuable addition to our feminist canon, and she was entitled to write about whatever she wanted. My point here is more about the popular understanding of the history of contraception in America.


  3. I’m about halfway through the Book TV link that widgeon posted. May is very good. Sommers is oddly incoherent and difficult to follow. She appears either unprepared or inarticulate.

    Sommers’ whole methodology is “someone somewhere who calls herself a feminist said something ridiculous, ergo feminism is ridiculous.” (Love the effort off the bat, too, to insist that teh menz get their due credit for inventing the pill.)


  4. Sommers also is oddly obsessed with the male pill, and insists that there’s a HUUUUUGE market for it. The reason there isn’t one is because of the terrible, terrible power invested in torts and trial lawyers. . .

    ((Snore.)) Boilerplate from the AEI, clearly. Being away from a classroom has hardly helped her analytic or expository skills.

    If you’re not interested in the history of the Pill, you can just fast-forward to about 47:00 and see Sommers try to engage May on the “feminist boilerplate” she uses in the book, and on the so-called ideological homogeneity of women’s studies departments and programs. Whaaaaa! And guess what? Ethnic Studies programs don’t hire a lot of racists, either. Go figure!


  5. Martha Stewart has another cogent offering for why it would be a “waste [of] time” for her to say “I’m a feminist” in the NYT Magazine today. It interrupts the flow of recipe ideas. You presumably also wouldn’t get as many good stock tips.


  6. And I would actually extend that chronology back even further than 200 years. During the Middle Ages, children under 5 couldn’t contribute to the family economy, and consumed valuable resources that many families didn’t have. While infanticide has been documented in some cases, controlling reproduction surely would have been a first resort. And many midwives were aware of more effective treatments than those mentioned by Collins.


  7. Yeah: Collins’s stupid summary of pre-Pill contraceptives was pretty condescending. It was all just bee-eating and weasel testicles, don’t’chaknow?

    Indyanna: do you have a link for that comment by Stewart?


  8. Funny, I was just watching the May-Sommers interview independent of this post. I really liked the exchange between the two of them over the level of litigiousness, especially when May described trial lawyers as some of our most important defenders of democracy (or something like that). Our society is incredibly litigious to a point that is detrimental, I agree. But Sommers looks only in one direction: the people she claims are trying to gain something or game the system. She fails to wonder why there is so much corporate malfeasance that attracts so much legitimate litigation. It strikes me that in this country, we’re so enamored with business and capitalism that we’ve lost sight of the sectors where profit should not be the driving factor: pharmaceuticals, education, health insurance/medicine, defense. (This is well off topic but briefly, I’ve been seeing a lot of interviews with Richard Clarke, who’s arguing that our complete aversion to regulation is leaving the US incredibly vulnerable to cyberattack because the current policy of the government is to defend itself but the private sector is on its own. That includes power grids, utilities, trains, everything but military defense, all because it’s political suicide to come down hard with regulations that protect us.)

    I thought May handled herself well against Sommers’s nonsense.


  9. I don’t have the specific electronic link, but it’s an interview in today’s NYT Magazine, p. 16, with questions by Deborah Solomon–the title is “Craft Work.”


  10. Market for a male pill, my ass. People were talking about this when I was in high school, and my friends and I looked at each other and asked “Would you trust that the guy took this every day, just because he said he did, when he wouldn’t have to face the consequences?” Then we dissolved into giggles.


  11. I second H’ann’s characterization of Collin’s discussion of contraception in earlier history as condescending. While certainly nothing was as effective as modern contraception, pre-modern women (and men) had access to a wealth of information about contraception and abortificants, largely herbal (in addition to things like charms) – and they certainly knew about pulling out!


  12. Much agreement with ej and Perpetua. Since early modern physicians, midwives and lawmakers focused their chronology and physiology of pregnancy so much on the quickening (i.e. the detection of fetal movements by outside observers), this really meant that there was a fairly open period in early pregnancies where women could seek the restoration of their regular menstrual flow (i.e. procure an early abortion) without official sanction.

    Also, am I the only one who was kind of bemused to learn that the men who were behind the pill felt that by preserving the menstrual cycle (with days off of the hormonal treatment) they’d be “more natural” and more acceptable to the church?


  13. I’ve had a few posts up recently reflecting on the history of the pill — just finished May’s book and will write about it when the semester is over. I’m not bothering with the Sommers interview. If anyone wants to read about pre-pill contraceptive technology, see Andrea Tone’s _Devices and Desires_.


  14. I think that we, as physicians, help perpetuate this view, since our profession is in many ways technology-driven. This influence of technology is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s easy to pick up an ahistorical view of these things when you look at the tools that are available now.

    That’s why I think it’s necessary to remind our charges (students, residents) that despite our tech advances in birth control, birth control is still problematic. Griswold wasn’t long ago, and simply legalizing it did not make it safe, effective, and available.


  15. Pingback: More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  16. Pingback: How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail? The “big questions” and women’s history. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  17. Pingback: More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege | Historiann

  18. Pingback: How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail? The “big questions” and women’s history. | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.