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The Moral Property of Women

The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The Moral Property of Women
    Book Description:

    Linda Gordon's classic study, The Moral Property of Women, is the most complete history of birth control ever written. It covers the entire history of the intense controversies about reproductive rights that have raged in the United States for more than 150 years, from the earliest attempts of women to organize for the legal control of their bodies to the effects of second-wave feminism. Gordon defines the role that birth control has played in society's attitudes toward women, sexuality, and gender equality, arguing that reproductive control has always been central to women's status. She shows how opposition to it has long been part of the conservative opposition to gender equality.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09527-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Birth Control, the Moral Property of Women
    (pp. 1-4)

    This book offers a general history of birth control politics in the United States. It stresses the unity and development of political thinking about birth control during the past two centuries. It shows that the campaign for birth control was so broad that at times during its history it constituted a grassroots social movement and that it was frequently a controversy involving fundamental and embattled ethical and political values.

    The acceptability of birth control has always depended on a morality that separates sex from reproduction. In the nineteenth century, when the birth control movement began, such a separation was widely...

  6. PART 1: From Folk Medicine to Prohibition to Resistance

    • 1 The Prehistory of Birth Control
      (pp. 7-21)

      Although birth control is very old, the movement for the right to control reproduction is young. About two centuries ago, when the movement began, birth control had been morally and religiously stigmatized in many parts of the world, so illicit that information on the subject was whispered, or written and distributed surreptitiously. Birth control advocates in the United States served jail terms for violation of obscenity laws. Moreover, reproductive rights advocates were often dissenters in other dimensions as well—trade unionists, socialists, feminists, for example. As a result, the modern birth control movement has at various times included campaigns for...

    • 2 The Criminals
      (pp. 22-37)

      The widespread popular knowledge of birth control techniques, combined with the private nature of sexual intercourse, made birth control difficult to suppress. Long before the emergence of an organized social movement for birth control, individuals, couples, and groups defied the birth control prohibition. The prohibition never did what it was intended to do. It did not successfully make birth control taboo or even sinful; indeed, many people continued to consider it appropriate, advisable behavior. Rather, the prohibition forced people underground in their search for reproductive control. It transformed traditional behavior into criminal behavior and thereby attached to birth control some...

    • 3 Prudent Sex
      (pp. 38-52)

      Even as women were risking their lives and their reputations to control their childbearing, small groups of little-known radicals were publicly challenging the prohibition on birth control. In the United States the first challenges came from socialists, called “utopian socialists” by Marxists who applied that derogatory term as a criticism of these socialists’ alleged lack of strategic thought about how to transform society. At the time, in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, the more religious of these groups were often called “perfectionists,” also pejoratively, by more-orthodox Christians who accused them of the heresy of attempting to create perfection here on...

  7. PART 2: Birth Control and Women’s Rights

    • 4 Voluntary Motherhood
      (pp. 55-71)

      By the 1870s the women’s rights movement in the United States, although divided among different organizations, ideologies, and strategic choices, had developed a remarkably coherent credo on some major questions—marriage, suffrage, education, employment opportunity, for example. On no question did the feminists agree so clearly as on birth control. The slogan they used—“voluntary motherhood”—was an exact expression of their ideology, incorporating both a political critique of the status quo, as involuntary motherhood, and a solution.

      The feminists who advocated voluntary motherhood fell into three general groups: suffragists (divided among two national organizations and many local groups), moral...

    • 5 Social Purity and Eugenics
      (pp. 72-85)

      The social purity movement sought to abolish prostitution and other sexual philandering. That the movement also contributed to the acceptance of birth control in this country may, therefore, seem odd. Social purity really meant sexual purity (“social” was the standard Victorian euphemism for “sexual”) and that meant confining sex within marriage and moderating its indulgence even there. Contraception, by removing the “risk” of illegitimate pregnancies and even of venereal disease from nonmarital affairs, undermined some of the props of that sexual morality. Social purity advocates were unequivocally opposed to contraception. But so too, as we have seen, were most sex...

    • 6 Race Suicide
      (pp. 86-104)

      In March 1905 the president of the United States attacked birth control. Theodore Roosevelt condemned the tendency toward smaller families as decadent, a sign of moral disease. Like others who worried about “race suicide,” he specifically attacked women, branding those who avoided having children as “criminal against the race … the object of contemptuous abhorrence by healthy people.”¹

      Although Roosevelt did not invent the term “race suicide,” it quickly became the popular label for his ideas. The weight and publicity naturally given to the views of the president, and a president so newsworthy, made birth control a public national controversy,...

    • 7 Continence or Indulgence
      (pp. 105-124)

      Early in the twentieth century, simultaneously with the race-suicide controversy but less public, another dispute raged over the implications of birth control. Confined primarily to the pages of medical journals, it concerned the moral and physical healthfulness of continence. In more contemporary language, was doing without sex harmful?

      The question arose because of the principle of voluntary motherhood. At the turn of the century, the major respectable form of birth control—as opposed to the birth control people actually used—was sexual abstinence. This could mean, and many physicians and moralists explicitly prescribed, abstinence from one conception until the time...

    • 8 Birth Control and Social Revolution
      (pp. 125-168)

      After about 1910 a radical shift in sexual attitudes became visible among leading American intellectuals and reformers, influenced by European sexual theorists. Although there were American traditions of sex radicalism, they were rather unsystematic. Most were sectarian proposals for sexual reform, few of them encompassing entire social analyses. The Europeans, by contrast, offered more empirical, “scientific” investigations of sexual behavior through psychology and anthropology. Or, like Edward Carpenter and Ellen Key, they continued in the old, utopian style but with social movements behind them (such as Fabian socialism and feminism), unlike the tiny sectarian groups of the American sex reformers....

  8. PART 3: From Women’s Rights to Family Planning

    • 9 Professionalization
      (pp. 171-210)

      The socialists and sex radicals who began the birth control movement before World War I were amateurs. With few exceptions, they had no professional or socially recognized expertise in sexology, public health, demography, or any related fields. (If they were professionals at anything, it was radical agitation.) They fought for birth control because they conceived it to be in their own interest but also because they believed it would reduce suffering and contribute to social justice. The intellectual work that had influenced them most in their birth control views was political philosophy and radical ethics. Birth control was, for them,...

    • 10 Depression
      (pp. 211-241)

      The Great Depression of the 1930s had a mixed impact on the development of birth control. The staggering economy frightened many middle and upper-class Americans into practicing family limitation and accepting it morally and sexually. Despite economic hardships, however, the movement for birth control did not grow. It remained a campaign run and staffed primarily by professional men, wealthy women, and middle-class reformers who felt little affinity with the powerful progressive social movements of the era. Notably, birth controllers were indifferent to the labor movement just as the labor movement remained suspicious of birth control, considering it both too radical...

    • 11 Planned Parenthood
      (pp. 242-278)

      In 1938, the birth control movement reunified, bringing Margaret Sanger’s friends and enemies together in the Birth Control Federation of America, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 1942. It was the only national birth control organization until the abortion reform movement that began in the late 1960s, and its new name—usually shortened to Planned Parenthood—defined a new concept of birth control that dominated in the United States until then: family planning.

      Planned Parenthood identified itself as apolitical. In confining itself to a single issue, it hoped to achieve a broad coalition, but in doing...

    • 12 Birth Control Becomes Public Policy
      (pp. 279-292)

      After World War II, two developments—one political, one scientific—radically changed the terrain of birth control. They were the campaign for population control and the development of the Pill, the first hormonal contraceptive. They mutually influenced each other: concern about overpopulation stimulated contraception research and development; the Pill was so widely publicized that it introduced knowledge of the possibility of reproduction control to many hitherto unaware of it; the two together created more legitimacy for birth control.

      Both stories, of population control and of the Pill, have been well covered by other writers, and I will not repeat what...

  9. PART 4: Birth Control in the Era of Second-Wave Feminsm

    • 13 Abortion, the Mother Controversy
      (pp. 295-320)

      So far we have seen three historical peaks in the movement for reproduction control, each with a differently defined goal—voluntary motherhood, birth control, and family planning. This last part of the book examines a fourth birth control conflict created by the renewal of feminism in the late 1960s and the backlash against it. This stage of the movement was more complex because it focused not only on contraception but also on abortion and sterilization and because the movement was broader. Although no single term has uniquely defined this period, the slogan that best captures its politics is “reproductive rights.”...

    • 14 Is Nothing Simple about Reproduction Control?
      (pp. 321-356)

      It has been the central argument of this book that everything about reproductive rights must be seen in a political context. Reproduction control brings into play not only the gender system but also the race and class system, the structure of medicine and prescription drug development and production, the welfare system, the educational system, foreign aid, and the question of gay rights and minors’ rights. The list is not a rhetorical gesture; in this chapter I will show how each of these influences reproductive rights debates.

      Major social and political conflicts intersected with these systems to revise the meanings of...

  10. Conclusion: Birth Control and Feminism
    (pp. 357-364)

    Trying to control reproduction has been a human activity from as far back as historians can trace it. Reproduction control efforts constitute part of the evidence that biology has never been destiny, that even those functions most often described as “natural,” such as reproduction, have always been formed by cultural and social organizations. In the twentieth century there was rapid, if intermittent, progress in birth control but also some disappointment. Methods became safer and more efficient, and their use became more widespread. But many people have been excluded from this progress. Women continue to suffer, even die, from birth control...

  11. Appendix: Selected Recent Scholarship on the History of Reproduction Control
    (pp. 365-366)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 367-430)
  13. Index
    (pp. 431-446)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 447-448)