- Reviewed by
While timeliness is not often a characteristic of literary studies, the recent resurgence of political battles over women’s access to contraception, and other reproductive services, makes Layne Parish Craig’s new study of the interwar birth control movement just that. In When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars, Craig breaks new ground by establishing the transnational nature of the “political ascendance and gradual institutionalization of birth control as a family planning model” (2) with a well-researched history of birth control politics. She presents parallels between the work of Maria Stopes in Great Britain and Margaret Sanger in America, through an examination of original birth control publications and personal letters. Both women showed a “reverence for voluntary motherhood” and women’s health, but also relied on classist, ableist and racist frameworks when constructing “fit motherhood” (9). Craig does not shy away from a discussion of the problematic relationship both women had with eugenics, but she is careful to avoid an elision of the differences between eugenics and the birth control movement. Using this historical framework, she examines the literary responses to these [End Page 568] official positions through a collection of texts that represent different nations, races, classes, and literary genres, including: feminist utopian, high-modernist, middle-brow, and Harlem Renaissance texts. Across these differences, she traces the transformation of the romantic plotline in the face of birth control and argues that these writers did not simply parrot the politics of birth control but pushed back against “the movement’s limitations and inequalities and extend[ed] its implications beyond the stated intentions of its leaders” (18).
In her first chapter, Craig places Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland saga in conversation with Margaret Sanger’s early magazine The Woman Rebel. This early publication reveals Sanger’s radical roots, in which her advocacy for birth control celebrated socialism and sexual freedom. While not arguing for a causal relationship, Craig traces how Gilman’s exploration of fertility control in Herland reflected dominant feminist frameworks and traced a path that Sanger would ultimately follow as she reached larger audiences. Particularly, Gilman challenges the early embrace of sexual pleasure as a by-product of birth control and instead subsumes “sexual fulfillment to an ideal of racial and national progress” (42).
Sanger’s adaption to these ideals brought her more in line with Maria Stopes, whose work is used to illuminate James Joyce’s and Virginia Woolf’s work in the second chapter of When Sex Changed. Craig delves into the high-modernist cannon with a look on how Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway illuminate their authors’ engagement with birth control politics. That these texts address the anxieties of ordinary life is well known; what Craig explores is how “fertility control is just such a hidden anxiety, rarely acknowledged but frequently part of the mental landscape of everyday men and women” (51). While not the first to discuss fertility control in Ulysses, Craig shifts the focus from the male-centric, Malthusian-population-control texts, which Joyce is known to have read, to look for traces of the women-centric birth control movement. She argues that through Molly we can see “Joyce’s ideal expression of … fertility is not in numerous offspring, but in children carefully planned and conceived with an appropriate partner” (58). Like Stopes’s wider movement, Joyce places the power of fertility control in women’s hands but, importantly, challenges the medical authority that new birth control clinics imposed.
While her reading of Mrs. Dalloway highlights a similar distrust of the medical establishment, it relies on a more tenuous connection between the birth control movement and Woolf’s exploration of lesbian desire. Craig admits that Stopes’s overt stance was against homosexuality, but she attempts to connect Woolf’s exploration of Clarissa’s non-heterosexual passions to a space opened up by the birth control movement. Given the plethora of arenas that were directly addressing same-sex desire, this point is not fully supported...