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Layne Parish Craig. When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature Between the World Wars. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013. x + 207 pp.

In season four of Downton Abbey, set in 1922, Lady Grantham’s maid Edna Braithewaite attempts to entrap the newly aristocratic Tom Branson by staging a pregnancy. Her plan is foiled when Marie Stopes’s 1918 birth control manual, Married Love, is discovered in her quarters. The social-climbing single woman as sexual aggressor is an altogether new figure in the melodrama. During the Great War just two seasons prior, housemaid Ethel Parks is turned away ignominiously after conceiving the child of an officer. The writers of Downton seem to have undertaken Layne Parish Craig’s opening exhortation to readers in When Sex Changed: “Imagine if Tess d’Uberville or Anna Karenina had been given a [copy of Stopes] before her seduction” (2). In the years between the two world wars, “birth control’s ascension to its prominent role in the public imagination” fundamentally alters storytelling, Craig argues (3). Her nod toward Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy indicates that foundational novelistic conventions are at stake—the outcome of the seduction plot or, indeed, its gendered power dynamics. But Craig is more interested in the psychologies, sexualities, identities, and practices that arise out of the possibility of a “post-birth control womanhood” (3).

Craig’s study departs from its predecessor, Beth Widmaier Capo’s Textual Contraception (2006), by undertaking a transatlantic exploration of the birth control movement and literary engagement with it. It documents the rise of Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes as the figureheads of fertility control in the United States and Britain. Deftly slicing through the history of the movement, she carves out “striking parallels” between the two women’s visions, mapping their shared social and intellectual circles (5). She argues that they are “coshapers of the image of birth control in the Anglo/American literary imagination” and that “responses to birth control politics by writers on both sides of the Atlantic can thus be read as part of a single, wide-ranging conversation responding to, adopting, and adapting the ideas of the movement’s two famous progenitors” (4). In her final chapter, on Three Guineas and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, for example, she makes of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner unlikely bedfellows in a mutual advocacy for contraception as the means to women’s economic and artistic empowerment.

Like the other authors in her study, she presents Woolf and Faulkner as interlocutors that not only rehearse but also intervene in the politics of a movement that often advanced its very radicality through an alliance with conservative social values. Craig thus considers [End Page 168] Stopes and Sanger’s emergence as “institutional rather than revolutionary figures” (48). While tracing their mutual commitment to maternal health, sexual pleasure, and financial stability as garnered through birth control, Craig also demonstrates the “double-edged nature” of their legacy: “contraception could be figured simultaneously as an agent of liberation and as a catalyst for increased policing of sexual behavior” (47). Stopes’s manual is after all titled Married Love, firmly establishing family planning within matrimony as the legitimate province and project of birth control, however Edna Braithewaite may have applied it.

This specter of unleashed sexuality was, for Charlotte Perkins Gilman, cause for initial rejection of birth control altogether. Craig’s first chapter reads Herland against Sanger’s periodical The Woman Rebel, documenting Gilman’s radicalization as a contraceptive thinker and Sanger’s temperance; the meeting ground for these once polar minds on birth control—with Gilman’s early insistence on abstinence juxtaposed with Sanger’s support of sexual freedom—is the sublimation of sexuality to the cause of the state or contraception as a eugenic strategy. Chapter 2 examines Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, and Mrs. Dalloway as engaging the medicalization of birth control, another key aspect of both Stopes’s and Sanger’s strategies for legitimizing and distributing contraception. Its cost, for both Joyce and Woolf, is a loss of pleasure as well as privacy as sex becomes an institutionally monitored practice. Chapter 3 attempts an optimistic reading of Helga Crane’s fate in Quicksand, arguing that Nella Larsen defends the individuality of poor women of color—a group all too often rhetorically erased and overgeneralized by a movement that ostensibly intended to help them. Here, Craig also compellingly explores the ways that African American women found their fertility dually scrutinized by white eugenic hostility and the reproductive tactics of racial uplift.

Craig’s fourth chapter examines the Catholic Church’s 1930 condemnation of birth control through the family sagas Seed by Charles Gilman Norris and Without My Cloak by Kate O’Brien. Whereas she finds in Seed a rhetorical mouthpiece for the cause—albeit one whose fascination with eugenics goes too far even for Sanger—Craig locates in O’Brien the emergence of a queer ethos underwritten by the movement’s core investment in sexual pleasure and, of course, its “reverence for nonreproductive sex” (16). Here Craig extends arguments about the sexualities of Molly Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway from chapter 2, more fully demonstrating that Stopes and Sanger achieve “an ironic feat of fertility” (163): the conception of subjectivities and narratives that exceed the limits of their own visions for fertility control. Among these, their collusion with eugenic thought—and its concomitant racism, classism, and heterosexism—emerges again and [End Page 169] again. Craig states that she neither “defends nor condemns Stopes and Sanger” (21), hoping that close readings of a “proliferation of individual narrative refractions of a potentially totalizing political ideology” will remove that burden (17). But it is not clear that they do, and one wishes that she might.

When Sex Changed closes by examining contemporary anti-choice rhetoric and its eager bludgeoning of abortion rights based on Stopes and Sanger’s history as eugenicists. The effectiveness of this stance, which Craig reads as a “problematic legacy for the birth control movement” (155), manifests in her own arguments, which, committed as they are to the feminist mainstay of reproductive rights, put her in a defensive posture that leaves her unable to fully level critique where it is required. Certainly, Craig cedes the movement’s “dismissive and bigoted claims about ’fitness’” (157). But pointing out that public figures such as Sarah Palin misconstrue or decontextualize historical discourses of contraceptive eugenics does little to mitigate the ways those discourses materially shape many women’s reproductive experiences today: the fraught practices of genetic screening now endemic to prenatal care, for example. This particular legacy of the birth control movement is more than a political inconvenience, as Craig chooses primarily to address it.

Nevertheless, Craig demonstrates her considerable knowledge of the connections among the figures and works in her study, justifying her transatlantic scope and offering details alternately quirky and quite moving, such as Gilman’s medical consultation regarding the fitness of her union with cousin Houghton Gilman, Larsen’s likely encounter with Sanger at the library where she worked, the serial publication of Ulysses in the Birth Control Review, and Woolf’s loss of her own reproductive choice at the hands of her husband and doctors. Addressing the nuances of the individual encounter with contraceptive ideologies, her attentive readings invest fiction with the ability to harness the movement’s fullest potential: “While the revolutionary possibilities of the expansion of women’s reproductive choice were always already tempered by the political challenges, agendas, and compromises of birth control as a movement in the early twentieth century, those possibilities cannot be contained within that movement; rather, they continue to burst through in writers’ representations of their own experiences of love, sex, and fertility” (163). [End Page 170]

Heather E. Holcombe
Boston University