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The Moral Property of Women

A History of Birth Control Politics in America

Linda Gordon

Publication Year: 2002

The Moral Property of Women is a thoroughly updated and revised version of the awardwinning historian Linda Gordon's classic study, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (1976). It is the only book to cover the entire history of the intense controversies about reproductive rights that have raged in the United States for more than 150 years. Arguing that reproduction control has always been central to women's status, Gordon shows how opposition to it has long been part of the entrenched opposition to gender equality

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

In 1988 the French minister of health overruled a large pharmaceutical company and ordered the abortion drug RU-486 (mifepristone) placed on the market, declaring that it was “the moral property of women.” When I heard the phrase, I realized that it was an exact statement of the ethical premise of this book and a much better title for it than...

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pp. xi-xiii

Regarding the 1976 edition: The interpretations offered in this book depend on virtually everything I have learned about history and gender and sexual politics. While the immediate labor on it is mine, congealed in it, invisible to most readers, is the labor of many others. I can mention only those to whom my debt is quite specific. I am grateful...

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Introduction: Birth Control, the Moral Property

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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...

PART 1: From Folk Medicine to Prohibition

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pp. 5-23

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1. The Prehistory of Birth Control

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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...

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2. The Criminals

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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...

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3. Prudent Sex

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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...

PART 2: Birth Control and Women’s Rights

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pp. 53-71

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4. Voluntary Motherhood

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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...

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5. Social Purity and Eugenics

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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...

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6. Race Suicide

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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...

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7. Continence or Indulgence

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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...

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8. Birth Control and Social Revolution

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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...

PART 3: From Women’s Rights to Family Planning

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pp. 169-187

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9. Professionalization

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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...

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10. Depression

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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...

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11. Planned Parenthood

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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...

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12. Birth Control Becomes Public Policy

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pp. 279-291

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...

PART 4: Birth Control in the Era of Second-Wave Feminism

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pp. 293-311

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13. Abortion, the Mother Controversy

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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...

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14. Is Nothing Simple about Reproduction Control?

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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...

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Conclusion: Birth Control and Feminism

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pp. 357-363

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...


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pp. 365-366


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pp. 367-430


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pp. 431-446

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About the Author

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pp. 447-464

Linda Gordon taught for seventeen years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and is now a professor of history at New York University. She has specialized in examining the historical roots of contemporary social policy debates, particularly as they concern gender and family issues, and during the Clinton administration served on the Advisory Council on Violence...

Back Cover

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p. 465-465

E-ISBN-13: 9780252095276
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252074592

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2002