- Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916–1945
Carole R. McCann’s excellent book is part of the third wave of scholarship on birth control movements in America and demonstrates the sophisticated reflexivity that one now expects of such contributions. The first wave was largely hagiographic, focused on Margaret Sanger; the second wave took more of a social-movements approach, with attention usually paid to key figures and turning [End Page 162] points. The third wave sustains movement concerns, takes up issues of race, gender, and their intersections, and situates birth control movements more broadly vis-à-vis other political movements and cultural concerns.
The book specifically examines the relations between birth control and feminism, the medical profession, eugenics/racial betterment, the Interracial Coalition for Birth Control, and the shift from laywomen to organization men in movement leadership. Because McCann focuses on a distinctive and carefully bounded thirty-year period, we can layer our new understandings of these relations one upon another, chapter after chapter, building a very dense and rich portrait. This is the key era of coalescence and commitment of the birth control movements into organizational and political forms that have been largely sustained through the present moment.
McCann places the lay birth control movement, led by Sanger, at the center of her analysis for the years 1925–45 and builds out from there. Her layered chapter organization allows us to grasp the relations among the several different movements concerned with the legalization and legitimation of contraception over these years. For example, her analysis of how Sanger and the Sangerists played key eugenicist biologists off against physicians seeking to completely displace the Sangerists is superb. All social movements wheel and deal, negotiate and push their own agendas, and McCann portrays this jockeying in careful detail through rich archival materials.
Three chapters offer particular contributions. In one riveting section, McCann reveals the strained relations between what were more “mainstream” feminist groups and the birth control advocates in the 1920s and 1930s; this chapter will, I hope, provoke reconsideration of relations among feminist organizations and the women’s health and abortion movements of the 1960s–1980s. The chapter on the Interracial Coalition sustains recent and more careful scholarly attention to early-twentieth-century African-American commitments to birth control usage and movements. McCann’s arguments are strengthened through consideration of Raymond Pearl’s research on actual contraceptive usage in the 1930s—which he found (contrary to his own beliefs) to be based directly on access, rather than on race or class, in one of the first serious studies of differential fertility. Documentation of African-American community leaders’ activities on behalf of birth control is an important corrective.
McCann’s analytic thread is the development of an economic ethic of fertility as the guiding frame provided by the Sangerist movement and taken up by “allies,” adding racial betterment, antiwelfare, and other inflections over the years. Culminating in the final chapter, this ethic is traced as it transforms a birth control movement centered on enhancing women’s autonomy through woman-controlled methods, to organizations for family planning and planned parenthood seeking new scientific methods. Not only are men included in this new ethic, but men (mostly eugenicists and physicians) have also taken over most leadership positions by 1945. Sangerists did not challenge maternity as women’s greatest contribution and motherhood as a moral imperative. Nor did they question the division of labor in the family. Nor did Sanger or the Sangerists produce a second generation of feminist laywomen’s leadership at the national level. The old birth [End Page 163] control movement essentially died by 1945, to be resurrected a quarter of a century later in new and different organizations by women’s health activists in feminism’s second wave.
McCann is an engaging writer, able to communicate complicated stories vividly and accessibly. A useful chronology of events in the U.S. birth control movement from 1873 to 1945 is also offered. However, neither McCann nor anyone else has examined another key relationship, that between...