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  • "All Good Things Start With the Women":The Origin of the Texas Birth Control Movement, 1933-1945
  • Harold L. Smith (bio)

Did a Texas women's movement exist between the early twentieth-century woman's suffrage campaign and the 1960s feminist revival? Although historians of the national women's movement have challenged the traditional view that these were distinct waves separated by a period in which the women's movement became moribund, this perception still shapes twentieth-century Texas women's historiography.1 This essay, however, will present evidence that a new Texas women's movement emerged in the 1930s that established a network of birth control clinics providing reproductive health services to low-income married women despite considerable public hostility. It will suggest that the Texas movement succeeded in developing a lasting clinical network by attracting women from Texas's social elite to lead it; by allying with prominent male physicians, wealthy businessmen, and clergymen who provided professional expertise, funding, and respectability; by providing a woman-controlled contraceptive method that was safe and effective; by distancing itself from any association with increased women's sexual freedom by restricting birth control assistance to married women and portraying [End Page 253] it as an alternative to abortion; and by shrewdly using the Great Depression to provide an ideological context for birth control that secured public acquiescence in a conservative state resistant to gender and sexual innovations.

The national movement's historiography has focused on heroic individuals like Margaret Higgins Sanger and the national organization's transformation. The latter changed from a female-controlled movement that viewed birth control as a woman's right to a male-controlled movement concerned with family planning, which by the 1940s was presented as a pro-family mothers' health reform devoid of feminist associations.2 Linda Gordon's view that by the 1930s birth control had lost the potential to become a social movement because Sanger had abandoned women's rights language and the women who organized the birth control clinics viewed them as charities rather than as instruments of gender justice has shaped historian's perceptions of the 1930s birth controllers.3

But Gordon provided little evidence regarding the extent to which local clinics reflected the national organization's development. Did men also gain control of the local clinics? Did local clinic leaders share the ideological transformation that the national organization underwent? Should we accept the clinic spokesperson's public statements at face value without recognizing that their public rhetoric was designed to secure public acceptance of the clinics rather than to provide historians with a window into their (the birth controllers) consciousness? Recent studies of the local clinics have focused on the differences between the national organization and the local clinics and the extent to which the latter functioned independently of the national organization.4 What is needed to resolve these conflicting interpretations are studies of the birth control movement at state and local level where women's groups had to make hard decisions about how to "sell" birth control clinics to their culturally conservative local communities. Texas provides a case study of the strategies adopted by local leaders in dealing with significant opposition—especially from the Catholic Church —racial segregation policies, and a skeptical public fearful that birth control meant sexual immorality and the undermining of the gender system.5 [End Page 254]

Margaret Sanger founded the American birth control movement, and coined the term "birth control" in 1915. Sanger believed that women had a right to enjoy sexuality and to control their own bodies, and therefore opened the nation's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, New York, in 1916, but was arrested almost immediately afterwards for violating the federal obscenity law, which regarded birth control information as obscene. She won a partial victory in 1918, however, when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that it was legal for physicians to prescribe contraceptives for medical reasons. She established the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921, and two years later founded the Clinical Research Bureau in New York City, the first legal birth control clinic in the United States. Because of the court's ruling that only physicians could prescribe contraceptives...


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pp. 253-285
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