- When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature Between the World Wars by Layne Parish Craig
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...