National Birth Control League Forms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The formation of the National Birth Control League marked one of the earliest organized efforts to ensure the availability of contraceptive information for women in the United States.

Summary of Event

In the early twentieth century, industrial cities in the United States were filled with poor immigrant families. Many lived in squalid conditions, and the children were often sickly and undernourished. At the time, some middle- and upper-class women were aware of and practiced rudimentary methods of birth control, but information about these methods could not be advertised or distributed publicly. Lower-class women were uninformed about reproductive health and personal hygiene, which led to many unwanted pregnancies, illegal and selfinduced abortions, and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases. National Birth Control League Birth control;access to information Women;birth control [kw]National Birth Control League Forms (1915-1919) [kw]Birth Control League Forms, National (1915-1919) National Birth Control League Birth control;access to information Women;birth control [g]United States;1915-1919: National Birth Control League Forms[03690] [c]Women’s issues;1915-1919: National Birth Control League Forms[03690] [c]Organizations and institutions;1915-1919: National Birth Control League Forms[03690] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1915-1919: National Birth Control League Forms[03690] Comstock, Anthony Dennett, Mary Ware Sanger, Margaret Sanger, William

Margaret Sanger, a practicing nurse, had attended to the obstetric care of many such women in New York City. She and her husband, William Sanger, were active in the radical intellectual causes of the day. Emma Goldman, Goldman, Emma another well-known radical, had for years preached the value of preventing conception from a political perspective, noting that when poor people had large families, they were furthering their own oppression by increasing the size of the labor force and thus driving wages down. Margaret Sanger also took a radical political approach to birth control—a term she coined in 1914. In 1912, Sanger had attended to Sadie Sachs, Sachs, Sadie a young woman who had turned to abortion after her doctor told her another pregnancy would endanger her health but gave her no information on preventing pregnancy beyond the suggestion that she make her husband sleep on the roof. After Sadie’s death as a result of the abortion, Sanger turned her full political energies to the cause of getting information about reproduction to women of the working class.

Sanger’s first attempt at providing information on sexually transmitted diseases and feminine hygiene to the masses was a series of articles titled “What Every Girl Should Know,” "What Every Girl Should Know" (Sanger)[What Every Girl Should Know] which appeared in 1912 in a daily socialist newspaper, the New York Call. The U.S. Post Office Department refused to deliver the Call after learning that the articles frankly discussed sexually transmitted diseases. None of Sanger’s articles at the time concerned birth control, however.

In October, 1913, the Sanger family traveled to Paris, where Margaret Sanger was surprised to see that birth control was openly advocated and practiced. She soon returned to the United States with her children and began publishing The Woman Rebel, Woman Rebel, The (newspaper) seven issues of which were printed in 1914, until it was suppressed by the Post Office. The Woman Rebel focused on the ways in which the capitalist system oppressed women; it also discussed birth control in general terms but did not give specific information. In an early issue of The Woman Rebel, Sanger mentioned a group she was founding, the Birth Control League of America, but before it could become active, Sanger had been charged with nine counts of violating antiobscenity laws. Rather than face trial and likely imprisonment, Sanger left the country alone in October, 1914, and spent the next year in Europe, researching birth control and visiting clinics in Holland, France, and England.

Sanger often exaggerated and dramatized incidents to promote her cause and herself as its chief spokeswoman. Her proclamation that she needed to spend a year in France searching for information on contraception because no such information was available in the United States was inaccurate—although indeed the information was more widely available abroad. An 1898 publication of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office included a two-page listing of books and articles on the subject. It was true, however, that such information was not advertised openly, and it seldom was available to the lower classes.

Among the main barriers to access to contraceptive information was the so-called Comstock law. Comstock law A federal law passed in 1872 that prohibited the mailing of obscene material was deemed inadequate by reformer Anthony Comstock, who managed to push Congress to pass a more restrictive law in 1873. The 1873 Comstock law marked the first instance in which information regarding the prevention of conception was defined as obscene. Comstock also was appointed by Congress as a special postal agent with the authority to arrest persons who violated the law regarding mailing obscene materials, a job that Comstock embraced with relish.

Before she left the country, Sanger had written a booklet titled Family Limitation, Family Limitation (Sanger) which dealt with issues of hygiene, explained the contraceptive devices available at the time, and even suggested an abortifacient. Family Limitation provided specific, accurate contraceptive information, framed in radical socialist terms, advocating that women limit families rather than “supply the market with children to be exploited” and “populate the earth with slaves.” The booklet had to be printed secretly and was distributed primarily through radical labor groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World.

While Margaret Sanger was in Europe, her husband was approached by a man who claimed he wanted to obtain a copy of Family Limitation in order to translate it into other languages and distribute it to poor families. The man, however, was working for Comstock, and a month later Comstock himself came to the Sanger home to arrest William Sanger for violation of the Comstock law. Comstock had set up William Sanger in the hope of forcing Margaret Sanger to end her exile so that he could personally arrest her. She did make plans to return to the United States, but Comstock died a few weeks before she arrived.

William Sanger’s trial became a cause célèbre not only among advocates of birth control but also among Americans concerned with the issue of free speech. Expressions of support, including monetary donations, came in from around the country. At his trial in September, 1915, Sanger acted as his own attorney, declaring, “The law is on trial here, not I.” His thirty-day sentence only added to the general distaste for the Comstock law. As Margaret Sanger’s self-imposed exile had inspired birth control advocates to continue organizing in her absence, her husband’s trial spurred greater efforts on the part of radical socialists to preach the gospel of birth control and motivated others to work to overturn the Comstock law.

While Sanger was out of the country, a group of liberals, including Mary Ware Dennett, Clara Stillman, and Lincoln Steffans, organized the National Birth Control League (NBCL). This organization, however, eschewed the tactics and philosophy of radicals such as Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, preferring to cast birth control as a scientific and medical matter, which could not, therefore, be deemed obscene. The secretary of the birth control group that Sanger had begun to set up the previous year had made Sanger’s files and lists of supporters available to organizers of the new group.

When Sanger returned from Europe after her husband’s arrest, she faced trial on the charges from which she had fled. She appealed to the NBCL for support in her upcoming trial, but the league’s executive committee was unwilling to aid her. The aim of the NBCL was to change the laws restricting information about birth control, and the group’s members disagreed with Sanger’s confrontational tactics and her focus on changing laws through judicial decisions.

By 1919, the National Birth Control League had been replaced by the Voluntary Parenthood League, Voluntary Parenthood League headed by Mary Ware Dennett. This organization worked toward the repeal of federal laws prohibiting dissemination of contraceptive information. In 1921, Margaret Sanger announced the founding of a short-lived rival group, the American Birth Control League, in conjunction with the First American Birth Control Conference First American Birth Control Conference in November, 1921, which Sanger also organized.

Significance

Largely as a result of Margaret Sanger’s efforts and the formation of the National Birth Control League, doctors began to provide women with contraceptives and related information routinely, if discreetly. In addition, birth control clinics began to be established across the United States. It was not until 1970, however, that Congress rewrote the Comstock law to remove contraceptive information and devices from the list of obscene materials that may not be sent through the U.S. mails. National Birth Control League Birth control;access to information Women;birth control

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brodie, Janet Farrell. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. Discusses nineteenth century contraceptive methods and the forces that led to their being restricted. Useful background for understanding the birth control struggles of the early twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandrasekhar, Sripati.“A Dirty, Filthy Book.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Discusses the nineteenth century trial of the English publishers of a book on reproduction and contraception. Title comes from the prosecutor’s description of the book in court. Includes texts of three famous nineteenth century books on reproduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Critchlow, Donald T., ed. The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Collection of essays discussing the history of birth control and abortion in the United States from the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Contributors provide a variety of perspectives, sometimes differing among themselves on particular points of interpretation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Esther, ed. “The Woman Rebel,” 1900-1928. Vol. 1 in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Sanger’s collected diaries, journals, speeches, personal correspondence, and more are assembled to tell the story of her tumultuous life and place her within the context of her times. Includes an introduction by the editor, chronology, substantial notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. Primarily deals with Sanger’s public career, with some details of her personal life. Biographical essay, selected bibliography, and extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, James. From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830. New York: Basic Books, 1978. Discusses early pioneers of the birth control movement and the social forces against which they struggled. Notes, bibliographic essay, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanger, Margaret. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. 1938. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2004. First-person account is somewhat flawed by exaggeration, as when Sanger takes responsibility for establishing the National Birth Control League, which was founded by others while she was out of the country.

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