Elevate Difference

Birth Control on Main Street: Organizing Clinics in the United States, 1916-1939

This past May, the birth control pill celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. News outlets all over the country covered the story, yet the early years of the birth control movement were seldom mentioned. A lack of academic research has led to the history of the early birth control movement being plagued by misinformation, myth, and appropriation by the right, particularly regarding the history of the movement’s founder, Margaret Sanger.

Birth Control on Main Street by Cathy Moran Hajo seeks to shed light on the history of a movement that was so successful that contraceptive access is something most Americans, even those on the right, take for granted.

It is the suffrage movement that is seen by feminists as the early movement to idealize, yet as Hajo points out, in reality, the birth control movement led to much more meaningful reforms. The birth control movement more directly allowed women to pursue careers and personal goals, greatly improved the health of countless women, increased women’s longevity, and led to societal sexual enlightenment, further equal rights, and allowed women to enhance their roles as mothers and partners.

While Birth Control on Main Street is about the movement as a whole (covering years 1916 to 1939), Hajo recognized the importance of providing a fact-based analysis of Margaret Sanger’s career to give a proper foundation for the rest of the movement’s history. As associate editor at NYU’s Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Hajo is the perfect expert to provide such an exploration.

What is perhaps most important for women to know about the history of the early birth control movement is that it was begun and maintained almost exclusively by laywomen activists. Men dominated the medical establishment at the time and were unsupportive of reforms that would encourage women to have fewer children. Control of the clinics remained with female activists for the first decades of the movement, despite their strong desire to work with medical professionals.

No comprehensive history of the birth control movement would be complete without a frank discussion of eugenics, and Hajo does a great job exploring both the realities of the eugenics movement itself and the actual ideologies that brought some birth control activists to involve themselves with eugenicists, including Sanger. Despite what some radicals on the right may say, for Sanger and most of her colleagues, the eugenic question of what made a woman “fit” to bear children was a question of environment, not race.

According to Hajo, the notion that early birth control activists were concerned with reducing the black population is highly misleading. In reality, states Hajo, the true shortcoming of the movement was neglect of the black population. Instead, the true study and focus should be on the unwillingness of early clinic activists to work with black communities at all. As is now well known, this was a conflict eventually overcome and the women’s movement became the most inclusive of social movements in U.S. history.

If there is one thing that is unknown about the early birth control movement, it is the actual work that went on inside the clinics. Hajo devotes a large part of the book to exploring the exact work, interactions between activists and patients, interactions between activists and birth professionals, the demographics of patients, the attitudes and ideologies of activists, admission requirements, and conflicts between local and national leaders. Birth Control on Main Street is the perfect read for any enthusiast, as well as any feminist activist who wants to know more about the collected history we share with our foremothers.

Written by: Janice Formichella, September 29th 2010