Readings for March 11

Several of the questions produced in class on Wednesday dealt with the Margaret Sanger reading. Your readings for Monday should help us begin to answer those questions:

  1. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (2000). link
  2. Essay on Margaret Sanger in the American National Biography
  3. Richard A. Soloway, “The ‘Perfect Contraceptive’: Eugenics and Birth Control Research in Britain and America in the Interwar Years,” Journal of Contemporary History 30, no. 4 (1995). link
  4. Esther Katz, “The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger,” The Public Historian 17, no. 1 (Winter 1995). link

First, the alpha group asked:

Given that contraception was legal in the U.S. during the early 19th century, and given there was considerable desire/demand for the re-legalization of contraceptives in the early 20th century, what factors contributed to the ban on contraceptives implemented in the late 1800s?1

How would Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, the author of Reading #1, answer that question?

The gamma group also asked:

Sanger was able to travel and study English Methods of Birth Control, Dutch Methods of Birth Control, and Magnetation Methods of Birth Control. Given that these countries would presumably have a much stronger religious influence, why was the suggestion of birth control so suppressed in the United States?2

This question is really about why Sanger seemed to receive more support abroad—or why she went abroad at all. Were people in countries like England or the Netherlands more receptive to Sanger’s ideas than Americans? And if so, why? The second and third readings should help you answer that question.

These readings also raise a new question: what was the relationship between eugenics and Sanger’s movement?

The final reading, by the editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers, reflects on continuing controversies over Margaret Sanger at the turn of the twentieth-first century, and may help answer one of the oldest questions on our Questions page:

How have legislation and attitudes towards women’s health and reproductive rights changed since Roe vs. Wade?

  1. In class we discussed how this question could be refined and made more specific. For example, instead of asserting that “there was considerable desire/demand for the re-legalization of contraceptives,” we could say, using the Sanger document, that “Margaret Sanger gained hundreds of supporters in the early twentieth century.”

  2. We also talked about potential improvements to this question in class. The evidence in front us from the readings doesn’t really tell us that European countries would be more religious than the United States, and actually contains one source (the Billy Sunday video about Prohibition) that suggests there was a strong religious streak in American culture at this moment. Still, the question does a good job of stressing contingency—conditions in America were not necessarily the same as in Europe.