We would like to kick off our celebration of Women’s History Month with a blog about new research on the Texas birth control movement from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. The article, “‘All Good Things Start with Women,’: the Origin of the Texas Birth Control Movement, 1933-1945,” was written by Harold L. Smith, a professor of History at the University of Houston-Victoria.
Dr. Smith covers the development of a birth control movement in Texas, demonstrating that its success came chiefly from its ability to attract the support of the women of the Texas social elite, male physicians and businessmen, and local clergymen. Like many other local birth control groups, those in Texas attracted support by distancing itself from women’s sexual freedom, pitching birth control as an alternative to abortion, and by using the economic crisis of the Depression to make the case for increased access to birth control.
The article highlights the efforts of Katie Rice Ripley, who helped Sanger lobby Texas congressmen to legalize the dissemination of birth control through the mails and Agnese Carter Nelms who worked to build a state birth control league that established a string of clinics in Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Austin, Fort Worth, Austin, Waco, and San Antonio in the 1930s. Documents from the Margaret Sanger Papers were used to reveal the involvement of Sanger and the national birth control movement in Texas organizing. Tracing the movement through power struggles for state leadership between Nelms and Ripley, challenges to the birth control movement by Catholic officials in El Paso, and a struggle to convince state authorities to make birth control part of its public health coverage.
As Dr. Smith concludes:
“Historians used to portray women as passive victims of the Great Depression, but more recent studies have emphasized their resilience in expanding women’s public roles despite the hostile climate of opinion. This essay . . . presents evidence that during the 1930s Texas women were agents of change who used public anxiety about the Great Depression’s social and economic effects to develop a new women’s movement that increased married, lower income women’s access to birth control through the creation of a network of clinics. Women initiated the effort to create a clinic in each of the communities in which one was established and volunteered their services as officers, board members, and in other capacities despite public attacks designed to smear their reputation.”
The article can be found in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, CXIV: 9 (Jan. 2011): pp. 253-85.
For those with access to Project Muse materials, you can consult the complete article here: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/southwestern_historical_quarterly/v114/114.3.smith.html