At the Fourth International Conference on Planned Parenthood in 1953, Margaret Sanger spoke of the importance of names. Specifically, she provides a brief history of the term “birth control.” Before Sanger coined the term birth control, contraception was referred to as “family limitation.” However, as Sanger explains, this did not adequately represent what she was fighting for. She says, “a few of us got together and thought of ‘family control’, well, that wasn’t it; ‘conception control’, and finally, out of the blue came ‘birth control.’” The evolution of the term birth control, as Sanger describes it, begs us to look at the term birth control in a new light. As a college student in 2015, the term family limitation struck me as archaic in its presumptions. It conditions us to think of contraception as something that is solely for married women. In the early 1920s, women did not have a language to talk about contraception without turning the focus away from themselves. It was not about the woman; it was about the family.

Sanger's first edition of "Family Limitation" was published in 1914. Later on, she began to publish "The Birth Control Review."

Sanger’s pamphlet, “Family Limitation,” was published in 1914. Later on, she began to publish “The Birth Control Review.”

Although Sanger fought and advocated for women’s health via birth control, this concept of women being autonomous through contraception did not seem to be on her mind when she first changed family limitation to birth control. Sanger preferred the term birth control because it was more straightforward. The purpose was to control, not limit, the amount of children one had. In her words, the name change added “the conscious.” She believed that this new terminology would encourage the public to be more aware of what they were doing. By changing the name to birth control, Sanger ultimately hoped to change the way in which people thought about birth control.

This graph (taken via Google Books) tracks the usage of family limitation vs. birth control.

This graph tracks the usage of family limitation vs. birth control. (Google Books)

Sanger was certainly successful in getting people to change their thinking by changing the language. Her actions have had effects that she could not have predicted back in the 1920s. Birth control continues to be our terminology of choice for contraception, despite the introduction of terms such as “planned parenthood” and “family planning.” The fight for reproductive rights is far from over, but now, we talk about a woman’s right to her own body. This line of thinking is in part made possible by how the language of birth control shapes our thoughts. Now, access to birth control is a women’s issue, not a family issue. In fact, Sanger’s coining of the term birth control was so successful in changing our thinking, that family limitation is now an outdated term. In many ways, we have been able to get to this point because Margaret Sanger understood that “it’s very important to have a proper name for a good idea.”

Advertisements