Margaret Sanger began publishing the Birth Control Review in 1917 as a means to help build a birth control movement. By 1921 the monthly journal had become the official organ of the American Birth Control League, and included news of birth control activities, articles by scholars, activists, and writers on birth control, and reviews of books and other publications. The Review even included art and fiction in the form of cartoons, poetry and short stories.
Karla K. Gower and Vanessa Murphree recently published “Making Birth Control Respectable” in American Journalism, an article that looked at underlying messages about eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism (overpopulation) found in the Review.
To understand how eugenics and population were treated by the Review, it is important to understand the context in which the journal appeared. Gower and Murprhee argue that the topic of birth control was not publicly acceptable in the 1920s. Anything that related to reproduction was thought to belong in the private sphere. Public discussion of such matters made people uncomfortable. The Gower and Murphree argue that women were “relegated to the home” and were expected to uphold the virtues of the cult of domesticity–piety, purity, submission and domesticity. Thus, birth control was seen as taboo.
Mailing information about birth control was also illegal, thanks to the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it a federal offense to send information about contraceptives in the mail. The Comstock Act also inspired states to further criminalize birth control. Gower and Murphree indicated that fourteen states prohibited the verbal transmission of information about contraception or abortion, while eleven others made possession of instructions for the prevention of pregnancy a criminal offense.
Page of the Morning Oregonian, published in June 1916. “Censorship is Attacked.”
But this did not stop Sanger and the American Birth Control League from mailing out the Review, though it probably had some impact the kinds of material the journal published. The main goal of the Review was to secure public support for birth control, to attract the support of doctors, legislators, academics, and the middle class and wealthy society women who formed the backbone of local birth control leagues.
This is where the undertones of eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism come in.
Sanger understood that there needed to be political accommodation in order to publish material on birth control. The Comstock Act, along with similar state laws, still existed. So Sanger and her supporters had to find a way to disseminate the information that they needed to without engaging in a full on battle with the law.
The answer lay in appealing to a greater audience and breaking their belief that birth control was a taboo. This audience was the white middle and upper classes.
But why would the BCR want to reach these classes? Were not most of the writings concerned with the impoverished classes, the women who could not afford to have undesired children?
In Sanger’s autobiography, My Fight for Birth Control, she writes:
The answer was to make the club women, the women of wealth and intelligence, use their power and money and influence to obtain freedom and knowledge for the women of the poor. The women of leisure must listen. The women of wealth must give. The women of influence must protest.
(For more on this subject see, “Women of Wealth and Influence.”)
Sanger concluded that although it was working class women who needed the most aid, it was the “club women” who would have the necessary influence and resources to promote the birth control movement.
Although the article demonstrates that the subject of eugenics in the BCR was a matter of tactic, it is important to note that
for Sanger, eugenics wasn’t just a strategy.
Eugenic theory developed in the United States during the early twentieth century. Individuals, including Margaret Sanger, believed that there were certain ways to promote a healthier population. Sanger, in particular, established ideas on when women should avoid giving birth. These ideas included women being at least 22 years old so that she can “attain a ripe physical and mental development” and when she is working since “society remains indifferent to the needs of her offspring and forces them to toil in mills and factories.
(Vol. 1: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, p.243-244)
The BCR was a magazine serving as a publication to discuss the justifications of birth control. The upper class readers of these stories would have emotional reactions to reading the unfortunate stories and letters of poor women.
By speaking to this audience, the topic of birth control would be public and legal with social changes could come to fruition.
What this audience tended to want to hear during this time were discussions on eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism.
These topics concerned the strengthening of gene pools and the controlling of overpopulation, respectively. More importantly, the supporters of both were concerned with quality over quantity.
Does this sound familiar?
Quite. Think about the BCR and the birth control movement in general. The primary goals included decreasing the number of undesired births in poorer populations in order to improve the quality of life for the poorer families.
Now, Sanger and the BCR editors had to be careful about using eugenics to further promote birth control in the public sphere. The idea was not to make greater white middle and upper class families, rather, the intersection of these movements was to support the idea to ensure that families had the right to control the size of their family and that women had the right to control their bodies.
The following excerpt describes the general perspective on eugenics in the birth control movement:
Margaret Sanger and leaders of the birth control movement, predominantly women, believed that people should be empowered, by education, to make choices to limit their own reproduction. In a society that frowned on open discussion of sexuality and where physicians knew little about the biology of reproduction, Sanger advocated that mothers be given access to the scientific information needed to thoughtfully plan conception.
(For more on eugenics in the birth control movement see, “Birth Control and Eugenics: Uneasy Bedfellows?”)
The conclusion of this intersection, in the perspective of the BCR, was that the access to knowledge about contraceptives and effective family spacing would give women the ability to “eliminate the unfit [population].”
Cover of the BCR published in February 1926. Slogan, “Fewer Children Better Born,” suggests that birth control would lead to a healthier population.
In addition to addressing the question of increasing an “unfit” population, there was the question of overpopulation.
Neo-Malthusians supported using scientific advancement, in this case birth control, to impede the growing world population as it was assumed to be constrained by inadequate food production.
Sanger, after hearing a speech given by Frank Vanderlip concerning the growing population of Europe and their possible reliance on American food sources, saw the potential in incorporating this argument in the birth control movement.
Though Murphree and Gower emphasize that the inclusion of Neo-Malthusian ideals was a way to reach a broader range of supporters, it is important to understand that Margaret Sanger’s ideas had been influenced by the Neo-Maltusian movement. In 1914, Sanger found herself in England being introduced to the leaders of the Malthusian League. This is where she first learned of the advocacy for using artificial contraception to control population growth. The League’s program gave Sanger new arguments that would increase the appeal of the legalization of birth control
(Vol 1: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, p. 94.)
So you see? Both the incorporation of eugenics and neo-Malthusian ideas were also communication tactics!
Sanger effectively used the appeal of the eugenics and overpopulation movements to further the birth control movement.
What was the BCR able to communicate with these associations?
Everything converged to demonstrate that birth control would give women the liberty to control their bodies and therefore, control the number of children they had. This would naturally lead to a healthier population.
Everyone would hopefully be content.
 Gower, Karla K. & Vanessa Murphree. “Making Birth Control Respectable.” American Journalism 30,2 (2013) : 213.
McFarlane, Deborah & Kenneth J. Meier. The Politics of Fertility Control. New York: Seven Bridges, 2001, 30.
 Gower, Karla K. & Vanessa Murphree. “Making Birth Control Respectable.” American Journalism 30,2 (2013) : 219.
Birth Control Review, June 125, front cover.
 “Birth Control the True Eugenics–Mothers Who Refuse to Bear Unfit Children,” Birth Control Review, August 1926, 248.
 Gower, Karla K. & Vanessa Murphree. “Making Birth Control Respectable.” American Journalism 30,2 (2013) : 233.