I recently read Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, a fascinating biography by historian Jean H. Baker. As a historian of gender and medicine, I thought I knew all about Sanger and her quest to make birth control legal and accessible to the women of America; however, I found myself utterly shocked by one simple fact from Sanger’s background – her mother, Anne, was pregnant eighteen times in twenty-two years, which resulted in eleven live births. Eighteen pregnancies in twenty-two years! Anne died at the age of fifty, her body ravaged from tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Now unless you are the Duggars, the experience of Sanger’s mother may seem unusual today, but her story actually reflects a commonality for many, if not most women throughout American history. Prior to the legalization of birth control and the invention of oral contraceptives, women, especially those of the working class, found themselves perpetually pregnant or nursing, with many dying from the physical hardships of reproduction. For example, the maternal death rate in 1915 was 916 deaths per 100,000 live births. Compare that figure with Amnesty International’s 2006 figure of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States. The combination of improved medical care, access to prenatal services, and the availability of reliable contraception has made a monumental difference in women’s present day lives compared to those of our ancestral sisters.
Disturbingly, the reproductive victories gained by women throughout the twentieth century are under attack once again. From the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke debacle to Arizona’s ridiculous proposal to limit women’s access to oral contraception, it is hard to believe that birth control is even up for debate in this day and age. As a historian, I think that women and men have forgotten the hardships our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers had to endure in order to try to control their family sizes.
Although I could write a whole post devoted to The Pill, I think it is important to remember the lengths women were required to go to prior to the invention of that little miracle pill. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, American women relied on home-prepared medicines like douching powders and astringents, dissolving suppositories, and vaginal pessaries. Condoms continued to be produced and sold, but they came to be associated with the working class and prostitution. For respectable women, and especially women inside of marriage, the control of reproduction largely became their responsibility.
Beginning in the 1920s, several companies began to recognize that large profits could be made from birth control products. Thriving within a grey market, birth control blossomed due in large part to successful advertising campaigns using euphemisms which did not violate any anti-obscenity laws. Companies developed, advertised, and sold a wide variety of affordable birth-control products, including vaginal jellies, douches, suppositories, and foaming tablets. All of these products fell under the legal category of “feminine hygiene;” an innocent-sounding phrase invented by advertisers in the 1920s. Publicly, companies claimed that the sole purpose of feminine hygiene products was to promote vaginal cleanliness, but privately, company officials acknowledged that women used their products as a birth control method.
The thinly veiled and coded messages within advertisements paired with the very illegal status of contraceptives led to a completely unregulated market that promoted fraud, deception, and outright danger. Because neither the government nor the medical establishment permitted or approved of commercial contraceptives, consumers had no reliable avenue for finding factual information and had no legal recourse to address their grievances.
Physicians and pharmacists alike voiced concerns over the ineffectiveness and dangers of commercially-produced contraceptives, but reserved their harshest critiques for antiseptic douches. While a large portion of douching solutions contained simply water, plant extracts, and salt, the most popular brand, Lysol (yes, that Lysol), contained harsh chemicals that could be extremely hazardous to women. Lysol and a few other similar products contained either cresol or mercury chloride, which could cause burns, inflammation, or even death if used improperly.
The famous phrase, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” is certainly applicable to women and their reproductive choices in the twenty-first century. It is shocking to think that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had little choice when it came to controlling their health and family size. The “war on women” reminds us not to take our contraception victories for granted and to always remember our history. I, for one, give thanks to my feminist ancestors every time I pass by the Lysol in the supermarket or watch 19 Kids and Counting.
For further reading:
Baker, Jean H. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.
Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman, 1976.
Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.