Study Guide

The Children's Era Historical Context

By Margaret Sanger

Historical Context

All That Jazz (Age, That Is)

Welcome to the Roaring '20s, otherwise known as The Best Decade To Base Your Theme Party Around. Hemlines are short. Bank accounts are full. (Thanks, President Calvin Coolidge and laissez faire economic policy.

Gatsby is gazing at the green light. You can party down, but if you want to drink while you do it, you'll have to find a bootlegger and a speakeasy because Prohibition is the law of the land.

But it's not all flappers doing the Charleston.

See, a few years ago there was a war that was such a big deal it's still called The Great War. (You might know it better as World War I.) And along with its kid brother the Russian Revolution, World War I really upset the apple cart.

Let's try to reorganize all these apples by looking at what World War I did to national identity and population. Governments are always really concerned with these questions. Who are we? Are there enough of us that we can win a war against those other guys but not so many of us that we can't feed ourselves?

People moved around a lot during the war. Refugees ended up somewhere different from where they started. Soldiers brought new ideas and cultures they'd been exposed to back home. Women took jobs men left behind—and a lot of them found they (gasp!) liked working.

So the powers that be had some real concerns in the 1920s because they wanted everyone back in their boxes. In the United States, birth rates among the urban poor (often recent immigrants) were going up, while birth rates among middle class families were going down. And the government said, "We just can't have that, now can we?" Population control—who has the babies and how many they have—is a big concern that ties directly into national identity.

Let's get the eugenics people involved. This was the heyday of the eugenics movement, the idea that scientists could control the "quality" of babies being born. Which: wow, that's unethical. (Source)

Like most times, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. But for our purposes, think of it as a time when the world had been really shaken up and was trying to put itself back together. Sometimes the people trying to get everything in order did good things and sometimes they did bad things.

And often, it was really hard to tell the difference until later.

Fish Bladders, Linen Cloth, And Rubbers: Oh My!

Now that you've got a good idea of what the world was like in 1925, let's talk about birth control, the subject of "The Children's Era."

The term "birth control" is fairly new. In fact, Margaret Sanger made it up. But ever since people figured out the link between sex and babies, they've been looking for ways to ensure that the first doesn't lead to the second unless they want it to.

Around 3000 B.C.E. (you read that right—5,000 years ago), people used condoms made of fish bladders, cloth, and animal intestines. Gross, right? Clearly, birth control was important if people were willing to use condoms made of fish bladders. Or maybe they just had a completely different perspective on fish bladders than we do.

Fast forward to 1500, when the first spermicidal condoms, made of linen cloth soaked in a chemical solution, came on the market. Mmm: Shakespearean birth control.

In 1838, the first rubber condoms and diaphragms appeared on the scene, and readers of Jane Austen everywhere began giggling every time her characters "played a rubber." (Austen's use of "rubber" refers to an innocent round of a card game called whist.)

Meanwhile, herbal concoctions meant to induce an abortion, often disguised as purgatives or remedies for menstrual irregularity, regularly appeared in cookbooks and were presumably shared by word of mouth for centuries. You didn't want to mess around with this stuff, though. Used incorrectly, it could kill.

(Birth) Control Freaks

All these examples should leave you in no doubt that birth control has been around for a while. But we don't have solid numbers for who used it and who didn't because it wasn't the kind of thing most people recorded or talked about publicly very much…especially since most governments and religious organizations have been on the record against it throughout most of recorded history.

Think we've come a long way since the fertility goddesses of 3000 B.C.E.? Maybe think on that a little more?

As the Industrial Revolution created a strong middle class in the 19th century, lots of people suddenly got really concerned with "middle class values," one of which was the prohibition of sex outside of marriage (for women, at least).

Why this sudden concern? Well, a lot of people weren't living paycheck to paycheck for the first time. The new middle class had an inheritance to leave their kids...and men wanted to be sure the kids they were leaving that cash to were actually their kids. Any society concerned with the transfer of property will always be concerned with controlling women's bodies, and boy did ol' Anthony Comstock get concerned with a vengeance. (See our discussion of the Comstock Law of 1873 in the "Compare and Contrast" Section.)

His anti-obscenity laws forbade the dissemination (cheeky pun very much intended) of contraceptive devices and information through the mail, which set him up to run right into Margaret Sanger's efforts to normalize birth control in the first decades of the 20th century. (Check out the "Timeline" for more detail on those efforts.) The Comstock Laws, which included a collection of federal and state anti-obscenity statutes, exacerbated the idea that there was something kind of icky and wrong about birth control by equating contraception with things like pornography.

Chills And Pills

Many women (especially those living in poverty) were desperate for a means to prevent the constant pregnancies that took a toll on their health and led to children they couldn't care for, but public concern about sexual promiscuity and cultural and religious norms that said it was women's duty to bear children led many people to consider birth control unnatural and immoral.

Despite the best efforts of her opponents, Sanger's dream of a "Magic Pill" came true when Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, was approved by the FDA in 1960. But all was not sweetness and light just yet.

The first hormonal birth control pills also had high levels of hormones that caused some nasty side effects and even death, in a few cases. In 1970, feminists concerned about the safety of "the pill" testified before Congress, which resulted both in reformulated pills with lower doses of hormones and in the creation of patient information packets for prescription drugs.

After FDA approval of intrauterine devices (IUDs) in 1968, different models went on and off the market due to safety concerns for the next three decades. The 1990s saw the arrival of female condoms, contraceptive implants, and contraceptive injections, while patches, rings, and safer IUDs appeared in the 2000s. In 2013, Plan B One-Step, an emergency contraceptive, was made available without a prescription.

What do all these hormonal birth control methods have in common? They all prevent pregnancy by altering the natural processes of women's bodies. On one hand, this puts control in women's hands, where Sanger would argue it belongs. On the other, it puts all the risk on women's bodies, too, and some opponents of hormonal contraception argue that it's actually anti-feminist because of this.

Future developments in contraception are aimed at developing forms of male birth control more reliable than condoms and on developing birth control methods that also prevent STIs.

We've come a long way from fish bladders, but what hasn't changed since 3000 B.C.E.? No matter where or when they live, poor women have less access to birth control than middle-class or wealthy women. (Source)

That's certainly something Sanger would want to change sometime before the next century.