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Roots of the Pill: Early Activism

So much attention has been given to the growth and development of the movement for woman suffrage that the effect on the women themselves has been lost sight of or has been little considered but today it is becoming clear that the cause of suffrage is more valuable to the individual woman than she is to the cause. The reason is that this movement has the great though silent force of evolution behind it, impelling it slowly forward; whereas the individual is largely dependent for her development on her own powers and especially on those expressions of life with which she brings herself into contact. The woman suffrage movement offers the broadest field for contact with life. It offers cooperation of the most effective kind with others; it offers responsibility in the life of the community and the nation; it offers opportunity for the most varied and far-reaching service. To come into contact with this movement means to some individuals to enter a larger world of thought than they had known before; to others it means approaching the same world in a more real and effective way. To all it gives a wider horizon in the recognition of one fact -- that the broadest human aims and the highest human ideals are an integral part of the lives of women.

Katharine McCormick
in a speech delivered at a 1911 suffrage convention


It was interesting to watch the pencils come out at the announcement that there were seven circumstances under which birth control should be practiced.

  • First, when either husband or wife had a transmissible disease, such as epilepsy, insanity, or syphilis.
  • Second, when the wife suffered from a temporary affection of the lungs, heart, or kidneys, the cure of which might be retarded through pregnancy.
  • Third, when parents, though normal, had subnormal children.
  • Fourth, when husband or wife were adolescent. Early marriage, yes, but parenthood should be postponed until after the twenty-third year of the boy and the twenty-second of the girl.
  • Fifth, when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate; no man had the right to have ten children if he could not provide for more than two. The standards of living desirable had to be considered; it was one thing if the parents were planning college educations for their offspring, and another if they wanted them simply for industrial exploitation.
  • Sixth, births should be spaced between two and three years, according to the mother's health.

All the foregoing were self-evident from the physiological and economic points of view. But I wished to introduce a final reason which seemed equally important to me, though it had not been taken into account statistically.

Seventh, every young couple should practice birth control for at least one year after marriage and two as a rule, because this period should be one of physical, mental, financial, and spiritual adjustment in which they could grow together, cement the bonds of attraction, and plan for their children.

Margaret Sanger
recalling the speech she delivered across the country in 1916


Early Influences
> Early Activism
First-Wave Feminism
Conceiving the Pill

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