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The Pill | Article

Roots of the Pill

Katharine McCormick

One of the early female graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Katharine McCormick believed in science and in the advancement of women. Margaret Sanger witnessed unwanted pregnancies -- and desperate abortion attempts -- when she worked as a nurse among New York's poorest women. Though they came from different worlds, the two women set out to improve women's lives through "birth control," a phrase Sanger coined.

When Sanger and McCormick first met in 1917, women had been working for decades to achieve the vote. Thirty-nine years had gone by since a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage was first proposed, and three more years would pass before the states ratified it. At a time when women struggled for voting rights, job opportunities, or access to education, both McCormick, a suffragist, and Sanger, a birth control proponent, were outspoken advocates for giving women more control over their own lives.

Margaret Sanger

Thirty years later, McCormick's sizable inheritance combined with Sanger's tireless advocacy would bring about the birth control pill and spark a revolution. "An estimated eighty percent of all American women born since 1945 have taken the Pill," says historian Andrea Tone, giving them the ability to plan their reproductive lives.

Learn more about Sanger, McCormick, and the roots of the Pill.

Early Influence:
[Margaret Sanger's] mother was pregnant eighteen times: eleven children, seven miscarriages, and was dead at age forty-nine. This is not an uncommon story in nineteenth-century America. [Sanger] became an obstetrical nurse... on the Lower East Side of New York, where birth control was simply not available for the poor immigrant women there, and she saw one too many women go to the back alley for an abortion or self-abort with a knitting needle or a shoe hook or undiluted Lysol, and woman after woman literally died in my grandmother's arms and she said enough, there's got to be something better we can do. — Alex Sanger, Margaret Sanger's grandson

I looked out my window and down upon the dimly lighted city. Its pains and griefs crowded in upon me, a moving picture rolled before my eyes with photographic clearness: women writhing in travail to bring forth little babies; the babies themselves naked and hungry, wrapped in newspapers to keep them from the cold; six-year-old children with pinched, pale, wrinkled faces, old in concentrated wretchedness, pushed into gray and fetid cellars, crouching on stone floors, their small scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lamp shades, artificial flowers; white coffins, black coffins, coffins, coffins interminably passing in never-ending succession. The sense piled one upon another on another. I could bear it no longer... I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky." — Margaret Sanger, recalling the death of a New York City woman who begged Sanger for the "secret" of preventing pregnancy

I shall never cease to be grateful to the "romance of destiny" that enabled me to be born and bred in what was then, though it is less so now, the west of this country. The life there is crude in many ways -- it is bleak and uncultured in many ways, but its strength and force, its lack of prejudice, its heartiness, are wonderfully stimulating to the individual and force an invigorating commencement to his life. Moreover, the point of view gained by the association with a new and striving community is valuable. This, from its lack of prejudice, is generally broad and tolerant - must be so in fact if the individual is to become one with such a diversity of persons and interests, and to this many sided toleration is due the resulting freedom of thought and action. Thus it is that in an account, however brief, of my life I do not feel it to be a digression to refer, comparatively at length, to the influences that came from my surroundings. However little I may have profited by them in many ways, yet I know that to them I owe much that is fundamentally important. They are, as it were, the skeleton about which the body of my life has grown. — Katharine McCormick, "A brief account of my life," written for her M.I.T. English Composition class in 1899

It was very uncommon for women to go to a university at the turn of the century. [Katherine] McCormick ends up going to one of the most prestigious scientific institutes in the country and gets a degree in biology, which was such a rarity for women... And I think her background in science kindled in her an interest in looking at the possibility of a scientific answer to women's suffering and also to the larger problem of worldwide population. She married Stanley McCormick, the youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, the founder International Harvester. And he is a very wealthy man. And shortly after their marriage Stanley is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which could not be treated as well then as it can be today. And this devastates Katherine and also forges in her mind a resolve to stay childless. And I think it probably made her an early convert to the larger issues involved with the birth control movement. She recognized that there were times when it was important for personal reasons but also larger medical reasons not to have children. — Andrea Tone, historian.

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.

1. When either husband or wife had a transmissible disease, such as epilepsy, insanity, or syphilis.

2. When the wife suffered from a temporary affection of the lungs, heart, or kidneys, the cure of which might be retarded through pregnancy.

3. When parents, though normal, had subnormal children.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

First-Wave Feminism
The enemies of progress and liberty never surrender and never die. Ever since the days of cave men they have stood ready with their sledgehammers to strike any liberal idea on the head whenever it appeared. They are still active, hysterically active, over our amendment; still imagining, as their progenitors for thousands of years have done, that a fly sitting on a wheel may command it to revolve no more and it will obey. They are running about from State to State, a few women and a few paid men. They dash to Washington to hold hurried consultations with senatorial friends and away to carry out instructions... It does not matter. Suffragists were never dismayed when they were a tiny group and all the world was against them. What care they now when all the world is with them? March on, suffragists, the victory is yours! The trail has been long and winding; the struggle has been tedious and wearying; you have made sacrifices and received many hard knocks; be joyful today. Our final victory is due, is inevitable, is almost here. Let us celebrate to day, and when the proclamation comes I beg you to celebrate the occasion with some form of joyous demonstration in your own home State. Two armistice days made a joyous ending of the war. Let two ratification days, one a National and one a State day, make a happy ending of the denial of political freedom to women! — Katharine McCormick, in a 1920 speech to suffragists.

If after attaining their freedom, women accept conditions in the spheres of government, industry, art, morals and religion as they find them, they will be but taking a leaf out of man's book. The woman is not needed to do man's work. She is not needed to think man's thoughts. She need not fear that the masculine mind, almost universally dominant, will fail to take care of its own. Her mission is not to enhance the masculine spirit, but to express the feminine; hers is not to preserve a man-made world, but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element into all of its activities. — Margaret Sanger, 1920

Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick were actually women of another era. They were already middle-aged women by [the time of the Pill's development]. And I think it's very important that they were in fact shaped by what we call first wave feminism, by the women who were part of the original struggle for the right to vote, for the right to own property, for the right to an education. —Linda Gordon, historian.

McCormick and Sanger were feminists, but they subscribed to a feminism that late 1960s feminists were sometimes uncomfortable with. McCormick had said as early as 1958 that she didn't give two hoots about the male contraceptive. She felt that women, to be free from the responsibilities of pregnancy prevention, needed to be able to control this for themselves. That they shouldn't have to consult men. — Andrea Tone, historian.

Conveiving the Pill:
Margaret Sanger] said that when she started out in 1912, one of the first things she thought of was a new method for women to use. She after all was a nurse. She was an obstetrical nurse. She knew about birth control. She knew what methods were out there, and she knew they were lousy. She knew they worked sporadically. She knew it took the cooperation of the male and the female, the man and the woman, to make the method work. This was not always satisfactory, and she wanted to apply science and medicine to her feminist mission of giving women control of childbearing, so from the very early days in 1912, she dreamt of a pill. She knew the science wasn't there yet, which is why it took over four decades for this to happen. — Alex Sanger, Margaret Sanger's grandson

McCormick's involvement with the Pill is extraordinary. I think she's one of the most underappreciated figures in not just Pill history, but the entire history of scientific and technological innovation. First of all, it was very uncommon for a woman in the 1950s to have the kind of fortune that McCormick had. She had a fortune that was so vast that, as John Rock said at one point, she couldn't even spend the interest on the money that she had. So she was unique from the get-go in simply having this access to capital... At the time, the pharmaceutical companies which had historically been involved in some kinds of birth control production, like condom production and diaphragm production, saw the Pill project also as too controversial. Many large companies had passed on the opportunity to develop the Pill, including Pfizer and Merck, because they just didn't want to touch it. And so, were it not for McCormick, it's unclear how the Pill would have been developed. She really deserves credit for single-handedly financing one of the most important developments of the 20th century. — Andrea Tone, historian

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