The Suffragists Who Opposed Birth Control

Their reasoning shows how far women’s rights have come since the late 1800s.

An illustration of a pessary
In the early days of the fight for women's suffrage, pessaries were one of the most common contraceptive techniques. (Morphart Creation / Shutterstock / The Atlantic)
Editor’s Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

You would think suffragists, those corset-clad beacons of girl power, would support women’s right to have sex for pleasure. You’d be, for the most part, wrong.

Mainstream early suffragists did not advocate for contraception the way we know it today. The reason says much about the bleak status of women in the world at the time—as well as the careful strategy behind the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment.

Birth control as it existed at the time was rudimentary. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, women mainly used pessaries or douches in an attempt to prevent pregnancy; latex condoms wouldn’t become popular until the 1920s, and the pill wasn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration until 1960. Obscenity laws prevented information about birth control from being openly distributed, but newspapers advertised various methods nonetheless. They used coded language, offering to help women “remove blockages” in order to “get their period started again.”

Only the small, far-left, “sex radical” press discussed contraceptive methods openly. These radicals bucked the prevailing cultural sentiment at the time, which Linda Gordon, a history professor at New York University, summed up to me as, “It’s women’s role to be mothers, and a woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy was an unnatural woman who was avoiding her God-given destiny.”

With few exceptions, early suffragists were not among these sex radicals. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, a historian of early-20th-century law and medicine at Georgia State University, told me that “respectable” suffragists did not really mention birth control publicly. But they did advocate for a slew of other rights related to women’s health and well-being, she said.

Instead of contraceptives, early suffragists in the late 1800s advocated for something called “voluntary motherhood,” or the idea that women should be able to refuse sex with their husbands—something they had no right to do at the time. Indeed, marital rape was not illegal in all states until 1993. By having sex only when they wanted to, the thinking went, women could also have fewer, healthier pregnancies. Gordon writes in her book The Moral Property of Women that the leading suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once asked during an interview with a magazine, “Must the heyday of [women’s] existence be wholly devoted to the one animal function of bearing children?” During her suffragist meetings with women, Stanton would spread what she called “the gospel of fewer children.”

Birth control would not have improved women’s lives much, the suffragists thought, because in a world where women had no social or political power, men could just rape women and then foist birth control upon them, keeping their misdeeds consequence-free. If birth control were widespread, suffragists thought, “Men could have even more sex on them, without any consequences,” Lisa Tetrault, a gender historian at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. “They didn’t have an expectation of some egalitarian relationship, the way we would think of those things today.”

This wasn’t an entirely unfounded fear, given what we know about unequal gender dynamics even in modern settings. In 2016, The New York Times reported that Islamic State fighters pumped their sex slaves full of birth control to avoid impregnating them.

The turn of the 20th century, however, brought a brief and limited sexual revolution, according to Tetrault, and some people began to argue that women, like men, should be able to have sex without the fear of pregnancy. Around the start of the First World War, a few suffragists, left-wing socialists, and other social reformers did start to openly connect the right to suffrage with the right to control childbearing through contraceptives. One such reformer was Mary Dennett, who helped lead the National American Woman Suffrage Association, then resigned in 1914 to found the first birth-control organization in the U.S., the National Birth Control League.

But when Dennett lobbied women’s-rights groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to add birth control to their political agenda, she was met with resistance. “Certain mainstream suffragists, and even some radicals, said, No, we don’t want to mess up the messaging we have going on here,” Thompson said. Similarly, Gordon writes that in 1915, when Margaret Sanger, the founder of the group that would become Planned Parenthood, tried to get 50 prominent women to publicly voice support for birth control, she failed. “I was told to wait until we got the vote,” Sanger said in a speech later. “I was told to wait until I became better known.”

Four years later, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed; in 1920, it was ratified, and women had the vote. Many women’s-rights groups began pivoting to issues such as labor and economic reforms, and even sterilization for the “feeble-minded.” Despite the work of Dennett, Sanger, and others, birth control for “respectable” women remained closely associated with the extreme views of the sexual radicals. “This is what Dennett and Sanger say over and over again in their publications and in their private writing,” Thompson told me. “That we have got to remove birth control from the taint of radicalism.”

In the end, birth control shed that radical image only because Sanger aligned herself with doctors, who by the 1930s had begun to tentatively support birth control. For Sanger, this also meant endorsing some of the eugenicist and nativist views popular in the medical profession at the time. “By framing birth control as a way for the ‘right’ kind of people to birth the ‘right’ kind of babies,” Thompson explained, “it enabled legal contraception to begin to have mass appeal and become less associated with radical views like socialism and feminism.”

Like most historical figures, the suffragists were imperfect people and products of their time. Many of them were racist, and they didn’t necessarily align with modern-day progressive women’s values. As my colleague Emma Green has written, the two sides of the abortion debate still don’t agree on whether Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were pro-choice. But the suffragists were also pragmatic: They knew a sexually conservative message was more likely to get them the vote.

Their views on birth control, however, should not suggest that the suffragists didn’t care about women’s bodies. In fact, just the opposite, Thompson argued. By promoting voluntary motherhood, the suffragists established the core principle behind the later push for on-demand access to contraception: Women have a right to control their own bodies. “Many of them say in their writings,” Thompson told me, “[that] even the ballot is not as important as the right to bodily freedom.”