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.”
Read: The different stakes of male and female birth control
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.”