Women's and Gender Studies Program


Date of this Version

Fall 2005


Published in Journal of Social History Volume 39, Number 1, Fall 2005, pp. 112-140. Copyright (c) 2005 George Mason University Press.


It is a story many of us know well. As historian Linda Gordon explained nearly thirty years ago, in the early days of the teens Margaret Sanger was a radical. She talked about sex. She talked about revolution. She criticized doctors. She even opened a clinic in overt defiance of the law. And in this clinic she exercised her skills as a nurse and educated women about birth control. But then, as Gordon’s story also goes, by the 1920s Sanger shifted tactics: she softened her critique and she put a doctor in charge of her new facility, with the message that only physicians were qualified to fit women with the diaphragm, though she knew full well how to do it on her own. And so, there ended the radicalism not only of Margaret Sanger but of the birth control clinic movement itself.

But what if this were only part of the story? What if there were other birth control clinics out there which did not adhere to this newly emergent medical model: clinics which used nurses; clinics which used Irregular practitioners; clinics which even had direct ties with the commercial contraceptive world. Furthermore, what if those clinics, which operated in association with the increasingly physician-dominated American Birth Control League, still occasionally threatened to rupture into radicalism themselves, or at least to blur seemingly effortlessly into the world I just described above. And finally, what if Sanger herself continued to dabble in her old habits as well by lending her support to those whom she supposedly should not? As these and other such questions suggest, what I argue here is that it is perhaps time we set aside (for the moment at least) Gordon’s brilliant yet oft-told tale so that we might cast our gaze anew upon those early days of the 1920s and ‘30s. For what I believe we will find as a result is an even richer story, one which reveals not only the breadth of the birth control clinic movement but also the American Birth Control League’s efforts to contain it.