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Changing Attitudes towards Birth Control During the Great Depression

Updated on September 20, 2015
Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethyl Byrne, on the steps of a courthouse in Brooklyn, New York, on January 8, 1917. This photo was taken during a trial accusing Sanger and others for opening a birth control clinic in New York. Both were found guilty.
Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethyl Byrne, on the steps of a courthouse in Brooklyn, New York, on January 8, 1917. This photo was taken during a trial accusing Sanger and others for opening a birth control clinic in New York. Both were found guilty. | Source
Image of Margaret Sanger 1879
Image of Margaret Sanger 1879 | Source

Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

Introduction

The term birth control was originally coined in 1914 by Margaret Sanger, the founder of the Birth Control Movement. Sanger’s personal experiences with the dangers of child birth led her to become a crusader for the birth control movement. At a relatively young age, she witnessed her mother die, at the age of 40. Her mother’s body had weathered due to the strain of multiple pregnancies. In addition, she nearly lost her own life during childbirth of her at age 22. It was her first pregnancy. Later, in her professional experience as a nurse, she saw patients interested in how to better control their own bodies, regularly denied information regarding birth control and contraceptives. One women, deprived of information on how to prevent pregnancy, later died while receiving a dangerous abortion.[1] These experiences put her over the edge, and she began to advocating to educate women about birth control methods and pregnancy prevention.

The practice of birth control from the beginning has been very controversial. In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. Upon its opening, in Brooklyn, New York, she was subsequently arrested.[1] In pursuit of her cause, Sanger had been in court, jail, and before senate committees because of her involvement in the movement.[2] Despite initial setbacks, during the years of the Great Depression, the movement gained a lot more traction. The birth control movement began to enter into the mainstream culture, and became more normalized. Between 1929 and 1934 the number of birth control clinics dramatically increased from 28 to 145.[3] That number more than doubled in the next three years; in 1937 there were 320 birth control clinics in the US due mainly to Sanger’s efforts.[4] Churches began to include birth control seminars as part of their family preparation courses in pre-marriage counseling. I argue that this change in opinion regarding birth control was largely due to the financial situation of the time.

Beyond practicing abstinence, couples lacked the ability to control when pregnancies would occur. Unwanted pregnancies could be disastrous for families on the verge of financial ruin. In 1932 there was the association with low social status, unemployment, low income and high birth rate. All too often, families were not able to adequately care for their children. High illness and increased malnutrition was prevalent among children in poor families.[1] Dr. Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins University, declared that the urge to reproduce “plus the enhanced survival rate coincident with the development of public health, caused the ugly specter of unemployment to rear itself higher and higher until it has now become the most serious problem that humanity faces.”[2] He, among many others, blamed the financial and unemployment crises on over population. Population management, through the practice of birth control, was the way ease the burden of the depression, if not save the United States from it.

This paper bases a large majority of its analysis of the birth control movement during the Great Depression on a series of articles pulled from the archives of Harper’s Magazine. These articles range in date from 1931-1937. The first issue of Harper’s Magazine was published in June of 1850. Throughout its history, the magazine has relied on contributors to share with their readership important views and events of the day. Some of the magazine’s most famous contributors include: Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.[3] Contributors offered social commentary on a range of contemporary topics, including birth control. This paper focuses on the writings of contributors: Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, Raymond Pearl, Isabelle Keating, Henry Pratt Fairchild, and Mary Breckinridge. In their articles, each draw upon their own personal and professional experiences to discuss the role of birth control during the depression. To bring in some extra examples and images, I have also delved into the archives of LIFE magazine. LIFE was a generalist magazine with a special emphasis on photojournalism, and like Harper’s Magazine has covered a range of hot topics throughout its existence. Both magazines’ archives are digitally accessible, and fully searchable.

[1] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564.

[2] Raymond Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” Harper’s Magazine 172 Dec 1, 1935. 230.

[3] “History,” Harper’s Magazine, last modified 2014, harpers.org/history/.

[1] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates A Birth Control Victory,” 19.

[2] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates A Birth Control Victory,” 18.

[3] Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” Harper’s Magazine 169:1013 Oct 1, 1934. 566.

[4] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates A Birth Control Victory,” 18.

[1] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates A Birth Control Victory” LIFE Jan 11, 1937. 18, 19.

Faded view of Brooklyn 1916
Faded view of Brooklyn 1916 | Source

Family Planning and the Depression

Coverage of birth control, in these magazines, address it as an issue for married couples, rather than an issue for all women. Birth control education was often linked to family planning in order for couples to plan their family based on their financial means.[1] In 1934, mid-way through the depression, 50% of women who applied for contraceptive advice had unemployed husbands, and all that applied feared the birth of another child. Many children were born into families who did not want them or could not care for them. These unwanted pregnancies put an unnecessary burden on the family, the community, and were extremely hard on the children who were then at a higher risk for malnutrition and disease.[2] Children born during the depression, specifically to poor families, were called “Depression Babies”.[3] These Depression Babies strained public programs, especially public health and hospital facilities. Between 1929 and 1934 the amount of public expenditures, compared to private, rose from 74% to 94% according to the Children’s Bureau.[4]

Frustration with the inability of some to financially support their families, while their wives continued to get pregnant led to discussions about the deserving and undeserving poor. Dorothy Dunbar Bromley wrote: “…the man who shows no judgment about the number of children he sires is likely to be the man who loses his job in a crisis, perhaps because he lacks judgment all along the line.”[5] Those who were unable to financially keep up with the growth of their families began to move into the category of the undeserving poor, in the minds of the public, and were seen as a drain on society. Dr. Pearl divided the unemployed into two categories: those who were “unemployable-not sufficiently fit and able in a biological sense to make an honest living”[6] and those who were unemployed because the market was saturated with workers, despite being fit to work. He took this view a step further and blamed the undeserving poor, who continued to reproduce, unchecked, for making the financial crisis worse by introducing more and more laborers into the job market. In his view, over population, exacerbated by scientific and technologic advances, is what drove good, able bodied men into unemployment. Despite viewing the poor who continued to have children as undeserving, it was still recognized that society had some obligation to provide basic needs to keep those who had been born alive.[7]


[1] “Detroit Minister’s Marriage Clinic Answers Query: ‘Should They Marry?’” LIFE Mar 21, 1938. 56.

[2] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 563.

[3] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564.

[4] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564, 565.

[5] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564.

[6] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 230.

[7] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 230, 231.

Family receiving public health nursing services during the Great Depression
Family receiving public health nursing services during the Great Depression | Source

Birth Control as a Check on Population Growth

The introduction of birth control practices into the population provided a practical and effective way to meet the challenge presented by unchecked population growth. Families who successfully practiced birth control could keep their family sizes within their financial means to care for them. However, how to educate the public regarding birth control remained a problem. Families with social and economic means had wider access to birth control education and products aiding in birth control. This led disproportionate practice of birth control among social classes, where those of higher social class used birth control more frequently than those of the lower social classes.[1]

Discussions concerning the differences among the classes attempted to make sense of the cause of the disparity. People at the time wondered whether those of higher social classes were better suited to adaption to new technologies because of an inherent superiority. At the same time, it was seriously considered whether the poor were capable of effective birth control. Dr. Pearl argued that some were uneducable by stating: “the persons concerned are not of a sort to make effective use of contraception. If all the contraceptive technics in the world were made fully available to them they would still go on breeding.”[2] Others, like Mary Breckinridge, adamantly disagreed. She argued that social disparities, such as differences in access of education, caused of those with lower socioeconomic status to have lower rates of birth control use, rather than inherent traits.

To further investigate the disparity, Dr. Pearl conducted a study at Johns Hopkins University on the contraceptive practices among women of all classes. The study’s results found that more wealthy white women were practicing birth control than poor white and minority women. The study also found that wealthy women who did not practice birth control had the same fertility rates as the poor white and minority women. Dr. Pearl concluded that differences in birth rates among the classes was linked directly to birth control practices rather than genetic differences.[3]

Believers in Social Darwinism and Eugenics were afraid that the disproportionate use of birth control among those of higher social class, who they believed to be morally and genetically superior, would lead to the deterioration of the human species.[4] They wanted to encourage reproduction of the “right” people, while limiting the population growth of all others. They argued against voluntary birth control in favor of a more calculated approach, involuntary birth control, including sterilization, among certain parts of the population.

[1] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 231.

[2] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 232.

[3] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564.

[4] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 231.

Dr. Marie Stopes Birth Control Clinic, and early birth control clinic.
Dr. Marie Stopes Birth Control Clinic, and early birth control clinic. | Source

Class, Culture, and Birth Control

Americans could not agree on where to land on this issue. In 1937 a poll of Americans reported that 84% were in favor of “sterilization of habitual criminals and the hopelessly insane.”[1] Dr. Pearl weighed in on this issue by stating:

Naturally it is to be understood that what has been said does not refer to the problem of the really biologically defective and degenerate members of society. There the eugenic position is sound and admirable in principle. The breeding of such people must be stopped, and by compulsory measures.[2]

Some people even thought that the poor and those who were dependent on government aid should be forced to practice birth control to keep them from living beyond their financial means and placing further burden on society. On the other hand, many believed that it went against American democratic ideals to suggest that those of lower classes, dependent on the government, should be coerced into practicing contraception. Father John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America adamantly agreed that the wealthier classes had no right to control the family size of those in a lower social class. He believed that a more equitable distribution of wealth in America would do a lot more for the financial crisis than regulating population growth.[3]

People like, Mary Breckinridge, countered eugenic arguments for forced population control methods by stressing that socioeconomic disparities led to the differences among the classes rather than inherent qualities. Cultural differences played a big role. For example, in regions where there was strong religious influence, it shaped public opinion against the use of birth control, making it difficult to reach people with the information. Similarly, culture of large families was difficult to change, especially in rural areas, where they depended on children to help work on family farms.[4] Many families of lower economic status could not afford to keep their children in school. This resulted in them getting married at a younger age than their contemporaries of a higher social class. As a result, they had more fertile years in marriage and an increased number of opportunities for pregnancy. She argued that increased access of education would not only inform the poor of birth control methods for family planning, it would also delay the period of first pregnancies, resulting in fewer births over all.[5]


[1] “What America Thought in 1937: Men and Machines Compile Public Opinion” LIFE Jan 3, 1938. 9.

[2] Pearl, “Biology and Human Progress,” 232.

[3] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 565, 566.

[4] Mary Breckinridge, “Is Birth Control the Answer?,” Harper’s Magazine 163:974 July 1, 1931. 159.

[5] Breckinridge, “Is Birth Control the Answer?”163.

Advertisement for a lecture on birth control given by Dr. Marie Stopes, 1927
Advertisement for a lecture on birth control given by Dr. Marie Stopes, 1927 | Source

Birth Control Education

The legality of education of birth control methods was another issue in itself. In the early days of the movement, Sanger had been thrown in jail for opening a clinic to provide women with access to information regarding birth control. It was illegal for doctors to discuss birth control options with their patients. Doctors were exposing themselves if they shared information with their patients. This caused some to refrain from educating themselves about different birth control options so they could claim ignorance if a patient asked for recommendations. Due to the financial crisis, Americans wanted and need the information to make better, informed decisions regarding their family planning. It placed a burden not only on the family, but on society, not to have access to birth control information. The national policy that prohibited accurate scientific information from being freely disseminated only added to the burdens of poverty and unemployment.[1]

In 1937, 70% of Americans wanted the distribution of birth control information legalized.[1] The American Birth Control League, among other advocates, under Sanger’s leadership, put pressure on the government to get rid of out dated restrictions against educating patients about birth control methods under proper medical direction.[2] Sanger took her message all the way up to the Senate’s Hearing Committee. Breckinridge agreed that regulations against dissemination of birth control knowledge were too strict. She believed that, “it is not a sign of enlightenment but one of barbarism that the American people still hedge themselves about with so many regulations covering the citizen’s private acts.”[3] Progress was slow, despite the momentum behind those vying for change. A huge victory came in 1936 when the US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that physicians would now be allowed to send contraceptives by mail.[4] Yet even after some laws became less restrictive, the government was unresponsive towards providing birth control information. Welfare organizations saw birth control as a medical issue and did not suggest birth control. However, they would supply recommendations if asked.[5] This left women stuck with few places to turn to get information about birth control.

In addition to federal laws, state laws prohibited doctors from giving birth control information even in cases where another pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother. If the woman got pregnant, a therapeutic abortion was then introduced as an option. Yet, she was provided with no information to prevent the pregnancy in the first place. In 1930 a large majority of abortions were among married women.[6] It was one of their few options for family planning. Pregnancy was very dangerous for a lot of women, especially those who had already experienced many pregnancies before. And for these women, therapeutic abortions were not always an option, forcing them to seek riskier options. Botched abortions were extremely dangerous, and could lead to death, as we saw in the case of Sanger’s patient.[7]

The medical profession was on the fence about how to address birth control. Specialists recognized four key characteristics regarding women’s reproductive health and birth control:

(a) That pregnancy is dangerous to women suffering from certain diseases. (b) That spacing of children is essential to every mother’s health and conductive to the child’s. (c) That marital continence is not to be advised, and (d) That approved contraceptive methods neither injure health nor cause sterility.[8]

Despite a general consensus over the positive effects of birth control, they were still hesitant to act. At the 1933 meeting of the American Medical Association, birth control was on the list of the top four major problems facing gynecology, but a committee to research birth control was not approved. “Thus the A.M.A. placed itself on record as refusing to study one of the four major problems affecting the women of America.”[9] Despite the evidence indicating the benefits of birth control, they were unwilling to take a stance.

Despite doctors being unwilling to address the topic of birth control, some priests were not afraid to discuss birth control and sex. Along with public opinion and the legality of birth control changing, the church was beginning to rethink its stance on birth control. In regions where there was strong religious influence, the church played a powerful role in shaping public opinion on the use of birth control.[1] The Roman Catholic Church, once a big force against the use of birth control methods, began to weaken its stance against birth control due to the harsh reality of the depression.[2] It was the children who unfairly bore the burden of families who could not afford to support them. Father O’Brien, a catholic leader, realistic about the economic situation facing church members, admitted that “the practice of birth control within the Church is much more wide-spread than most of us are willing to admit” and reassured families that “there is no obligation of any couple to beget any number of children, much less to give birth to the largest possible number.”[3] Yet, not everyone felt the same about the role of the church in discussing marital relations, let alone birth control.


[1] Breckinridge, “Is Birth Control the Answer?” 159.

[2] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 571.

[3] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 572.

[1] “What America Thought in 1937,” 9.

[2] Breckinridge, “Is Birth Control the Answer?” 159.

[3] Breckinridge, “Is Birth Control the Answer?” 159.

[4] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates,” 18.

[5] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 567, 568.

[6] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 570.

[7] “Margaret Sanger Celebrates,” 19.

[8] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 569.

[9] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 573.

[1] Bromley, “Birth Control and the Depression,” 564.

Birth Control and the Church

There was a lot of controversy, when in 1931 the church hesitantly gave guarded approval for birth control and declared that contraceptives when used with care and restraint by married people, was valid and moral. Regardless of the popularity of the birth control movement among the public, there was still outrage about this revelation. A small group, dissented, stating “abstinence is the only proper Christian birth control.”[1] The Presbyterian General Assembly, scandalized by the official stance taken by the church without unanimous support, met and passed a resolution countering the approval of birth control use among Christians, calling it “damnable in all cases.” Despite the overturn, small liberal churches implemented marriage preparation courses that included sex education and birth control counseling.[2]

In an attempt to lower the divorce rate, a thousand churches started giving marriage counseling courses. Courses included information on love, compatibility, finances, birth control, and sex. Church leaders believed that giving couples a realistic view of what marriage would look like would reduce the number of divorces. Family planning was taught so that couples could grow their family based on their financial means. Some churches brought in outside experts to weigh in on the courses with their expertise. At one congregation, budged expert, Marcia Ward showed couples how a family of 5 could live off of $2000 per year. Family size and birth control techniques were discussed as something that should be planned among married couples.[3] Lectures were even taught specifically about birth control, these churches were one of the few places where women interested in more information were put into contact with reliable sources of information.[4]

As part of the marriage counseling classes attendees were given surveys to better understand their level of knowledge regarding sex and to assess compatibility among their partners. The surveys found that the youth lack basic knowledge of sex. They also found that, when asked if they would object to marrying a partner who had previous intercourse 30% of men responded they would object without reservation, while 0% of women responded they would object. 95% of men and women responded that their own sex education was unsatisfactory. After seeing the results of the survey one reverend stated that it was ignorance that spoiled marriage.[1] As part of the justification for the controversial, but growing trend of these marriage courses, another reverend stated, “since the church has created marriage, it should certainly try to preserve it by something more helpful than exhortation.”[2]


[1] Keating, “The Church and Sex,” 433.

[2] Keating, ”The Church and Sex,” 434.

[1] Isabelle Keating, “The Church and Sex,” Harper’s Magazine 167:1000 Sept 1, 1933. 429.

[2] Keating, “The Church and Sex,” 429, 430.

[3] “Detroit Minister’s Marriage Clinic,” 56.

[4] “Detroit Minister’s Marriage Clinic,” 59.

Birth Control Clinic in a caravan
Birth Control Clinic in a caravan | Source

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the financial climate of the Great Depression dramatically increased the need for couples to practice family planning. High unemployment rates often made them unable to adequately care for growing families. Many argued that over population was the root cause of the high unemployment rate, and saw birth control as the best method to manage population levels. Frustration over high unemployment rates and high birth rates among those of low economic status led the public to identify the poor who did not practice birth control methods as undeserving. This was confounded issues of access of education regarding birth control methods. Many who were labeled as undeserving, wanted information about birth control methods, but did not have access to any information. In general, the population began to turn towards birth control as an acceptable form of family planning. At the same time, the medical field, churches and the government began to rethink their stance on birth control as well, and during this time restrictions and taboo of birth control were significantly relaxed. It took this special moment in time for all of these attitudes to change in favor of birth control education.

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