Historical Overview of Contraception

Adapted from “New Dimensions in Women’s Health” by Linda Lewis Alexander & Judith H. LaRosa

Women have attempted to control their fertility status throughout history. Egyptian records indicate that women made a concoction of various compounds that was inserted into the vagina in paste form as an early diaphragm. Early Greeks followed the same plan with different recipes. Various teas and septic solutions were drunk with the hopes that they would prevent unwanted pregnancy. Early IUDs were stones that were placed in the uterus of camels to protect from pregnancy on desert treks. Women followed this example and have placed various foreign objects in the vagina over the course of history with hopes of similar results. Early attempts at spermicidal agents included various mixtures of acid, juice, honey, alcohol, opium, and vinegar.

Until the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, diaphragms and condoms were the primary forms of contraception. Early condoms were probably made from linen sheaths. The cervical cap was introduced in the early 1800s, and the diaphragm was introduced later that century. In the mid-nineteenth century, feminists in the United States began a birth control campaign associated with the slogan “Voluntary Motherhood.” This campaign advocated birth control by abstinence. Margaret Sanger (1883-1966 was an early promoter of contraceptive (sexual intercourse without pregnancy) birth control in the United States. She founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921 (in 1942, the ABCL became Planned Parenthood Federation of America) to promote the founding of birth control clinics and the cause of fertility control. The ABCL established a clinic and dispensed diaphragms and lactic-acid jelly for contraception. Sanger also published Family Limitation, a pamphlet that provided clear and frank descriptions, of birth control methods and devices. The distribution of diaphragms and her publication were hampered by the Comstock Laws, which had been enacted by Congress in 1873, restricting the circulation of obscene materials, specifically birth control information, in the mail.

Mary Coffin Dennett (1872-1947) was another pioneer in the birth control focused her efforts on lobbying for legislative reform that would allowed for the transmission of contraceptive information. In her efforts to challenge the definition of legal obscenity, Dennett became one of the nation’s most effective defenders of civil liberties. She established the Voluntary Parenthood League, and unlike Sanger, who promoted the diaphragm, which only physicians could prescribe, Dennett stressed that ordinary people should be able to get birth control information without having to rely on medical experts, so they could make their own informed decisions.

Birth control issues remained on the national front for many years. “Race-Suicide” was an antifeminist theory developed between 1905 and 1910 in reaction to the lower birth rates and changes in family structure believed to be caused by the birth control movement. Proponents of this theory, including President Theodore Roosevelt, believed that upper-class, educated women were failing by not having large families and allowing the upper classes to be overtaken by immigrants and the poor.

Although women today take for granted the availability of birth control devices and information, it has only been a few years that it has been technically legal to do so.