Feminism and "Family Planning" in the United States

June 18, 2019



Edited by Nuevo Curso 


When we unearth the origins of the American feminist discourse on reproduction and "birth control," nothing but the underlying fears and skeletons of the American petty bourgeoisie make their appearance: puritanism, eugenics, classism, Malthusianism, racism, and an unambiguous commitment to imperialist warfare. This discourse has accompanied, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, one of the few developments of decadent capitalism: technologies to prevent unwanted reproduction. Without understanding and critiquing it, we will not be able to understand the current debate on abortion in the United States. The opponents of birth control and abortion will be analyzed in the next part of this series. 


Voluntary motherhood



The history of the demands that had converted abortion into the banner of feminism began with the Civil War (1861-1865). The war had produced a real epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, which in turn led to the emergence of puritanical groups that demanded the outlawing of prostitution, the creation of a female police force, the censorship of pornography, the spread of religious education, and… the prevention of abortion.


It is in this context that the principle of "voluntary motherhood" was first affirmed. For early American feminists like Harriot Stanton, the progress of the human race depended, not only on "voluntary motherhood" but also on women becoming financially independent and on the development of women's education. These progresses, furthermore, would allow women to be... fully responsible for the education of their children. In other words, progress for these feminists depended on the status of women within the home, assuming that this was and would continue to be their world.


The portrayal of men as morally inferior, as lustful beings that corrupted the female spirit, was not only based on a view of sex as corrupting in itself. It formed the basis of feminist thought: the depiction of men as morally inferior allowed the feminists to call for the "rebellion of woman against the lustful domination of man" and was intended to support the idea that "ladies" should be the moral educators of civilization. Thus, the feminist promotion of women's education did not only reflect the aspirations of the petty bourgeoisie to climb the social ladder. Feminism also was a petty-bourgeois and puritanical reaction to aspects of capitalism-such as prostitution or alcoholism-that destabilized the unity of the petty-bourgeois nuclear family. That is why the ideology of "voluntary motherhood" rejected contraception and abortion as immoral because, according to them, it had the ability to "lead" to sexual hedonism and infidelity.



Birth Control


At the beginning of the 20th century, the birth control movement, like early British feminism, aspired to mobilize and recruit female workers.


Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, began as a member of the NY Socialist Party but later joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was inspired and continued the legacy of Emma Goldman’s anti-natalist activism. Goldman, who would be arrested for distributing pro-birth control pamphlets, had attended a Neo-Malthusian secret conference in 1900. Goldman believed that the working class could improve its living conditions if it adopted a nuclear family model with few children, since, for Goldman, poor children:

"glut the labor market, tend to lower wages, and are a menace to the welfare of the working class".




Inaugurating the tradition of ideological "mix-and-match", and adorning Goldman's Malthusianism with the slogan of "direct action", Sanger argued in a pamphlet written by her and distributed by IWW members called Family Limitation that,


"the working class can use direct action by refusing to supply the market with children to be exploited, by refusing to populate the earth with slaves".


The vision of the "radicals," of the anarchists, their "plan" for working families, was... to limit their dimensions. What that meant was that, deep down, there was a real moral problem that undergirded the vision of the anarchists:


  1. Goldman, like Malatesta, Kropotkin and anarchism as a whole, was incapable of imagining communism as a society of abundance. The static vision of the productive forces, if not the anarchist calls for "scaling back" production, only allows us to imagine classless society as a utopian and egalitarian society of scarce resources. This is a tradition that later would become very present in Anglo-Saxon "radicalism", from Ursula K. Leguin to "radical" ecologism.

  2. Under this vision lies a profound distrust of workers and their historic mission. In other words, of the working class as a universal class that has the capacity to offer a future that capitalism denies.

  3. That is why it has a "reformist" appearance – where, for them, we can fight against capitalism by reforming language or the family structure...

  4. ...and why anarchism is individualistic in reality: for them it is not necessary for the class to fight, to become conscious, and to constitute itself as a political subject.



Adding up all these elements, we confront, not opportunism, but pure petty-bourgeois radicalism. Sanger's political vision was always based on the perspective of the petty-bourgeoisie. And if this was in the beginning, when she was openly aligned with the anarcho-syndicalists, it would only later become worse. When the repression of the IWW and the deportation of Emma Goldman transformed her field of action, the pragmatic Sanger stopped frequenting politicized working environments and focused on recruiting sectors of the petty bourgeoisie for her movement.


At the end of the first imperialist world war, when the United States tried to assert itself in Europe by presenting itself as the "global defender of democracy," Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.


Around the same time, the birth control movement was organized around Sanger's "American Birth Control League" (ABCL) and Mary Dennett's "Voluntary Parenthood League" (VPL), and their strategy was to open clinics and lobby for favorable birth control legislation.


Sanger focused on recruiting members from two traditional and "respectable" sectors of the petty bourgeoisie: doctors and academics. The doctors saw in the movement an opportunity to control (and exploit) a new, hitherto illegal market. In order to recruit doctors, Sanger got her oil businessman husband to pay $10,000 a year to a doctor to tour the country promoting the ABCL. Unlike her competition, the VPL, which promoted an "open bill" that would eliminate all restrictions on the distribution of birth control literature and information, Sanger fought for a "doctors’ only" bill. A "doctor's only bill" would only allow doctors to prescribe birth control methods and provide information on contraception. 






Meanwhile, academics were suffering a decline in their social status and a decrease in their numbers. Many sought opportunities for full-time research. Eugenics offered such opportunities: the wealthiest families in the U.S. funded eugenic research, and during the 1920s it became a mandatory course at many universities.


"Eugenics" was one of the first ideological expressions of capitalist decadence. It racialized and animated the way in which the possessing classes conceptualized the working class, allowing them to shield themselves from the vision of class war in order to immerse themselves in asides about "population control" and "racial degeneration". If in Europe they served the most reactionary propaganda of imperialism and nationalism, in the U.S. they served to deepen institutional racism and strengthen fractures among workers according to their origin. If in 1917 migratory restrictions were introduced that did not allow illiterates to enter the country, in 1924 the new regulations were already racialized: Great Britain, Ireland and Germany at the time had more than 70% of legally admitted migrants.


Eugenics was aligned with many reactionary tendencies latent in the Victorian petty bourgeoisie: the recovery of romantic essentialism (which sprouts with the neo-Raphaelites and some "Arts&Crafts" expressions for example), the superstitious scientism of the paranormal (which amused Engels precisely because of its link with empiricism)... For this reason, we cannot only see its traces in Nazism, but in English liberals such as Keynes or the Huxley brothers, one of them being the author of the great eugenic novel ("Brave New World"), the other being the founder of UNESCO in the post-war period. And we can certainly see it in the anarchists too: since the end of the 19th century the anarchist nuclei of Barcelona immersed themselves in Malthusianism and eugenics. Therefore, it is not surprisingly that Sanger, who came from a similar school and increasingly operated in a more openly petty-bourgeois milieu, joined forces with the same eugenicists that called for new immigration restrictions and laws against interracial marriages. After all, she herself used eugenicist arguments in her books.


The U.S. version of the swamp that was eugenics, which mixed working class resentment and petty-bourgeois racism with the Malthusian justification of the crisis of capitalist civilization, was also not limited to Sanger and her environment. In Puerto Rico during the 1930s, birth control clinics were funded by the U.S. government in order to correct "overpopulation." Hundreds of Puerto Rican women were furthermore sterilized without their knowledge. 



Planned Parenthood and the Second Imperialist War


In 1942, the ABCL, which had merged with other birth control leagues in Planned Parenthood, adopted a position that was focused on "family planning" and maintaining the stability of the family through birth control. Its primary objective was to influence the families of soldiers during and after World War II. Like the feminists of the late 19th century, the philosophy propagated by Planned Parenthood was to strengthen family unity through birth control.



The "control" of the nuclear family was considered by Planned Parenthood to be one of the characteristics of modern society, much like the control of machinery: this representation of birth control reflected the state-capitalist fantasy of control over society. In fact, "Planned Parenthood" presented birth control as a solution to the absenteeism of women workers in the military industry. According to Henry Pratt Fairchild, one of the founders of the organization:



"It needs no special argument to demonstrate the dangers of interruption and restriction of production if women are unable to exercise rational control over reproduction. It has been found in a few plants surveyed that absenteeism due to pregnancy or induced abortion is creating a problem which may increase as more women move into war industry".


While highlighting the advantages for war production of family planning, birth control was exalted as an example of a freedom that was specifically American. The virtues of contraception were compared to the natalist politics of the Italian and German governments. In the postwar period, given the success of participating in war propaganda, the organization followed in the new warmongering hysteria and went so far as to publish propaganda asserting that "family planning now is essential to block communism and preserve peace".





Understanding the abortion debate in the U.S.


Understanding the abortion debate in the U.S. means much more than the more or less concrete arguments of the US parties today. It means understanding the role of the Republican Party and what it gets out of throwing itself into an anti-abortion crusade, the relationship of Republicans and Democrats with the unions and of these with the civil rights movement... and of course, American feminism and the class nature of its approach to reproduction. The latter is what we have tried to understand in this article.


To be continued…





- KJ















Please reload

  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle