Opponents of abortion also rely on contraception
Now these landmark cases face political opposition and legal challenges.
A century ago, sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis published an excerpt from her ongoing study of women’s sexuality, showing the frequency with which married women used birth control—and, when it failed, performed abortions. But then, as now, the discussion about female sexuality was very controversial. Davis’ study defined birth control, masturbation, and lesbianism as “normal,” but it also cost her her job. At the center of this controversy, then as now, is women’s ability to control their own bodies.
Initially, Davis spent her career policing rather than promoting women’s sexuality. One of the first women graduates in the country, Davis served as superintendent of New York’s Women’s Reformatory in Bedford Falls from 1901 to 1913, where most inmates were incarcerated for prostitution. In New York, Davis extorted the birth control crusader Margaret Sanger’s prison sentence from 1914 to 1916 for distributing contraceptives in violation of state law.
Sanger, an advocate of free speech and birth control, was a longtime opponent of Law-and-Order Davis. In 1914 her newspaper, The Woman Rebel, had branded the “good, respectable Miss Davis” for imprisoning Ukrainian-American anarchist Rebecca Edelsohn for an anti-war speech. Sanger called Davis “a brilliant example of this rapidly growing group of respectable women who have discovered profitable and highly honorable careers in the exploitation of the victims of our social ‘law and order’…under the name ‘Charities and Corrections.’ ”
Sanger’s campaign against Davis intensified after her 30-day sentence in the Queens County Jail in early 1917. Upon her release, she accused Davis of “scholarly cruelty and callousness in treating the prison population.” According to Sanger, “every inmate of the prison learns to hate Miss Davis with a bitterness and a depth of resentment one would hardly believe possible,” and “the girls complain that Miss Davis takes pleasure in the exercise of authority, which amounts to tyranny. ”
Davis, who had by then resigned as corrections officer to take a position on the parole board, vigorously defended her record and denied allegations of cruelty. Explaining that she had never met Sanger, she attributed the fiery activist’s “personal attack” to Davis’ well-known opposition to breaking the law as a means of changing the law.
That same year, political changes prompted Davis to accept a new position as head of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, a privately funded organization dedicated to combating commercialized sex. During World War I, Davis worked with other anti-vice groups to implement the “American Plan,” a campaign to stem the spread of sexually transmitted infections among military personnel by incarcerating “delinquent” women.
But this discriminatory treatment caused Davis — a staunch opponent of sexual double standards — to reconsider her approach and shift her focus to examining women’s sexuality rather than dictating it. After the war she started a statistical analysis of the sexual behavior of “normal” women instead of a planned study on “The Criminal Girl”. By April 1922, Davis had collected 1,000 responses to a detailed questionnaire sent to white, well-educated women across the country. She published some of her early findings in a three-part article, “A Study of the Sex Life of the Ordinarily Married Woman,” in the Journal of Social Hygiene.
Davis launched the series in April 1922 with a provocative article on the use of contraceptives by married women. Their initial analysis showed a high level of support for birth control among married women: 73 percent of the sample said they believed in “voluntary parenthood,” and the same percentage had used birth control methods. Available methods, including condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps, were anything but foolproof; Nine percent of the sample said they had had at least one abortion, even though the procedure was illegal.
Davis’ insights paved the way for a rapprochement with Sanger, who worked to distance herself from her radical past. Sanger was seeking financial backing for a new project — legitimizing and legalizing birth control — and she needed allies. At the same time, Sanger became an advocate of eugenics, arguing that birth control would allow the “unfit” to restrict procreation and allow the “fit” to plan healthy families.
Davis, who also advocated eugenics, shared Sanger’s stance on birth control and family planning. As director of the Office of Social Hygiene, she was able to provide Sanger with much-needed financial support. In the 1920s, the two former antagonists cautiously approached a professional alliance.
Davis used her position to fund Sanger’s new birth control clinic. In addition, she persuaded BSH founder, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., to sponsor an annual international conference on birth control, with the proviso that his financial support must remain a closely guarded secret.
In 1929 Davis published her seminal study Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women.” Davis’s book was the first published study to focus on women’s sexuality. Their research methodology — using lists of college grads and club women — did not produce a representative sample. But studying white, well-adjusted, and well-educated women allowed her to achieve her goals.
The study challenged long-held beliefs about white women’s sexuality and destigmatized practices such as masturbation, contraception, and lesbianism. These have previously been associated with criminalized sexual behaviors such as prostitution, or with stigmatized populations such as immigrants, African Americans, or inmates. (Davis did not comment on what her new study meant for the predominantly immigrant and black women who her earlier study said were being jailed at Bedford for “sex crimes.”)
Davis’ revelations about white women’s sexual desire and behavior—both straight and homosexual—challenged conventional beliefs about women’s “dispassionateness,” which held that women, who are less sexually inclined than men, only have sex in order to to please their husbands or to procreate. Davis’ research also increased her commitment to the birth control movement, which sought to separate sex from reproduction. By 1929, she was working with Sanger on a strategy for how to repeal the Comstock Acts, which made distribution of contraceptives or abortifacients by U.S. mail a federal offense because of concerns that white, Anglo-Saxon-Protestant women were limiting family size, while immigrant, black and Catholic women continue to have large families. While Davis agreed that “From a eugenic standpoint, I will argue … that it would be a good thing for race if a higher percentage of our college women got married and fathered children,” she also insisted that her statistics belied racial suicide and argued that family planning led to happier marriages.
Efforts to repeal the Comstock Acts met with fierce opposition. While lawsuits nullified similar provisions at the state level, federal restrictions remained in effect until nullified in the 1960s and 1970s by Supreme Court decisions affirming women’s access to contraception and abortion as constitutional rights established by the right to privacy are guaranteed: Griswold, Eisenstadt and roe.
Davis’s study also proved controversial, giving her longtime critics at the Bureau of Social Hygiene the ammunition they needed to persuade Rockefeller to rescind her contract. The same men erased her from the history of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, and Davis’s study did not receive the recognition it deserved in her lifetime.
Nonetheless, Factors in the Sexual Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women created space for an open discussion about female sexuality—a conversation that continues to this day. And Davis’ career reminds us that debates about birth control are nothing new — and neither is contraception and abortion.