Theses Doctoral

Birth Control and the Good Life in America, 1900-1940

MacNamara, Lawrence Trenholme

This dissertation examines the roots of birth control's legitimacy in the United States. Americans were early adopters of fertility control: between 1790 and 1940, the average number of children born into U.S. families fell from seven to around two. During this period there were no major advances in contraceptive technology and very few outspoken advocates for reproductive rights. What changed were Americans' intimate ideas about the place of childrearing in a good life. The study uses letters, press items, and philanthropic field reports from the early twentieth century--when birthrates and birth control first became major civic issues in the U.S.--to uncover that transition, which has long perplexed scholars. Rather than focusing on the role of vocal activists or socioeconomic change, the dissertation emphasizes the changing "moral economy" of childbearing, as perceived by Americans addressing their own views and those of their peers and forebearers. It shows how economic calculations surrounding childbearing were embedded in matrices of morally-mediated ideas about progress, nature, God, and health--and how shifts in those ideas gave rise to a private, grassroots consensus which gradually nullified all attempts to make birth control illegal or taboo. The analysis pays special attention to the role of ideas about time. Birth control gained legitimacy, first, as Americans became progressively less concerned with eternal chains of being and more with the material present; and second, as they reevaluated birth control's place in history, impressionistically reframing a marker of collective decadence as a sign of individual modernity. Seeing the birth control movement through these Americans' eyes--as a quiet, gradual, furtive movement of living women (and men) who were not necessarily outspoken, feminist, or even civically active--helps us understand Americans' reproductive interests as they understood them, and the potential connections of everyday moral action to lasting historical consequence.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Connelly, Matthew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 10, 2015