Freethinkers, Radicals, and Socialists (birth control)

The earliest advocates of birth control in the United States were for the most part not mainstream medical men but secular reformers of various sorts: utopians, sex radicals, freethinkers, socialists, and others. Some of them used the “science” of the day to argue their case; others did so simply on the basis of women’s rights. Many of those who would later be labeled as eugenicists believed that acquired characteristics were inheritable and this was interpreted to mean that a wanted child would be a better child than an unwanted one. Inevitably the goal of many of the advocates was to make motherhood better and more desirable. This goal, however, did not necessarily require the use of birth control devices and there were serious debates about this in the U.S. setting.

The contribution of some of these radicals was summarized by Ben Reitman in a poem he wrote to Norman Himes, who published the first general history of contraception:

My Dear Himes

You made me weep.

Because your article

On the history

Of Birth Control

was inaccurate



And you gave no evidence

Of attempting

To learn the facts.

You delved into history,

But failed to get data from living.

Moses Harmon

Was the true father of American Birth Control

His grand Children are living

And have lots of splendid material . . .

You “muffed” all the fine material

In the early Socialist, Anarchist & I.W.W.


The tremendous amount of free Love


Passed you by.

There are several hundred pamphlets On B. C. that you evidently know nothing about.

The technique of B. C. propaganda In America is a Mystery to you . . . I mean your prejudice against the RADICALS

Is so great that you not give them credit. Emma Goldman

More than any one person in America Popularized B. C.

She was Margaret Sanger’s Inspiration

No that ain’t the word.

Margaret imitated her and denied her.

Emma was the first person in America

To lecture on Birth Control

in one hundred Cities . . .

The physicians, Social Scientists, Clergy &


Became interested in B. C.

Only after the Radicals had “broken” the


And gone to jail.

The inclosed pamphlet

Was distributed by the millions.


In hundreds of Cities in America It went through many editions

Was copied and recopied . . .

The decline in the Birth Rate

Was influenced by this pamphlet.

More than any other one piece of literature

Including Margaret’s “Family Limitation” . . .

B. L. R. [Benjamin L. Reitman]

Was arrested

For distributing this pamphlet

In New York City (60 days)

Rochester, NY (freed)

Cleveland, Ohio (six months)

He was picked up by the police in many


But was let go Big Bill Shatoff

Who was an I.W.W. Organizer

Translated that pamphlet

Into Jewish and most all

Of the Radical Jews had copies

In the early days of the Communists’ activity

In Russia this pamphlet

Had a tremendous circulation in Russia . . .

Get this into your Head

This all done as part of the radical


Anti War

Anti Marriage

Anti Children by Accident. . . .

I see no hope for your Medical Scientific

group to make any real

Contributions to history or . . . (Quoted by

Gordon, 1990, pp. 217-218).

Probably the pamphlet Reitman referred to was a four-page one, Why and How the Poor Should Not Have Many Children. It is believed to have been written by Emma Goldman or Reitman himself, although it has also been ascribed to William J. Robinson. It described condoms, instructing the user to check them for leaks by blowing them up with air, and it recommended rubber cervical caps and diaphragms (also called pessaries or womb veils), all of which could be purchased in drugstores, although the pamphlet encouraged seeing a physician before using the cap and diaphragms to ensure a reliable fit. It also suggested three homemade contraceptives: suppositories, douches, and a cotton ball dipped in borated Vaseline.

Reitman himself was for a time Emma Goldman’s comrade and lover. He was a physician and strong advocate of birth control and other radical causes. Though Reitman and Goldman gave specific information in defiance of the law, Goldman had neither the personality nor the organizational skills to develop a mass movement in the United States. That task fell to Margaret Sanger, who, though she started as a socialist and leftist, ultimately chose to act independently of any left-orientated groups, and though originally a freethinker, she also distanced herself from the freethinkers as well.

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