McCormick, Katharine Dexter (1875-1967) (birth control)

Katharine Dexter McCormick campaigned nearly her entire life for a woman’s right to self-determination. As a leader in the suffrage movement, as a patron of women’s higher education, and as a key supporter of the U.S. birth control movement, McCormick dedicated her efforts and considerable financial resources to helping women gain decision-making power within and outside of the family. Her most significant contribution to women’s liberation came late in life when she joined forces with Margaret Sanger to support research that directly resulted in the oral contraceptive pill, the first major breakthrough in contraceptive technology since the advent of vulcanized rubber in the mid-nineteenth century.

Katharine Dexter was born in Dexter, Michigan, where her father, Wirt Dexter, made his fortune as a prominent Chicago corporate attorney. After the deaths of her father in 1889 and brother in 1894, Katharine and her mother, Josephine Moore Dexter, formerly a schoolteacher, moved to Boston, where they had deep family ties. Equipped with a wide-ranging intellect and liberating affluence, Katharine Dexter flourished in elite society but never settled for predictable comforts or traditional expectations. Setting her sights on the impractical (for a woman in 1900) pursuits of science and medicine, she enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1900 after three years of preparatory studies.

One of the first women to receive a science degree from MIT, Dexter graduated with a B.A. in biology in 1904.

That same year she suspended any career pursuits to marry childhood friend Stanley McCormick, comptroller of the International Harvester Corporation and an heir to the family business fortune. Not long after their wedding, Stanley McCormick exhibited signs of severe mental illness; by 1906 he was hospitalized and in 1909 declared incompetent with what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia. This stunning blow for Katharine McCormick, still in her early thirties and faced with an impaired, childless marriage, seemed to act as a catalyst for her activism and philanthropy. She retreated from society life to focus on curing her husband’s illness and addressing the inequities that women everywhere shared, regardless of class or circumstance.

In pursuit of a treatment for her husband, McCormick became a prominent and demanding medical philanthropist, supporting the work of several notable psychiatrists and physicians and later pouring money into research in endocrinology—she established the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation at Harvard in 1927—believing that her husband’s disease could potentially be cured by hormone treatments. Stanley McCormick never emerged from his illness and lived out his life in a grand Santa Barbara estate and under constant medical care until his death in 1947. Endocrine research failed to help her husband, but McCormick’s interest and education in this emerging medical field enabled her to accept the plausibility of a hormonal anovulant pill many years later.

Around the time McCormick had her husband declared incompetent and began a long battle with the McCormick family over control of his fortune, she joined forces with Boston suffragists. In 1909 she spoke at the first outdoor woman suffrage rally in Massachusetts. Early in the next decade she and the suffragist and birth control pioneer Mary Ware Dennett organized suffrage rallies and lobbying campaigns through- out the Boston area. Later in the decade McCormick became vice president and treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working closely with Carrie Chapman Catt with whom she cofounded the League of Women Voters in 1920.

Katharine Dexter McCormick, a suffragist and birth control advocate, joined forces with Margaret Sanger late in her life to spur research that led to the oral contraceptive pill for women.

Katharine Dexter McCormick, a suffragist and birth control advocate, joined forces with Margaret Sanger late in her life to spur research that led to the oral contraceptive pill for women.

McCormick’s association with Mary Ware Dennett, who began organizing for legalized birth control in 1915, and other feminists who were active beyond the suffrage battle exposed her to the early trials of the birth control movement. Her marital predicament may have also convinced her of the necessity for safe and reliable contraception; she expressed a strong belief in thwarting congenital disease. McCormick first met Margaret Sanger in 1917 and served that year on the Committee of 100, a group of prominent women organized to publicly promote legalized birth control and support Sanger after her arrest in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the United States. Though it is unclear when her financial support of birth control began, McCormick served on the National Council of the American Birth Control League, founded by Sanger in 1921, which included many large donors to the league. She helped Sanger in less conventional ways as well: acting as an illegal courier in the 1920s, McCormick smuggled diaphragms from Europe to Sanger’s Clinical Research Bureau in New York; and in 1927 she let Sanger use her family’s Geneva Chateau as a meeting place for delegates to the World Population Conference.

McCormick continued to lend moderate financial support in the interwar years to Sanger’s clinic in New York, but her drawn-out, contentious battle with her in-laws over control of Stanley McCormick’s fortunes restricted her philanthropy. In 1950, after the settlement of her husband’s estate, McCormick, with an infusion of new wealth, contacted Sanger about prospects for contraceptive research. Sanger had long sought a more effective and less intrusive contraceptive and sponsored, since the 1930s, hormonal research aimed at finding and developing a method of inhibiting ovulation—an idea that even in 1950 was dismissed by many experts. McCormick, however, continued to believe in the medical potential of hormones. After he rejected several proposals for McCormick’s money, she and Sanger converged on the biologist Gregory Pincus, codirector of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology (WFEB) and an expert on hormonal aspects of mammalian reproduction.

Since 1948 the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) had given small grants to Pincus to study progesterone as an ovulation suppressant. Sanger met him in 1951 and came away impressed with his confidence and his success in the laboratory. She wrote enthusiastically to McCormick, knowing that no other individual or organization possessed the proper combination of compassion, scientific knowledge, and financial resources to take on the considerable risk of funding a pharmaceutical contraceptive. Meanwhile McCormick had recently renewed ties to Hudson Hoagland, Pincus’s partner at the WFEB and whom she had consulted years earlier in seeking a hormonal treatment for her husband. In 1953 McCormick, Sanger, and Pincus met for the first time at the WFEB in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Pincus was also engaged in research on synthetic steroids for G. D. Searle, but the pharmaceutical company failed to encourage his research on the hormonal manipulation of the female reproductive cycle, seeing little promise of a marketable drug. Likewise, PPFA failed to exhibit much enthusiasm for Pincus’s early findings on progesterone. McCormick, however, was impressed with Pincus’s resolve and trusted the WFEB to bring together the right combination of scientists for such a momentous project. She gave Pincus and Hoagland ample social justification for their mission, educating them on the urgent need for a simple and effective contraceptive.

McCormick provided the WFEB with an initial sum of $20,000 and then an annual contribution of $150,000 or more a year until her death in 1967 (additionally, in her will she left five million dollars to PPFA and another one million dollars to the WFEB). She gave a total of at least two million dollars, both through PPFA and later directly to the WFEB, in support of research and testing that led to the synthetic amalgam of progesterone and estrogen marketed by Searle as Enovid in 1960 and immediately heralded as “the pill.” Searle had changed its position as the research progressed. Apart from the money, McCormick kept the project focused through her close contact with the WFEB and her skill at managing personality conflicts and excitable egos.

Katharine McCormick died in 1967 and, like Margaret Sanger, who died a year before her, lived just long enough to see the pill succeed as a popular alternative to barrier methods of birth control and give women greater sexual autonomy than at any other time in history.

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