Date of Award


Degree Type

Closed Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Wendy Venet

Second Advisor

H. Robert Baker

Third Advisor

Jared Poley

Fourth Advisor

Paul Lombardo


This dissertation examines the relationship between law, medicine, and the arguments for legal birth control in the United States in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The project demonstrates that birth control activism, often considered a fringe aspect of the larger women’s movement, was deeply ingrained in the larger agenda of women’s liberation before the turn of the twentieth century. Feminist reformers’ responses to medical and legal conceptions of women’s disabilities also shaped arguments for female sexual freedom and reproductive rights. As physicians and lawyers alike argued over women’s capacity for reason, women’s rights activists responded with the latest scientific thinking on gynecology, anatomy, and eugenics to prove that women should not only be able to vote or work outside the home, but also control marriage and sex. They helped to redefine the idea of women as legal persons not only deserving of full citizenship, but of possessing the right to their own bodies. Many of these assertions grew out of these reformers’ belief in the most radical philosophies of the day such as Spiritualism, New Thought, Free Love, and Free Thought, the doctrines of which revered science and rejected conventional social constraints on gender.

Yet the association between social radicalism and birth control also hurt the cause. By contrast, scientific and legal justifications for women’s privacy in matters of sex made the legalization of contraception far more appealing to a suspicious public. Tracking the evolution of this conversation illustrates why Margaret Sanger and her contemporary Mary Ware Dennett inherited these discourses in the beginning of the twentieth century. Dennett’s influence on the early birth control movement equaled Sanger’s, and their ideological battle over the significance of legal birth control for society symbolized the diverse tensions of the feminist movement in this era. Their differing tactics represent conflicting strains of thought within the women’s movement about the achievements and limits of legal reform and social radicalism. Dennett’s commitment to arguments of sex equality, coupled with her distrust of eugenics and medical authority, contributed to the growing public support for birth control by the 1930s.