WOMAN'S BODY, WOMAN'S RIGHT: A Social History of Birth Control In America by Linda Gordon
Kirkus Star

WOMAN'S BODY, WOMAN'S RIGHT: A Social History of Birth Control In America

Email this review


Gordon, co-editor with Rosalyn Baxandall of America's Working Women (p. 816), is one of the new breed of feminist historians whose analysis of women's status and rights is firmly grounded in economics and class. This book focuses on the social attitudes rather than the technology of contraception. She isolates three distinct stages in the movement toward social acceptance of birth control: ""Voluntary motherhood,"" the slogan of suffragists and moral reformers which took root by 1870; ""birth control,"" the battle cry of radicals like Emma Goldman in the 1910-20 period; and ""planned parenthood,"" a liberal, reformist orientation which became ascendant during the Depression. Subtle, complex and far-reaching, the book argues cogently that in the 19th-century few perceived birth control as a ""woman's right"" issue. Rather, the impetus to curtail babies came from diverse social pressures (industrialization, women in the market place) and a motley assortment of Neo-Malthusians, ""Eugenists,"" and Utopians. The countervailing push for big families came from nativists like Theodore Roosevelt who feared lesser immigrant breeds would swamp Yankee stock, and from the powerful ""Motherhood ideology"" which infected all sectors of society. The simplistic notion that opposition to contraception was a male supremacist plot to keep women subjugated won't wash. Indeed, many 19th-century militant feminists like Victoria Woodhull found contraception ""unnatural"" and repugnant. Bringing her history up to the present, Gordon insists that the pill notwithstanding, true reproductive self-determination is not possible while women occupy the bottom of the labor market. It is a cliche to say that women get pregnant accidently ""to punish themselves""; Gordon makes a good case that the opposite is equally true--women, married or single, become pregnant ""to protect themselves"" from other less appealing prospects.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Grossman/Viking