A History of the Birth Control Movement in America

by Peter C. Engelman


Following the example of Prohibition-era bootleggers, Margaret Sanger's husband, the president of the Three-In-One Oil Company, smuggled diaphragms into the United States in cartons of his lubricant. His actions are indicative of how difficult it was for women to secure effective contraception—and how determined Sanger and other activists were to afford them the ability to do so.

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Cover image for A History of the Birth Control Movement in America

April 2011


Pages 231
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics American History/Gender

This narrative history of one of the most far-reaching social movements in the 20th century shows how it defied the law and made the use of contraception an acceptable social practice—and a necessary component of modern healthcare.

A History of the Birth Control Movement in America tells the extraordinary story of a group of reformers dedicated to making contraception legal, accessible, and acceptable. The engrossing tale details how Margaret Sanger's campaign beginning in 1914 to challenge anti-obscenity laws criminalizing the distribution of contraceptive information grew into one of the most far-reaching social reform movements in American history.

The book opens with a discussion of the history of birth control methods and the criminalization of contraception and abortion in the 19th century. Its core, however, is an exciting narrative of the campaign in the 20th century, vividly recalling the arrests and indictments, banned publications, imprisonments, confiscations, clinic raids, mass meetings, and courtroom dramas that publicized the cause across the nation. Attention is paid to the movement's thorny alliances with medicine and eugenics and especially to its success in precipitating a profound shift in sexual attitudes that turned the use of contraception into an acceptable social and medical practice. Finally, the birth control movement is linked to court-won privacy protections and the present-day movement for reproductive rights.


  • 15 photographs and images of the major players in the movement and of key publications and contraceptive devices
  • A selected bibliography and extensive end notes, providing an up-to-date source for primary and secondary material on the birth control movement


  • Provides readers with the only narrative history of the American birth control movement, including a detailed account of the early, activist years, the opening of the first birth control clinic, and the formation of the American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
  • Shows how this women-led movement challenged the law at every turn to inform women about safe and effective contraception and to open contraceptive clinics
  • Relies on primary documentation, including press reports on early events, and draws on the most up-to-date research available on the birth control movement
  • Offers a reasoned, historically based discussion of birth control and eugenics, covering, among other issues, recent accusations that the birth control movement was a racist enterprise
Author Info

Peter C. Engelman, a freelance writer, historical editor, and archivist, is associate editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University and has written widely on Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement.



"[Engelman] reveals the backbreaking work of activists determined to legalize birth control in the Progressive Era. . . . An enjoyable read that builds on an impressive body of scholarship in order to educate the general audience about the history of birth control activism in the United States."The Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Engelman has succeeded in providing an accessible and detailed study of an important movement in American women's history. This book would work well in the classroom and would serve as a wonderful reference for students writing research papers on the birth control movement as well as faculty lecturing about the topic. It would also serve as an important text for non-historians eager to learn more about this history."Social History of Medicine

"Of particular interest are discussions of neo-Malthusians, medical doctors, Progressive-era reformers, anti-obscenity crusaders, free speech advocates, socialists, anarchists, and eugenicists. At the center of the story is Margaret Sanger, whose own story is interwoven with these various groups. Engelman offers an interesting, nuanced portrayal of this complex figure and her ongoing struggle for safe, affordable, and accessible contraception."Choice

"Engelman's new work provides a brief and well-written introduction to this fascinating and overlooked American social reform movement and its complicated but passionate hero, Margaret Sanger."The Journal of Clinical Investigation


"This book is a thoroughly comprehensive and clearly written history of a pioneering U.S. social movement. Peter Engelman's careful scholarship gives us a superbly rich and nuanced treatment which will be valuable and accessible to scholars and students alike."—David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author of Liberty and Sexuality

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