A Taboo Subject
By Meg Ratliff, Berry College
The letters and artifacts that comprise the Martha Berry Digital Archive often touch upon social and political issues that dominated life during the 1920s and the 1930s. Finding documents that mention poor mountain children or the country’s economic situation during the Great Depression highlight the hardships and difficulties of the period. Usually a letter will discuss the writer’s donation to help complete a new building on campus or to provide tuition to the children under Miss Berry’s care. This letter, however, mentions an important issue rarely discussed in Martha Berry’s correspondence.
Eliza G. Suydam of Annapolis, Maryland mentions in this letter that she could only donate one dollar to the Schools from her small $95 per month income. While making a small donation due to the economic problems of the time is not news to seasoned veterans of MBDA, the rest of the letter provides an interesting insight into a different idea to deal with the problems faced by having too many children born into poorer areas than Miss Berry’s. Suydam wishes for the poor to use birth control “more judiciously” in order to ensure that no child has to live without clothes and food. Seeing a letter from 1930 discussing the use of birth control, especially in relation to the southern United States, comes as a shock.
The controversy surrounding birth control developed early in America’s history, so it is important to understand how it all began. After searching through the library’s database, I found Aharon Zorea’s Birth Control an interesting and valuable take on birth control controversy in the United States. Zorea’s book provides information on the history of contraceptives beginning with the American Revolution and ending at the book’s publication in 2012.
According to Zorea, while the US saw an increase in birth control activism during the 1930s, the earlier decades of the 20th century saw continued opposition from the late 19th century. The creation of the Comstock laws in the 1870s kept general information on birth control methods from being distributed, specifically through the mail, as well as prohibiting all use of contraceptives in the United States (35). Originally, the laws only aimed to ban pornography and general indecent materials, but Congress added contraceptives since they weren’t used for medical or scientific issues, only moral (37). These laws remained a hindrance for the Birth Control Movement until the mid-1930s when a federal appeals court ruled that the US government could not stop doctors from giving their patients birth control.
Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in the birth control movement for providing access to birth control in the United States, began her campaign in the 1910s. During the decade, she first coined the term “birth control” in a 1914 edition of her magazine, The Woman Rebel—No Gods, No Masters (192). Because of the publication, Sanger fled to England to avoid prosecution based on violations against the Comstock laws. After a few years overseas, she formed the American Birth Control League in 1921 to promote the legalization and distribution of birth control information for women in the US (43 and 192).
While Sanger never personally succeeded in repealing the Comstock Laws, her impact stretched into the 1930s when Congress passed new laws legalizing contraception for medical reasons. The court case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries from 1936 decided that “laws prohibiting Americans from importing contraceptive devices or items…did not apply to physicians who used the items to protect the health of patients." The director of a birth control clinic founded by Sanger, Dr. Hannah Stone, ordered contraceptives for her patients from Japan (51). This issue eventually legalized almost all forms of medical contraception later in the 1930s, with the beginning of World War II pushing the debate to a completely national issue.
Even if the Comstock laws were still in effect in 1930, Eliza Suydam obviously followed the contraceptive debate and understood the possible implications of using birth control methods to address the number of children born into financially strained communities. The controversy surrounding birth control grew in the 1930s because of the amount of work from Margaret Sanger and her birth control clinics, so Suydam’s interest in the topic is not fully unexpected. Still, seeing it in a letter addressed to Martha Berry is a surprise. Although the birth control debate is still controversial today, that does not decrease the significance of seeing such a taboo subject mentioned in a letter to Martha Berry.
Zorea, Aharon W. Birth Control. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012.