My Website

Monday 16 January 2023

Paradoxes and contradictions among early twentieth-century birth control activists

 I was extremely gratified last week to see the updated Edinburgh University Press webpage for the forthcoming volume of essays, Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time, edited by James Purdon, which has this absolutely gorgeous cover:

Naomi Mitchison

My essay is 'Send in the Clones?: Naomi Mitchison and the Politics of Reproduction and Motherhood'.

In this there was so much to address about Mitchison's own involvement with ideas on these subjects over her long life, in her activism, non-fiction writing, and in both realist and science fiction, that I did not have space to address her position as one of several leading figures in the interwar birth control movement who found themselves in a somewhat parodoxical and rather contradictory position.

When women in the 1920s began speaking out about the necessity for birth control and setting up clinics, this was taken in itself as a sign of immorality. The worthy founders of the Manchester, Salford and District Mothers' Clinic, were not only decried from the local Catholic pulpit as 'attempting to introduce unnatural vices' but 'the kind of idle women who visit matinees and sit with cigarettes between their painted lips'*: a very misleading characterisation of Mary Stocks and Charis Frankenberg (discussed in Mo Moulton's The Mutual Admiration Society (2019)), who probably saw themselves as rather dowdy social workers.

In order to avoid the associations with immorality and accusations of promoting vice and promiscuity, the birth control movement leaned, with reason, on the figure of the overburdened multiparous married women and the gains for maternal, and also infant, welfare, to be accrued through fewer, better-spaced, pregnancies. The Workers' Birth Control Group, set up by women in the Labour Party in 1924 to lobby for advice as part of publicly funded welfare services, presented itself as representing working mothers, and therefore, 'control of its policy was to be in the hands of men and women who had known the responsibility of parenthood' (apart from Dorothy Jewson, MP, as there were no married Labour women MPs at the time).** This occluded the contributions to their activities of the very unmarried and childless Stella Browne.

The public image of the birth control movement, therefore, was heavily invested in rhetorics of conventional marriage and parenthood, even if there was also a commitment to new egalitarian models of these relationships.

However, a significant number of the leading figures in the movement, including Mitchison, saw birth control and women's reproductive agency as part of a wider vision of transformed relationships, not merely on the theoretical level, but in practice. Mitchison, like Helena Wright, Margery Spring-Rice, Margaret Pyke, Dora Russell and Joan Malleson, herself lived a life of unconventional relationships and evolving new moralities (these did not always work out well, as the disastrous end of the marriage of Dora and Bertrand Russell demonstrated). Mitchison also revealed, in an oral history interview late in life, that although the birth control movement was careful to dissociate itself from abortion, nonetheless at the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, where she had been a volunteer, they all knew people who would perform abortions and helped out women in desperate trouble.***

So there was a careful negotiation going on over public-facing presentation and those more private beliefs and behaviour, which might possibly have been expressed in certain sympathetic niche venues.

There was also rather careful negotiation going on with the Eugenics Society. On the whole, the birth control movement was much more interested in improving the lot of actual women in the present and their immediate offspring, than improving the quality of generations yet to come. Some activists had more, and some a good deal less, sympathy with the concept of eugenics, and work on individual clinics has indicated that this varied a lot from clinic to clinic, but that eugenic considerations very seldom had any bearing on actual practice.

[Later thought added] Women birth control activists might also have felt somewhat leery of a body which saw them (and educated white middle-class women generally) as a eugenically desirable demographic whose primary duty ought to be breeding for The Nation. Marie Stopes herself had no truck with that line and voiced forceful objections in Radiant Motherhood. Mitchison, it must be said, was very unusual in this cohort with her seven children: but also (this is discussed in my essay forthcoming in the book!) expressed strong political cavils to C. P. Blacker of the Eugenics Society on the basis of her left-wing convictions.

However, the Eugenics Society had money, and the birth control movement, like most organisations primarily founded and run by women, did not. It lacked the resources of society charity available to the much more respectable National Birthday Trust Fund aimed at improving conditions of childbirth. Because birth control was still regarded rather dubiously even after 1930 when the Ministry of Health had conceded that advice might be given in local authority maternal welfare clinics, and the Lambeth Conference had conceded that it might have a licit place in Christian marriage, a lot of possibilities for fund-raising were not accessible. Mitchison, in her novel We Have Been Warned (1934), has the clinic in 'Sallington' scraping by on the proceeds of jumble sales and amateur dramatic performances. 

A wealthy organisation prepared to put up the money for among other things, research into improvements in contraception was a great temptation. Especially when another tempter was the commercial sector - Jess Borge in Protective Practices has shown how the London Rubber Company was extremely eager to make use of the National Birth Control Association/Family Planning Association for its own ends (the archives indicate that they were far from unique in this respect). Given the very longstanding stigmatisation of birth control propagandists as shills for the rubbergoods and abortifacient industry, the movement had to be extremely cautious about any commercial tie-in.

So, really, the birth control movement between the wars, and indeed, well into the 1960s, was engaged in a very delicate balancing act among paradoxical positions and living with contradictions.

*Mary Stocks, My Commonplace Book (1970), p 161, cited in Audrey Leathard, The Fight for Family Planning (1980), p. 32.

**Workers Birth Control Group files in the Dora Russell papers at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, nos 402 and 403.

***Transcript of interview with Naomi Mitchison by Barbara Evans, 1982, for biography of Dr Helena Wright: Papers of Philip Rainsford Evans and Barbara Evans in the Wellcome Library, PP/PRE/J.1/24