From Right to Responsibility: Resonance and Radicalism in Feminist-Led Reproductive Control Movements, 1907-1942

Margaret Eby, University of California, Berkeley

As eugenics gained new prominence from the end of the 19th century through World War II, feminist leaders of the reproductive control movement pushed for the social and legal acceptance of birth control simultaneously as a right for women and as a tool to further racist, scientific and ethnonationalist eugenic interventions. How did feminist reproductive control advocates in the interwar period align their movement with the broader eugenics movement? This paper analyzes the trajectories of two feminist birth control activist leaders in the United States and Germany to trace the development and divergence of their reproductive control movements through three general framings over the first half of the 20th century: advocating the individual, advancing humanity, and augmenting the state. I argue that the linking of these movements to eugenics was not simply a marriage of convenience, but the result of strategic deployment of radicalism for resonance and the growing conflation of eugenics with nationalism. Finally, I argue that these cases present a kind of double resonance through which movement leaders could reframe reproductive control as a solution not only to the ‘problems’ of their audiences, but also their own ‘problems’ with the limitations of their cause. This analysis helps to map reproductive control as a device historically wielded by white feminists to organize broader political support to fit varying and contradictory ideological projects that motivate its utilization and lend insight into seemingly paradoxical social movement trajectories.

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 Presented in Session 122. Multidimensional perspectives on Women's Movements