The Birth of a Notion: Media Coverage of Contraception, 1915-1917

By Flamiano, Dolores | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

The Birth of a Notion: Media Coverage of Contraception, 1915-1917


Flamiano, Dolores, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This article analyzes the emergence of media discourses on contraception from 1915 to 1917,focusing on coverage in the New York Times, The New Republic, and Harper's Weekly. Considered legally obscene and unfit for public discussion, contraception first made headlines as a result of Margaret Sanger's birth control activism and ensuing legal troubles. After the New York Times covered Sanger's activities, several magazines began to publish articles on the contraception debate. This early coverage of birth control emphasized its scientific and social utility, virtually ignoring controversial issues of gender, sexuality, and power.

A generation ago the subject of contraception was shrouded in secrecy and ignorance. Not only was the practice and discussion of contraception socially unpopular, it was also illegal under the Comstock Act.' Even the radical Socialist press, which was outspoken on subjects such as venereal disease and sex education, remained reticent on contraception until 1914, when it supported Margaret Sanger's crusade against the Comstock Act.2 The birth control movement's early propaganda efforts got a hostile reception in the popular press,3 but as the issue became more newsworthy and less scandalous, it found an interested and sympathetic audience.

This paper will analyze the mainstream media's initial coverage of birth control during the years 1915 to 1917, providing a qualitative examination of coverage in a major newspaper and five national magazines. Most of the articles analyzed were published in the New York Times, The New Republic, and Harper's Weekly. The New York Times voiced the concerns of the conservative establishment; The New Republic spoke for liberalism and progressivism; and Harper's Weekly was situated somewhere in between. According to media historians Jean Folkerts and Dwight L. Teeter Jr., the New York Times, under managing editor Carr Van Anda, had achieved a reputation for "completeness, accuracy, and objectivity."4 It had also established itself as the newspaper of record with the New York Times Index. Publication in the Times can therefore be viewed as a measure of the emerging newsworthiness of the birth control issue.

During the period of this study, Harper's Weekly was actively covering social issues, including the education of immigrants, feminist activities, and new developments in science and medicine.5 Harper's Weekly during the prewar period has been described by historian Ellen Chesler as "the country's foremost popular intellectual forum"6 and by magazine historian Daniel I. Webster Hollis III as "a major force in the United States" by virtue of its strong editorial commentary and sensational reporting.7 In contrast to the editorially moderate Harper's Weekly, The New Republic (founded in 1914) was unabashedly liberal. Under editor Herbert Croly, the magazine sought to challenge its readers' beliefs on subjects such as labor rights, railroad regulation, and women's suffrage.8

Three other magazines covered birth control during the period of this study: Current Opinion, Literary Digest, and McClure's. The monthly Current Opinion and the weekly Literary Digest were news magazines that contained extracts of newspaper articles.9 The Literary Digest, which first appeared in 1890, was extremely popular during the period of this study.to One of the giants of the muckraking period, McClure's was in decline by 1915, but it was still considered an excellent magazine, with a wartime circulation of half a million.11 While Harper's and The New Republic are obvious choices for this study because they provided the most direct and thorough discussions of contraception at the time, Current Opinion, Literary Digest, and McClure's are included because of their immense popularity (as evidenced by high circulation figures) and their generally more conservative ideological perspectives.

The study begins with articles appearing in 1915, when birth control entered the popular vocabulary.

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