Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger

By David M. Kennedy | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 2
The Nineteenth-Century Heritage:
The Family, Feminism, and Sex

Margaret Sanger returned to a troubled country. By 1915, social, economic, and ideological forces were visibly transforming the most sacrosanct aspects of nineteenth-century life: the condition of the family, the status of women, and the nature of sexuality.

When Mrs. Sanger called contraception birth control and made it a public issue, she was not inventing a new social practice. But she did inject a new term and a new degree of frankness into the debate on what was coming to be called the sexual revolution. The place of birth control in that ( revolution, and the context within which it was debated, depended directly on its relation to the transformations affecting the family, woman, and sex.

The nineteenth-century American considered the family, as Henry James put it, "the original germ-cell which lies at the base of all that we call society." That view drew support from the findings of American social scientists, who, in their Germanic search for the origins of all institutions, repeatedly demonstrated the initial formation of society in the microcosm of the family. And the sacredness of the idea of the family had more than an evolutionary derivation. In a country plagued by the divisive effects of civil war, territorial expansion, and the birth of modern industrialism, men put a high premium on the forces working for order and cohesion. The family, they thought, was such a force. Its significance, therefore, was less personal than social. The

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