When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars

When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars

When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars

When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars


In When Sex Changed, Layne Parish Craig analyzes the ways literary texts responded to the political, economic, sexual, and social values put forward by the birth control movements of the 1910s to the 1930s in the United States and Great Britain.

Discussion of contraception and related topics (including feminism, religion, and eugenics) changed the way that writers depicted women, marriage, and family life. Tracing this shift, Craig compares disparate responses to the birth control controversy, from early skepticism by mainstream feminists, reflected in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, to concern about the movement's race and class implications suggested in Nella Larsen's Quicksand, to enthusiastic speculation about contraception's political implications, as in Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.

While these texts emphasized birth control's potential to transform marriage and family life and emancipate women from the "slavery" of constant childbearing, birth control advocates also used less-than-liberatory language that excluded the poor, the mentally ill, non-whites, and others. Ultimately, Craig argues, the debates that began in these early political and literary texts--texts that document both the birth control movement's idealism and its exclusionary rhetoric--helped shape the complex legacy of family planning and women's rights with which the United States and the United Kingdom still struggle.


I’ve been talking to the younger generation all afternoon. They are like
crude hard green apples: no halo, mildew, or blight. Seduced at 15, life has
no holes or corners for them. I admire, but deplore. Such an old maid, they
make me feel. “And how do you manage not- not- not to have children?”
I ask. “Oh, we read Mary Stopes of course!” Figure to yourself my dear
Molly—before taking their virginity, the young men of our time produce
marked copies of Stopes!

—VIRGINIA WOOLF, Letters, VOL. 3, 6

Virginia Woolf wrote this scandalized letter to her friend Molly McCarthy in 1923, as she was drafting Mrs. Dalloway, clearly thinking about the social changes wrought to England since her own youth. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf focalizes such changes—to class conventions, gender roles, and sexual expression—through attention to the upheaval wrought by World War I; however, as her conversation with her friends suggests, these changes also reflected the newly visible presence of contraception as a topic for publication and public comment. The “Mary Stopes” to whom Woolf’s friends look for guidance in avoiding pregnancy is British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Carmichael Stopes. Upon its publication in 1918, Stopes’s first book on sex and birth control, Married Love, sold two thousand copies in its first few weeks and went through six editions in a year. Though written as a sex manual for young couples, inspired by Stopes’s experience with her first husband, whose impotence Stopes claims she was unable to recognize after several years of marriage, Married Love was most famous for its section on contraception, the section that would have been “marked” by Woolf’s friends’ boyfriends. Virginia Woolf’s “old maid-ish” reaction to her young friends’ sexual escapades is a striking if perhaps somewhat exaggerated (she was after all eleven years into a childless marriage with Leonard Woolf when she wrote this letter) illustration of the shift in sexual mores that dovetailed with the publication of Stopes’s work. As the words of a writer drafting one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century British literature, her remarks are also a reminder of the new world that authors had to . . .

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