Birth control methods (some useless or even dangerous, others remarkably effective) have existed since ancient times, but have not always been put to use.

One explanation, according to Linda Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is that strictures on birth control fluctuated according to social need. Among some nomadic people, where dependents were a liability, infanticide was practiced. In agricultural societies on the other hand, where many people were needed to get the work done, prohibitions on birth control were strict.

But the main reason women have not made more use of birth control, Gordon maintains, is their poor attitude toward themselves. In other words: "Birth control use is more a measure of women's increased self-esteem and sense of opportunity than a cause of it." The modern birth control movement beginning in the late 19th century was thus an arduous struggle from within as much as from without - against fear, superstition, ignorance and prejudice.

In appraising the gains of the birth control movement over the last hundred years, Gordon points out that women still must rely on faulty if not dangerous methods - the Pill and IUDs - anc concludes that the only real achievement of the movement so far has been the legalization of abortion. Certainly she understates the advances in the understanding of female physiology which, along with improved techniques, have given women more control than ever before. But she argues very persuasively that while control over reproduction is fundamental, it is only a first step toward sexual equality.

This book is filled with provocative ideas and facts which will dispel many conventional notions on the subject. It's a shame that few readers will be tempted to forage through the thicket of dull, turgid writing in which they are hidden. (Grossman/Viking, $12.50)

Carol L. Eron