The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abortion opponents are gunning for contraception, too

Efforts to roll back abortion and contraception access aim to control women’s sexuality

Two types of intrauterine devices, copper and hormonal, such as Mirena or Skyla. (iStock)
8 min

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece had a clause missing that left a paragraph with a contradiction. While Katharine Bement Davis agreed with eugenicists’ vision of White college women producing children, she didn’t agree with their theory of race suicide, nor did it drive her to support elimination of the Comstock Laws, as stated later in the paragraph.

Last weekend, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) released a video criticizing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, and denouncing what Blackburn called the “constitutionally unsound” ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut. In that 1965 case, the Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting married couples’ access to birth control on the basis that such laws infringed upon Americans’ right to privacy. The right to privacy established in this case subsequently informed the 1972 decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, which extended privacy rights and contraceptive access to single women, and the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which declared access to safe and legal abortions a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Now, these landmark cases face political opposition and legal challenges.

A century ago, sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis published an excerpt from her ongoing study of women’s sexuality in which she revealed the frequency with which married women practiced contraception — and, when it failed, obtained abortions. But then, as now, discussions of women’s sexuality were deeply controversial. Davis’s study redefined birth control, masturbation and lesbianism as “normal,” but it also cost her job. At the heart of this controversy, then and now, is women’s ability to control their own bodies.

Initially, Davis spent her career policing women’s sexuality, not promoting it. One of the first women in the nation to earn a PhD, Davis served as superintendent of New York’s Reformatory for Women at Bedford Falls, where most inmates were confined for prostitution, from 1901 through 1913. As the first woman to serve as commissioner of corrections in New York, from 1914 through 1916, Davis enforced birth-control crusader Margaret Sanger’s prison sentence for distributing contraceptives in defiance of state laws.

Sanger, an advocate of free speech as well as birth control, was a longtime adversary of the law-and-order Davis. In 1914, her newspaper, the Woman Rebel, had excoriated “good, respectable Miss Davis” for imprisoning Ukrainian American anarchist Rebecca Edelsohn for delivering an antiwar speech. Sanger called Davis “a brilliant example of that rapidly growing group of respectable women who have discovered profitable and highly honorable careers in the exploitation of the victims of our social ‘law and order’ … under the name of ‘charities and corrections.’ ”

Sanger’s campaign against Davis intensified after her 30-day sentence at Queens County Jail in early 1917. After her release, she accused Davis of “studied cruelty and heartlessness in the treatment of the jail’s population.” According to Sanger, “Every inmate of the jail learns to hate Miss Davis with a bitterness and a depth of resentment that one would scarcely believe possible,” and “the girls complain that Miss Davis delights in the exercise of authority that amounts to tyranny.”

Davis, who by then had stepped down as commissioner of corrections to take a position on the Parole Board, vigorously defended her record, denying allegations of cruelty. Explaining that she had never even met Sanger, she attributed the fiery activist’s “personal attack” to Davis’s well-known opposition to lawbreaking as a tool for changing the law.

That same year, political changes prompted Davis to accept a new position as the head of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, a privately funded organization dedicated to combating commercialized sex. During World War I, Davis collaborated with other anti-vice groups to implement the “American Plan,” a campaign to curb the spread of sexually transmitted infections among military men by incarcerating “delinquent” women.

But this discriminatory treatment made Davis — a staunch opponent of the sexual double standard — rethink her approach, shifting her focus to investigating women’s sexuality rather than dictating it. After the war, instead of pursuing a planned study of “The Delinquent Girl,” she launched a statistical analysis of the sexual behavior of “normal” women. By April 1922, Davis had collected 1,000 responses to a detailed questionnaire sent to White, well-educated women across the country. She released some of her early findings in a three-part article, “A Study of the Sex Life of the Normal Married Woman,” in the Journal of Social Hygiene.

Davis kicked off the series in April 1922 with a provocative piece on contraceptive use among married women. Her initial analysis indicated a high level of support for contraception among married women: 73 percent of the sample indicated they believed in “voluntary parenthood,” and the same percentage had used contraceptive methods. Available methods, including condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps, were far from foolproof; 9 percent of the sample revealed they had undergone at least one abortion, even though the procedure was illegal.

Davis’s findings paved the way for a rapprochement with Sanger, who was working to distance herself from her radical past. Sanger sought financial support for a new project — legitimizing and legalizing birth control — and she needed allies. At the same time, Sanger became an advocate of eugenics, arguing that birth control would enable the restriction of reproduction by the “unfit” and allow the “fit” to plan healthy families.

Davis, who also espoused eugenics, shared Sanger’s attitudes toward birth control and family planning. As head of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, she was in a position to provide Sanger with the financial backing that she desperately needed. Thus, in the 1920s, the two former antagonists moved cautiously toward a professional alliance.

Davis used her position to fund Sanger’s new birth-control clinic. In addition, she persuaded BSH founder, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., to fund an annual international conference on birth control, with the proviso that his financial backing must remain a closely guarded secret.

In 1929, Davis published her pathbreaking study, “Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women.” Davis’s book was the first published study focused on women’s sexuality. Her research methodology — using lists of college graduates and clubwomen — did not produce a representative sample. But studying White, well-adjusted and well-educated women allowed her to achieve her goals.

The study challenged long-held beliefs about White women’s sexuality and destigmatized practices such as masturbation, contraception and lesbianism. These were previously associated with criminalized sexual behavior such as prostitution or with stigmatized populations such as immigrants, African Americans or incarcerated people. (Davis did not comment on what her new study meant for the predominantly immigrant women and women of color who had been incarcerated at Bedford for “sexual delinquency,” according to her earlier study.)

Davis’s revelations about White women’s sexual desire and behavior — both heterosexual and homosexual — challenged conventional beliefs about women’s “passionlessness,” which held that women, less sexually inclined than men, engaged in sex only to please their husbands or for purposes of reproduction. Davis’s research also intensified her commitment to the birth-control movement, which sought to separate sex from reproduction. By 1929, she was strategizing with Sanger on how to overturn the Comstock Laws, which made distributing contraceptives or abortifacients through the U.S. mail a federal offense.

In the early twentieth century, some eugenicists opposed birth control, issuing dire warnings about “race suicide”: concerned that White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant women restricted family size, while immigrant, Black and Catholic women continued to have large families. While Davis agreed that “from the point of view of eugenics I shall maintain … that it would be a good thing for the race if a higher per cent of our college women were to marry and produce children,” she also insisted that her statistics disproved race suicide and argued that family planning produced happier marriages.

Efforts to overturn the Comstock Laws were met with stiff resistance. While lawsuits struck down similar provisions at the state level, federal restrictions remained in effect until rendered null and void by Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s that affirmed women’s access to contraception and abortion as constitutional rights guaranteed by the right to privacy: Griswold, Eisenstadt and Roe.

Davis’s study also proved controversial, providing her longtime detractors at the Bureau of Social Hygiene with the ammunition they needed to persuade Rockefeller to terminate her contract. The same men wrote her out of the history of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, and Davis’s study did not get the recognition it deserved during her lifetime.

Nonetheless, “Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women” created space for an open discussion of women’s sexuality — a conversation that continues to this day. And Davis’s career reminds us that debates about birth control are nothing new — and neither are contraceptives and abortions.