Privacy in the Past: Woman & Contraception

Kristofer Nelson writes about Privacy, autonomy, and birth control in America, 1860-1900, its a fascinating article on the ways in which gender and privacy have historically played out. This becomes particularly problematic when dealing with birth control. While access to contraception and abortion are still highly discussed today, they are not discussed in this way. What is interesting is the ways in which the private and public domains have been mapped and their borders re-drawn over time. Indeed

Access to birth control became, controversially, protected by the “right to privacy” in 1965;1 a hundred years before, “procreation was a matter of public concern.”2 Yet, contradictorily and confusingly, Victorian women — and their bodies — were protected (and limited) by a powerful social division between private and public spheres.

The rights of woman to her body was viewed in relation to other rights and needs. She was either “property” of her father or husband, or a national commodity as it was the women who would bear the American children. Therefore her use of contraception conflicted with a public interest:

A woman’s body was both a private and a national commodity. If she took steps to control her fertility she entered into the public domain and came into conflict with laws governed by public interest. If she interfered with her husband’s right to her body, she offended him as a man and a potential father.9

The latter quote is from Annegret S. Ogden, The Great American Housewife: From Helpmate to Wage Earner, 1776-1986, Contributions in Women’s Studies, no. 61 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1986).

 

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