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After fighting in World War II, American soldiers coming home faced another duty of sorts to their country: get happily married, have a baby, and nurture a stable, healthy family. Among those encouraging that wartime effort was Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). The birth control organization published illustrated pamphlets aimed at veterans as well as women that provided firm, authoritative guidance on how to best prepare to start a family. They gave them titles like “The Soldier Takes a Wife” and “For the Man who comes back — and for all his generation,” and included quizzes in their pages such as, “As a prospective mother — what’s your score?”
Librarians at New York Academy of Medicine recently found examples of these illuminating documents in their archives, coinciding with a free lecture series it’s hosting with the Museum of the City of New York titled, “Who Controls Women’s Health? A Century of Struggle.” Notably, this dated literature emerged right at the time when the Federation had undergone a critical rebranding. Originally known as the American Birth Control League (ABCL), it adopted, in 1942, the gentler-sounding name of “Planned Parenthood.”
While the movement continued to champion older ABCL principles (including Margaret Sanger’s support of eugenics), it also became much more family-centered, arguing that strategic family planning was part of the nation’s commitment to a healthy and strong society. As one pamphlet from the 1940s claims, “The fact remains that having a baby is still the most important single event in any woman’s life — important to herself and her husband and to the future of her country.” The role of birth control was to ensure this event would happen properly, and at the optimal time.
As Dr. Lauren Thompson, an assistant professor of history at Kennesaw State University (and author of forthcoming book Battle for Birth Control: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger, and the Rivalry that Shaped a Movement), told Hyperallergic, the renaming “was stressing an apolitical stance, one that deemphasized the radical, feminist origins of the birth control movement, and instead focused on the idea of strengthening families overall, and incorporating family planning programming into the state’s broader social initiatives.”
The pamphlets laid out these plans clearly, often accompanied with endearing pictures of a nuclear family. “The soldier takes a wife” features illustrations by cartoonist Ralph Stein of young dads in military uniform, shown holding a bride, pushing a stroller, and attempting to quell a screaming baby. The text, too, can be playful: fictional anecdotes spelling out the woes of one “‘Flash’ Edwards” and one “‘Steady’ Steve” serve as cautions to those who don’t space their children, figure out their budgets, or have a permanent job before starting a family.
“Getting married and having a family is like a military campaign,” the pamphlet declares. “It takes forethought, preparation and a certain amount of strategy.”
Although these pamphlets did stress that both parents share the responsibility of preparing for and caring for a child, challenging discriminatory gender roles within the family was certainly not Planned Parenthood’s primary agenda at the time. Rather than that of an independent woman, the ideal lifestyle they advocated saw marriage as the center of society.
“They were not interested in discussing how women’s use of birth control could help them achieve personal freedom,” Thompson said. “Although PPFA did discuss women’s sexual satisfaction in their literature, they did this from the point of view of marriage only. A happy wife — sexually satisfied by her husband — would be the key, in turn, to a strong family and a strong nation.”
Indeed, one pamphlet describes healthy, safe childbirth as “the most important single job of your life.” It also dictates that women hoping to be mothers first consult their husbands and their doctors, and also maintain a strict daily diet (which includes the note, “three or four cigarettes a day are enough for a pregnant woman”). And there’s the handy tip that a maternity corset or brassier can help you “regain your figure after the baby arrives.”
Intended for mostly white Protestant readership made of liberal professionals and those of the upper class and the established medical world, these pamphlets were also a way for Planned Parenthood to easily distribute medical advice, as it does today. But again, health concerns were spelled out in relation to successful childbirth, with sections describing diseases or ailments that would require postponing a baby. Notably, abortion is described on one page as “the desperate alternative to planned parenthood.” On the other hand, contraception was the solution for the virtuous — Planned Parenthood even published approving scripts for ministers who were offering marriage counsel to young couples. Much as it promoted happy and healthy futures, birth control at this time also kept a woman in place in the domestic sphere, as part of a male-dominated structure, where she was urged to be both wife and mom.
As one pamphlet cheerfully summed up: “America needs more healthy babies, so have as many as you can. Healthy, love babies bring more happiness than any other possession.”
The final talk in the series, More than Medicine: Social Justice and Feminist Movements for Health, presented by historian Jennifer Nelson, takes place at the New York Academy of Medicine (1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, East Harlem, Manhattan) on October 5.