Editor’s note: This article is also available in Romanian.
Today the feminist movement is rightly given credit for helping to usher in a revolution in family planning. Unfortunately, presenting this obsession with controlling female fertility without examining the motivations and philosophy behind it leaves people naïve and with a shallow understanding of where this mindset originated.
The argument often used by feminists today is that the government should stay out of women’s vaginas; however, what is left out of the argument is the fact that early feminists were demanding that the government not only get into women’s vaginas (and men’s bodies as well) but that governments forcibly sterilize women the elite deemed unfit. These pioneering feminists who promulgated these ideas are celebrated today while men who promulgated them are rightfully condemned.
Feminism’s intimate connection with eugenics and reproductive fitness begins with Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was the first woman to run for President in 1872, a leader of the woman’s suffrage movement, the first female stockbroker and the first person to publish the Communist Manifesto in English in her paper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
Her paper was also famous for promoting short skirts and licensed prostitution along with other feminist ideas and included writings regularly from other prominent feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was perhaps the most influential of them all. Woodhull regularly pushed the idea that the government should prevent the marriage and thus the breeding of those it deemed unfit to reproduce with statement’s such as:
“A humanitarian government would stigmatize the marriages of the unfit as crimes; it would legislate to prevent the birth of the criminal rather than legislate to punish him after he is born.”
The term “eugenics” was coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Darwin and basically meant controlling human reproduction using the institutions of the state and the scientific establishment to prevent the lower class from breeding and to favor the breeding of the upper class or what they deemed the genetically fit. Adolf Hitler was inspired by the popularity of the American and British eugenics movement and capitalized on it to fanatically engineer his “final solution”.
Victoria Woodhull did not originate the ideas that resulted in coining the term but she was perhaps the first person to so boldly risk her reputation to popularize the idea according to historian Michael W. Perry:
“She wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, or the first to write about it,” he explains, “but she may have been the first to stake her reputation on eugenics becoming a cause.”
In her book “The human body the temple of God” she praised the forced operations on the ovaries of girls deemed unfit and recommended the methods the ancient Greeks used for eliminating undesirable children from their population:
“New Zealand performed ovariotomy on young girls…the preceding indicates that certain savages have at least some regard for the future members of their community….I would recommend the remedy of the ancient Greeks.”
In 1927, the Buck v Bell court decision ruled that the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce by the government did not violate constitutional rights. A woman named Carrie Buck was subsequently forced to get her tubes tied under police supervision.
Victoria Woodhull, towards the end of her life, in May of that year, applauded the decision and proudly stated that she had originated the idea of the State controlling women’s(and men’s) fertility:
“Mrs. Martin who wrote and lectured for thirty years on eugenics, remarked that she was pleased to read that the Virginia Eugenics law had succeeded in establishing the right to sterilize the feeble-minded. “I advocated that fifty years ago in my book “Marriage of the Unfit” she said.”
Emily Murphy, the famous Canadian feminist, and first female magistrate in the British empire, believed that the inferior Chinese and immigrant class was outbreeding the native-born white population and thus appealed to the Canadian government for the forcible sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce.
“Her…writings placed a critique of the inadequate or degenerate family alongside racist anti-immigrant sentiment, intimating that addiction was relegated to the rampant immorality of Chinese immigrants…was coupled with a strong conviction that the founding (White) population of Canada was under threat by overbreeding and morally bankrupt immigrants…She also argued that mentally defective children were “a menace to society, and an enormous cost to the state” that must be curtailed….through negative eugenics such as sterilization.”
Murphy’s obsession with controlling the reproduction of the population resulted in her also pushing for birth control, especially permanent forms of it. This is the climate and mindset from which the phrase birth control had its genesis. Marie Stopes, an early British feminist who created Marie Stopes International, a non-governmental body providing contraception and abortion services in at least 38 countries around the world, also was a fanatical promoter of eugenics and an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
“Stopes was “an elitist, an idealist, interested in creating a society in which only the best and the beautiful should survive…She attended the inaugural congress of the Eugenics Society in 1912 and became a fellow in 1921… Stopes books on marriage and birth control reflect her eugenic theories. She advocated “the sterilization of those totally unfit for parenthood [to be] made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory.”
In 1935 Stopes attended the International Congress for Population Science in Berlin, held in the second year of Hitler’s rule. Stopes was also anti-Prussian, anti-Catholic and anti-Russian, if one can judge by the following unpublished piece of verse, written in 1942, at the height of the struggle with the Axis powers.
The Jews and the Russians,
All are a curse,
Or something worse…
Stopes, who was ever ready to promote her writings, sent a copy of her Love Songs for Young Lovers to Adolf Hitler with the following cover letter:
Dear Herr Hitler,
Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these (poems) that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?
The young must learn love from the particular ’till they are wise enough for the universal.
I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.
-letter from Marie Stopes to Hitler, August 1939
Marie Stopes today is honored with her very own stamp from the British government along with a variety of other accolades.
Margaret Sanger is today considered America’s feminist pioneer in birth control and family planning. Her American Birth Control League went on to become Planned Parenthood, the most powerful and active birth control and abortion organization in the United States.
Sanger was also a tireless promoter of eugenics and forcible sterilization of the unfit. At one point in 1925, she was so firm in her convictions, that she actually wanted the American Birth Control League to join with the eugenics movement.
“Mrs. Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, said that the league was ready to unite with the eugenic movement whenever the eugenicists were able.”
In 1950 Sanger urged the US government to start a system of sterilizing people they labeled feeble-minded.
All of this information is rarely discussed when the history of feminism is examined in daily discourse, but we cannot give feminism credit for the positive side of their historical leaders without also discussing the dark side as well.