Modern US History

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Category: Sam Walters


In the United States, the 1900s through the present have experienced significant change and growth in many areas, including women’s reproductive rights. Although women’s reproductive rights have expanded, there is a continuous battle between those who want to maintain and grow reproductive rights and those who want to repeal some rights.

Throughout history there has been abuse of women’s reproductive rights, even in the early 1900s. In the 1900s, there was no governmental legal position on birth control or abortion. Most of the early 1900s women’s rights movements focused on women earning the right to vote and on breaking the glass ceiling into the work force for women (“Women’s Suffrage” 2003). There was abuse taking place in different states regarding sterilization, that did not receive much attention at the time. Due to this focus and lack of attention, many reproductive rights movements were put on the back burner, and seen as the next fight. While the reproductive rights movement was not a focus during this time, there still was abuse occurring behind the scenes. There were many state statues that permitted sterilizations on those “feeble minded” or “genetically defective” (Davis 1988, 27).

1910 through the 1920s brought with it a fight for women’s reproductive rights. While many of the organizations and movements that supported women’s rights actually were conflicted about fertility and abortion rights, this era saw a push in women’s reproductive rights.  Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman were two important social activists for the reproductive rights movement. These women fought to impose fertility control, held huge street meetings in New York City, and Margaret sanger even wrote a column for women in the Socialist Party daily newspaper (Davis 1988, 9). Unfortunately, in the 1920s the movement was set back for two obvious reasons. First, there was aggressive prosecution of activists, including Margret Sanger, due to the Comstock Law which banned “obscene material” from being distributed through the mail (Davis 1988, 9). Birth control information was considered “obscene material” by the government at that point, resulting in some women receiving long jail sentences (Davis 1988,9).

Women’s reproductive rights advocates saw a major gain in the 1940s through the 1960s. In the 1960s the birth control pill was approved by the Federal Drug Administration, the FDA (Haussman 2013, 44). This was a huge win for women’s reproductive rights advocates because they now could supply the pill to women in the United States. 1965 also brought down the Comstock Law. The 1965 case of Griswold V Connecticut led to a decision where it was found unconstitutional to restrict access to birth control due to the fact it interfered with a person’s right to privacy (Seward 2009). During the 1960s, abortion became published and women began protesting the cruel reality of abortions (Davis 1988, 12). Unfortunately, while there was a gain in women’s reproductive rights, there was also some abuse happening that was discovered later in the 1970s. It was discovered that in the 1940s there was a race driven population control effort in Puerto Rico. It was discovered that over a third of childbearing age women were sterilized against their consent (Davis 1988, 14).

The 1970s saw major changes revolving around women and the women’s reproductive rights movement. Overall, living conditions improved and white women were able to join the workforce (Davis 1988, 11). Women were also able to become more sexually active due to the approval of the birth control pill (Davis 1988, 11). While women had access to the pill, abortion remained illegal, causing abortions to remain expensive and dangerous. In 1973 the famous landmark case of Roe v. Wade occurred. The U.S. supreme court ruled that doctors and women had the right to choose an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy (Davis 1988, 13).  Sterilization abuse also received publicity when the public discovered that federal funds were used to sterilize two African-American teenagers without their consent or even their knowledge (Davis 1988,13).
The 1980s led to a growth in organizations that advocated and fought for reproductive rights. The Reproductive Rights National Network was created in 1981, and included 80 member-groups (Davis 1988, 14).  Although there was the creation of the Reproductive Rights National Network, there was also a push from the Catholic and conservative population in America. 1980 was an election year, and the catholic conservative population voted for anti-choice, Ronald Reagan (Davis 1988, 55). Reagans win in the election emboldened this population and together they pushed anti-abortion bills (Davis 1988, 55).

The 1990s were a time when supreme court cases were significant in over-turning the anti- abortion bills Reagans administration created. Two significant cases were Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania V. Casey and Schneck V. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York. Both cases ruled in favor of the pro-choice side. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania V. Casey helped preserve the women’s right to choose, while Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York created a 15-foot zone around people and vehicles entering or leaving a clinic (“Timeline of important”). These rulings created a barrier for Pro-choice activist and helped uphold the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Presently, we are seeing a push from anti-choice advocates. The election of President Donald Trump caused many anti-choice advocates to come out from the shadows and continue their fight. The nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has caused the Supreme Court to become right-winged, causing speculation that soon the court will overturn the Roe v. Wade decision and creating a harder governmental system to receive an abortion.


An excerpt from the Plymouth Tribune newspaper, written in 1907 by F.H. Kuhn. This excerpt discusses a bill that was signed into place in Indiana that allowed the sterilization of criminals and people in institutions without their consent and or knowledge. This law was influenced by the eugenics movement and became known as the Eugenics law of Indiana. Indiana was the first state to adopt this law and it is a prime example of forced sterilization. Understanding this law allows for an inside look into the sterilization abuse that occurred to minorities in the 20th century. Due to the fact that these “criminals” and “idiots” were seen as inferior; the supporters of the white eugenics movement did not want them to reproduce.

Written by Margaret Sanger in 1914, this letter calls attention to the censorship of the US government and the issue of them confiscating Margaret Sangers newspaper, The Women Rebel. Margaret Sanger was one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement, and she focused on women’s reproductive rights. During the 1910s there was a huge movement for women’s voting rights but not so much their reproductive rights. Margaret Sanger was key in shining light on the need of women’s reproductive rights. She makes it obvious in this public letter that attention needs to be brought to this dire issue. This letter opens American citizens eyes to the danger illegal abortion pose and she is appealing to their emotions by informing them of the deaths that have already taken place.


This poster is an advertisement for Margaret Sangers newspaper, The Women Rebel. While the letter Margaret Sanger wrote in 1914 discussed the censorship of her newspaper, this poster is an advertisement for the paper. The 1920s was an important time in women’s history. Women started to become more sexually provocative, as seen in the famous flappers. Margaret Sangers newspaper was able to be advertised even though it continued what was seen as inappropriate and obscene due to the change in women’s actions and what they were willing to put up with.


This Pamphlet created by Norman Carr M.D. in the 1920s discusses various options for birth control during this time period. Norman Carr claims Lanteen is the most reliable method. Lanteen is the manufacturer of some birth control methods. During the 1920s majority of birth control methods were gels and diaphragms. This pamphlet is significant because it shows how the Comstock law was not enforced during this time period.  Previously, this would have counted as obscene material and would not be allowed to be advertised, but this pamphlet was published for the public.


Filled out in 1950 by Doctors at a California institution, this form guaranteed the sterilization of a women who was considered “feeble-minded”. Even in 1950 there were institutions that forcibly sterilized those within their walls. There is consent given by the women’s mother, but it is safe to assume because this woman was considered feeble-minded, she did not get say in her sterilization. Recently to 1950 it was discovered that in Puerto Rico more than a third of women were being sterilized against their consent. This is another prime example of the mistreatment of minorities, in this case the minority being a mentally disabled woman.

This poster was made in the 1960s following the Federal Drug Administration’s approval of the birth control pill. This poster portrays women who take birth control pills as drug and sex loving people.  The pills release in the 60s did allow women to become more relaxed and sexually promiscuous because it created a more reliable method of birth control. Unfortunately, this time period did not always react well to these relaxed women, creating the birth control babe poster. This poster suggests that most women who take birth control are democrats who want to seduce every man and they have no morals.


This is a flyer made to advertise a protest against Joseph Califano in 1977. Joseph Califano was the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and opposed abortion ( “Mr. Califano on abortion” 1977).  This flyer protested Joseph Califano’s speech at New York University. In 1973 the Roe v. Wade case decided that a woman and her doctor had the right to choose an abortion for the first trimester of a pregnancy. This decision was just a few short years before Joseph Califano started pushing his anti-abortion speech.  The country just won part of the abortion fight and they saw Joseph Califano as a threat to that win.


This comic was made in the 1970s. It shows a doctor suggesting an African American women get sterilized because she is poor and can’t afford abortion. This once again goes back to minorities and women of color often being forcibly sterilized or being pushed into sterilization because they cannot afford birth control or abortion.  This comic also touches on the issue of the government paying for sterilizations and not abortion. This is another tactic that forces those who cannot afford abortions to become sterilized, which in turn will cause them to not be able to reproduce which is the ultimate goal of the eugenics movement.


This article was published in the Coalition news in August of 1979. This article contains information about the Coalition fight for regulations on sterilization consent and contains information for those who may be thinking about getting sterilized. This article is significant because it informed women of dangers they may face if they want to get an abortion or become sterilized. While both were legal, and even if they consented to becoming sterilized, going to the wrong place could lead to catastrophic results.

This flyer is asking for groups and people to survey in order to obtain information about voluntary sterilization. The association for voluntary sterilization’s goal was to make known the beneifts of voluntary sterilization (VanEssendelft) and in this case they were searching for information on sterilization. This idea of informing prospective clients of sterilization is a new thought in the 70s. Before sterilization was a taboo, as was most other things relating to women’s reproductive rights. The association for voluntary sterilization now wants information on sterilization which was a new concept.

Similar to the comic designed about the African-American women who couldn’t afford abortions, this comic also discusses sterilization abuse for minorities. Designed in 1978, this comic portrays sterilization as a simple birth control method. It makes is seem like because a women won’t need an abortion if she becomes sterilized, it fails to point out that this method is irreversible. This comic pries on the poor population because sterilization is cheaper then birth control and abortion, and the thought process was that if the less affluential people become sterilized they will not reproduce, causing growth in that group of people.




This photo was taken in 2014 at a protest in Washington DC. This has become a recent issue revolving around Donald Trump’s election to presidential office in 2016. President Trump pushed to repeal an act that required employers to pay for birth control as part of health insurance policies. This repeal resulted in protests across the country due to the need people felt to have birth control access. Due to the repeal employers do not have to cover birth control if they have a religious problem or moral issue with the idea of birth control.  This is significant because even in recent times women’s reproductive rights continue to be a fight. There are often laws and regulations put into place, and those laws and regulations are often repealed, as in this case.

This video was taken during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanugh’s confirmation hearing. Brett Kavanugh’s confirmation was a highly debated issue in 2018. If he were to be eleceted he would swing the supreme court to the right, almost certainly causing a repeal in Roe v. Wade. During his hearing he made his opinion on abortion and birth control very clear, which caused some United States citizens to protest. Brett Kavanugh was confirmed.

Primary Source References

Association for Voluntary Sterilization Inc. AVS Survey Project. 1970. New York, New York.

 Birth Control Babe. 1960. Poster

Brett Kavanaugh Referred To Contraception As ‘Abortion-Inducing Drugs’ During Hearing | TIME. Performed by Brett Kavanaugh. September 7, 2018.

Carr, Norman, M.D, and Lanteen. Reliable Birth Control. Chicago, IL: Lanteen Laboratories.

“More On Sterilization and Abortion.” Coalition News. 1979.

Demonstration against Government Attacks on Abortion Rights!1977. Flyer, New York.

Kuhn, F.H. Plymouth Tribune, March 14, 1907, Volume 6 ed., Number 23 sec.

Kall, Lawence, DR. Recommendation and Approval for Vasectomy or Salpingectomy for the Purpose of Sterilization. November 6, 1950.

Margaret Sanger to Comrades and Friends of Margaret Sanger. October 28, 1914. New York, New York.

“Mr. Califano on Abortion.” The Washington Post. January 15, 1977. Accessed December 20, 2018.

Pear, Robert, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Laurie Goodstein. “Trump Administration Rolls Back Birth Control Mandate.” The New York Times. October 06, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2018.

The Woman Rebel. “The First Unveiled Female Head Raised In America.” Advertisement.

Unknown. “Can’t Afford a Legal Abortion.” Cartoon.

VanEssendelft, William. “Association for Voluntary Sterilization @ SNAC.” Social Networks and Archival Context. 1978. Accessed December 21, 2018.

Secondary Source References

Davis, Susan E., ed. Women under Attack Victories, Backlash, and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1988.

Haussman, Melissa. Reproductive Rights and the State: Getting the Birth Control, RU-486, Morning-after Pills and the Gardasil Vaccine to the U.S. Market. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013.

Seward, Seradon. “The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.” Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination in Reptiles | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Accessed December 20, 2018. 2009

“Timeline of Important Reproductive Freedom Cases Decided by the Supreme Court.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed December 20, 2018.

“Women Suffrage in the Progressive Era – American Memory Timeline- Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Accessed December 19, 2018.

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