Today, 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 how often married women practiced contraception – and, if that failed , had an abortion. But then, as now, discussions of women’s sexuality were deeply controversial. Davis’ study redefined birth control, masturbation, and lesbianism as “normal,” but it also cost her 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 monitoring women’s sexuality, not promoting it. One of the first women in the country to earn a doctorate, Davis served as superintendent of the New York Women’s Reformatory in Bedford Falls, where most inmates were confined for prostitution, from 1901 to 1913. As the first wife to serve as commissioner of corrections in New York City, from 1914 to 1916, Davis enforced the prison sentence of birth control activist Margaret Sanger for distributing contraceptives in defiance of state laws.
Sanger, an advocate for free speech as well as birth control, was a longtime opponent of law and order Davis. In 1914, her newspaper, The Woman Rebel, condemned “the good and respectable Miss Davis” for imprisoning Ukrainian-American anarchist Rebecca Edelsohn for giving an anti-war speech. Sanger called Davis “a shining example of that rapidly growing group of respectable women who have found profitable and highly honorable careers in exploiting 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 in Queens County Jail in early 1917. After her release, she accused Davis “of studying cruelty and callousness in the treatment of the prison population. According to Sanger, “Every prison inmate is taught to hate Miss Davis with a bitterness and depth of resentment that one would hardly believe possible”, and “the girls complain that Miss Davis delights in the exercise of authority which is tantamount to tyranny.”
Davis, who had then resigned as commissioner of corrections to take up a position on the parole board, vigorously defended his case, denying allegations of cruelty. Explaining that she had never even met Sanger, she attributed the fiery activist’s “personal attack” to Davis’ well-known opposition to breaking the law as a tool to change the law.
That same year, political changes prompted Davis to accept a new position as head of the Office of Social Hygiene, a privately funded organization dedicated to combating commercialized sex. During World War I, Davis worked with other anti-vice groups to implement the “American Plan”, a campaign to curb the spread of sexually transmitted infections among the military by incarcerating female “offenders”.
But this discriminatory treatment prompted Davis – a staunch opponent of sexual double standards – to rethink her approach, focusing on the study of women’s sexuality rather than dictating it. After the war, instead of pursuing a planned study of “The Delinquent Girl”, she initiated 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 well-educated white women across the country. She published 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 launched the series in April 1922 with a provocative article on the use of contraceptives among married women. Its initial analysis indicated a high level of support for contraception among married women: 73% of the sample indicated that they believed in “voluntary parenthood” and the same percentage had used contraceptive methods. The methods available, including condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps, were far from foolproof; 9% of the sample revealed having undergone at least one abortion, even if the procedure was illegal.
Davis’ findings paved the way for a rapprochement with Sanger, who was struggling to distance himself from his 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 allow 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 Office of Social Hygiene, she was able to provide Sanger with the financial support she desperately needed. Thus, in the 1920s, the two former antagonists cautiously moved towards a professional alliance.
Davis used his 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, on the condition that her financial support remain a closely guarded secret.
In 1929 Davis published her groundbreaking study, “Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women.” Davis’ book was the first published study of women’s sexuality. Her research methodology – using lists of college graduates and club women – did not produce a representative sample. But studying well-adjusted, well-educated white women enabled him to achieve his 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 behaviors such as prostitution or stigmatized populations such as immigrants, African Americans, or incarcerated people. (Davis did not comment on what his new study meant for majority immigrant women and women of color who had been incarcerated in Bedford for “sex offending,” according to his previous study.)
Davis’ revelations about the sexual desire and behavior of white women – both heterosexual and homosexual – challenged conventional beliefs about the “passionlessness” of women, according to which women, less sexually inclined than men, only had sex to please their husbands or for reproductive purposes. Davis’ research also intensified her commitment to the birth control movement, which sought to separate sex from reproduction. In 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, fearing that white and Anglo-Saxon Protestant women would restrict the family size, while immigrant, black and Catholic women continued to have large families. While Davis agreed that “from a eugenics standpoint, I will maintain…that it would be a good thing for the race if a higher percentage of our female students married and produced children,” she also insisted. on the fact that his statistics refuted the suicide race and argued that family planning produced happier marriages.
Efforts to overturn Comstock’s laws met with strong resistance. While lawsuits struck down similar provisions at the state level, the 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 deer.
Davis’s study also proved controversial, providing his longtime critics in the Bureau of Social Hygiene with the ammunition they needed to persuade Rockefeller to terminate his contract. The same men cut her out of the history of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, and Davis’s study did not receive the recognition it deserved during her lifetime.
Nonetheless, “Factors in the Sex Lives of Twenty-Two Hundred Women” created space for open discussion about women’s sexuality – a conversation that continues to this day. And Davis’ career reminds us that debates over birth control aren’t new — neither are contraceptives and abortions.