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“I Limited My Own Family”: Memoir of a 1920s Birth Control Activist

by Sylvie Thygeson/ Mary Thygeson Shepardson and Sherna Gluck

Born in Forreston, Illinois, in 1868, Sylvie Thygeson taught and worked as a stenographer and typist before her marriage at the age of twenty-three. She and her husband, a lawyer, lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. An activist for women’s rights, including suffrage and the legalization of contraception, Thygeson felt that birth control was both a crucial part of egalitarian marriage and a major political commitment. In this interview, conducted in 1972 by her daughter Mary Thygeson Shepardson and historian Sherna Gluck, Thygeson described her and her husband’s decision to limit their family, a choice that enabled her to work in the suffrage and birth control movements. Her account offered an intriguing glimpse of how birth control advocates circulated information about contraception at a time when many physicians refused to do so, and when both law and public opinion constrained such practices.

Listen to Audio:

Sylvie Thygeson: . . . Oh, it was the most natural thing in the world to go into birth control. I limited my own family. We were married four years before we had a child, and then my children were three years apart. I wasn’t really going in plunging into a large family or anything. We had limited—and I believe that’s limited—birth control for every family.

I was limited and my time was limited in a way because I had four children and I wasn’t—I was quite free because I had good help with the children. It left me free to do things. It was Lola being there that left me the free time to do what I did do, and so instead of devoting myself to new children at that particular time when you were small, I gave it to the suffrage and the birth control movements of which I really was a part. And it’s not anything to be regretted about anything. It was a part of the larger movement, and that’s the way I want you children to regard it, as a part of participating in the larger movements of the world.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.