Improved birth control was one crucial element in women’s exercise of sexual freedom. Though people had practiced methods of fertility control for hundreds of years, the 20th century saw the advent of more reliable technologies that allowed a sharper separation between sex and reproduction. Before World War I, birth control advocates confronted a large and often hostile audience of opponents. By the 1920s, though, changing sexual ideologies made such ideas more widely acceptable. The major figure in the American birth control movement, Margaret Sanger, began her crusade as a militant radical whose birth control agitation grew out of her nursing experience in working-class communities. Sanger received 250,000 letters from women asking for advice about birth control. In 1928 Sanger published a selection of the letters in her book Motherhood in Bondage. The letters remain a powerful testament to the vulnerability of women without access to reliable contraception.
How can one control the size of a family? I am the mother of four children, thirty years old. Our first child died of pneumonia in infancy. Since I’ve had three others,—six, three years and nine months old they now are, and it’s a continual worry for fear I shall be having more soon as we would be unable to care for them. My husband is a barber, earning, besides tips, $26.00 a week. Out of this we are trying to pay for a home, as it’s cheaper than renting with three children. The baby requires certified milk because I am so overworked I am unable to nurse her. If it were not for my mother we could never get along. I do all my own work, make over all my own clothing and my relatives' for the children, even all our coats and hats, as I learned to do this before I was married. You can easily see there is no recreation or rest. I do nearly all of my sewing nights after the baby’s 9 o’clock feeding, and really I am so tired and run-down it seems I could never have another child. I had one miscarriage at three months as I did not have the vitality to carry it.
Please don’t think I dislike children; I love mine dearly, but trying to care for them and bring them up properly wears one’s patience all away as I have to make every minute count to keep things going. I can’t afford any improvements to help me in my work. I must wash every day in order to get the washing done and keep the children clean as I have neither the time or strength to do it all at once. With a baby one cannot anyway. I can’t bear to be a cranky, cross mother to my children. I haven’t been to a place of amusement, even a picture show, in over seven years. The last time I was away from home for a few hours visit was Christmas 1924. The only way I can get downtown to shop for an hour is when my husband takes the time off to stay with the children. Don’t you think I am doingall I can without having more children.
What help is there for a woman? Must she separate from her husband and break up the home?
I have been married six years, at the age of seventeen. Am twenty-three now. It seems I can’t keep out of the family way. Have had six children, four living and two dead. One I lost in a tornado, the other about a week ago, which was eight months, born dead. My husband only makes $25.00 per week, and pays $32.00 per month rent and all other household expenses, we never have anything left. The children are such an expense and after they go to school it will be much harder. Charities have helped out at times when my husband was sick one whole winter and every year there is another arrival. I don’t have any enjoyment out of life, staying at home all the while. I will not have anything out of life but worry, children and cares.
I have had five children, my oldest died when ten months old. I expect my sixth next month and this is eleven and one half years in which I haven’t enjoyed no life at all. When my children are small I can’t go nowhere, and as soon as I think I have a little rest from a baby I’m getting another. I am thirty years old and I feel older than my mother which only had two of us. My father would not bring more into the world than he could bring up decent; but my husband is different. He does not want any children, and still he is not careful, but brings them into the world.
When he knows it’s coming he treats me in the worst way because I don’t get rid of it. I have always tried drugs the first couple of weeks but they don’t do me any good. I get them just the same. I am just wishing I would die giving birth to this child if I can’t stop having any more, but I feel sorry for those children that I have. If they were treated the right way by their father for every little thing he scolds them and hits them instead of teaching them.
I can’t see why in the world God gives children to such a man.
I was married when I was seventeen and am now twenty-eight. I have four living children and had two miscarriages. My last child is nine months old. I had no doctor for two hours after she was born and only the assistance of a neighbor; I laid on the bathroom floor until they could get a doctor and nearly got blood poison and am still suffering from milk leg as the result of my last baby’s birth. I had to get up and start right to work as my husband doesn’t make enough money to hire help and keep a family of six.
It is so hard in the winter time with so much coal to buy and winter clothing. I get heart-sick.
There is no joy in living. I am only twenty-eight and am penned up till I can’t have half an hour to myself. Please, please help poor people like us.
If we have any more I don’t know what we will do. We don’t even own our own home and it seems like we never have a cent left. I don’t know what a new dress or box of powder is like any more.
Is there much use, dear Margaret Sanger, in living for people like me? I have the fear of pregnancy on my mind all the time. If I try to stay away from my husband, he is terrible mean to me and says awful things to me. He doesn’t seem to think what I have suffered, having my babies and what a terrible worry it is when they are sick and how hard it is to make over old clothing and I don’t know what else. I could go on with my troubles and fill a book, but for God’s sake please help me with your knowledge so I need not have any more as I have heart trouble and I would like to be here and raise these four than to have more and maybe die.
I have four children now and would of had two more only for circumstances preventing it. My oldest child is a boy. He is nine years old and four months before he was born I fell and crippled one of my legs. Of course a good doctor could of cured it but I did not have the money to pay for the treatments. When my little boy was two years I had a little girl in November. Then in the following February a year later, I had a little boy and I was very sick at the time with the flu. When the little boy was born he cried for eight months night and day, then in a year I would of had another one only for a mishap, then another one again a year from that. Now my baby is seventeen months old and I have a very bad leg. Sometimes when I am walking it turns and throws me down. The doctor tells me not to have any more children but what can I do when they won’t tell me nothing to prevent.
My man makes $60 and $70 if he works every day, but almost every pay there is a few days out for sickness and my man says if we only knew something so we would not have no more children. That makes six to keep. We can feed them alright but we can’t clothe them because when we pay rent, store, gas, doctor bills, there is nothing left for us. I am only thirty-three but I feel like I am sixty-three. I get so tired because we can’t afford nothing life craves for.
We don’t have any water where we live unless it rains. We have to carry water from the river to do our washing.
I am a mother of six children all under eight years old. There was one born every year for four years and now I am almost a nervous wreck being confined so close. I am almost a prisoner. I have very little recreation. I go to a picture show about once a month not to church at all, because I have nothing fit to wear.
Now I am not complaining about the children being born. I love them and want them, but I don’t want them to come into the world without a fair chance to live because they are not healthy. My youngest baby is two and a half months, and one sixteen months old and not walking. Am taking him to a hospital each week. We are poor and are not able to give them the things they should have. Will you advise me please.
Isn’t there something that can be done for me that I may not bring any more handicapped babies into the world?
I am an overburdened mother of six living children, the oldest ten years of age the youngest one year old. I married at twenty-one years of age. I am thirty-two now. Was strong and healthy when I got married but now I am an overworked and nervous wreck, not able to care decent for my family, and they all suffer because of my state of health. I think it is not fair to the children in having more and more and not be able to give them their care.
We live on a rented farm in a small unmodern four-room house, where one cannot get or keep help if one could manage to pay for it, so I am compelled to do all my housework, sewing, gardening and all the worries that go with raising a family.
I am so tired of being always so tied down, never getting any place at all, because I am always alone to take care of the babies, never get any rest or recreation even when I am sick. Sometimes I think I can’t stand it any longer. So I take courage and come to you for advice and ask you if you will help me get a contraceptive, as I am as ignorant as a child in those things, and would like to get a few years rest, which I am not able to get without your help. As soon as I quit nursing a baby I find myself in the family way again. Keeping away from my husband as much as possible don’t seem to do much good either.
I am a young woman twenty-five years old and I have four children. Three living and one dead. I wish to God that you would give me some information how to prevent from having any more children. My husband is sickly and half-times we haven’t anything to eat, and I have two of the children that must go through an operation. One has a running neck since he was one year old,—gland trouble, and he is going on five years now. It looks like it will never heal and I can’t get the money to have him operated on. He is a pretty child, and the baby is five months. He is ruptured. I am almost crazy. My sleep is all broke up at nights as the baby suffers with the rupture.
I am a slave. I don’t know what it is to get out. If it hadn’t been for people giving me cast-off clothes I don’t know what I would do. If you would only help me and tell me how to prevent from having any more I would be more than thankful. I don’t think I could stand it to have any more. I am all run down.
I am a woman thirty-one years of age and the mother of four children, three girls and one boy. The oldest child is nine years and youngest five months. I am small in stature, weighing only ninety-two pounds while my husband is large, weighing 192 pounds at present time. We feel we simply cannot afford to have any more children. Am sure if we raise and educate our four children we are doing our share. It costs a great deal to feed and clothe and educate children. I think it a great sin to bring them into the world to just grow up any old way, as so many children do. I feel that I cannot train and mould more than four little lives as I do all my own work, washing, ironing, etc. I do not have much extra time to be with my children. As you see we are poor people.
The question is worrying me how to keep from becoming pregnant.
When my first three children were born I got along very well in confinement but five months ago when my last baby came I had a horrible time. The baby was so large I could not give enough and it came very near being the end for us both; as it is he is partially paralyzed in his left shoulder caused from the doctor pulling so hard on his neck and stretching the nerve in his shoulder from the pressure.
It seems to me I cannot risk going through it again. I cannot afford to go to the hospital at such times and am afraid it will sooner or later kill me. As you know there are harmless remedies[;] how much better it would be for me to know how to care for myself so that I might live to see my children grown. Can’t you tell me what to do to keep from becoming pregnant?
I am the mother of two small children. During my whole time of pregnancy[,] that is for nine months while I must carry the child, I suffer so dreadfully that I’d rather be dead than alive. I can’t find words to describe the sufferings I must undergo. It’s so terrible. Oh, I am awful discouraged and sick at heart with married life, don’t know what to do with myself sometimes. Have so much work to do at all times and can’t do it properly, as I am a very frail person since my babies came. I know I could pick up strength and be my normal self again if you could only help me in this hour of need. I would appreciate your kind advice so much and could be happy.
Can you help me any way from suffering to bring children into the world to suffer and die? I am twenty-two years of age. Married when only seventeen. I was married only seven months when I became pregnant and lost it at three months, and in eleven months more I had a tiny girl baby born to me and until this day she looks like death and in one year and eight months I had a little boy born and now am expecting to be confined every day. I have done everything in this world that I know to do and nothing seems to help in any way.
My husband and I are both discouraged. I never wanted any babies until I had a home for them and now I have the babies and no home yet for them. My husband and I have both worked just as hard as we could ever since we married and it seems like we never get anything ahead, but a doctor bill from one birth to another. I would rather die than to have the fourth one, but I did not know all this trouble until it was too late.
I have three children and [am] expecting another shortly, and the oldest was just three years old last month, so you can see my plight. If there is something very sure that can prevent the coming of another child for many years I’d surely be thankful to you.
I’d like a rest. To tell the truth I’m only twenty-one years old and I’d like to enjoy myself a little while I’m young. Also be a playmate to my children instead of just a cranky impatient nervous tired mother (if such a person can be called a mother). I don’t feel that I could call my mother that if she felt and acted like I feel.
I am eighteen years old and was married exactly nine months when my baby was born. Of course I adore my baby boy, but what did I get out of life in my eighteen years? I was seventeen when I married, and now I long to go around with the crowd but on account of the baby I have to stay home. And now worse than all I fear that I am going to have another one when my first baby is only one year old. I am frantic from thinking that such a thing might happen.
I have two small children twenty months apart, the baby now seven weeks old and am twenty-one years myself. You might know what this means to me to care for two babies at this age when it simply stopped my being with my friends who can still be free to go, although I would do anything for my two children to help them go through a decent life. I am constantly living in fear of becoming pregnant again so soon. Mother gave birth to twelve children.
When I was a girl my mother begged me not to marry, for she thought my freedom was the most precious thing in the world and she told me that after I was married I would have no holidays nor pastimes nor anything, only just baby after baby, and that when I didn’t have one I would be worried to death expecting to become pregnant any time. But I was twenty-four years old; I had no special talent; and was not, I think, especially adapted to the work I was doing and I did not care to follow in the steps of other so-called “old maids” in our office; moreover I was in love and I have never regretted the step I took and the loss of my “freedom.” My first baby was born eleven months after marriage. When my first baby was sixteen months old the second was born and died. He was a little “blue baby” and lived just three weeks and I believe that his heart was probably affected.
About three months after he was born I became pregnant again and I expect my third baby to be born in a few months and I have been married but a little more than three years. So far, I think I have no organic disease but ever since I became pregnant the second time I have been so lifeless with absolutely no pep or ambition and sometimes I am so weak that I can’t lift my little son on to my lap to dress him. Besides this weakness I have no interest for anything. I can’t concentrate my thoughts long enough to think of something that would be nice for supper tonight and I am always just this way. Then too, I have another great worry. I know my husband loves me but he likes recreation. Sometimes I think he is unusually restless and pleasure-loving. We used to visit other young couples and have them in for supper and cards and go to a show occasionally even up to the time for me to be confined, but this last year he never asks me to go with him anywhere and he goes out with some of the men almost every night. Besides I never feel like entertaining or dressing to go and I am always tired enough for bed by 9 o’clock. Of course, his pleasures are absolutely harmless now but I’m so afraid they will become more dangerous unless I can arouse myself and become more of a companion after the baby is born. And what chance have I?
I am only eighteen years old and have one child a year old and am expecting another. I did not want another child for three or four years at least, but now I feel that two children will be all that I can take care of. I feel that there is no joy in married life unless I can have a few years of freedom while I am still young.
I, like many women, am interested in Birth Control, although I am young yet; but that is exactly the reason I want you to help me. Honestly, please help me if you can. I am a young girl-wife, as you can say, eighteen years old. And just imagine I’m not married three years yet and have two children, or babies rather. Oh, I do not think I want any more children, but what can I do? I suppose next year I’ll have another baby—of course I’m not in a family way just now but I may be any time. How I would love to enjoy myself still! My heart is just craving for good times, like going to dances and parties. But getting babies every year, why, life will be an utter misery. Kindly help me. I pray to you like to my God.
I have three little girls, one eight, one five and one three. Now I am delicate, nervous and anemic, and suffer from a severe valvular leakage of the heart. My three children have all been delicate, the last baby could not sit up until she was eighteen months old, and was two years, three months, before she walked at all. Though they are all bright and intelligent girls, they are a continual worry. Now my last baby was only five months old when I became pregnant again, but at the second month I had a miscarriage, due I believe, to weakness. I can only say I was glad when it happened, but I was so afraid of another conception, that at the time I refused to have a doctor called, for I was anxious to die rather than recover to go through the same thing.
Well, my husband loves me and we both love children, but he is only a working man and I don’t think we should have any more children for I am not able to properly care for these, except as I know I am shortening my own life, by neglecting to have the care and attention I need. The doctor who was with me when my last baby was born said he would be sorry if I had any more, but that is all, he’d give no advice on how to prevent the same thing happening. My husband has prevented it since, but by continual continence. I know that is impossible if a couple lives together and loves each other.
If I could only speak to you personally,—but to write everything I have to say takes too long. The children make me too terribly nervous. I am a woman of a lot of trouble, twenty-four years old, married six years and four children, boys, the oldest is five, the baby five months. I am always sick since my first childbirth. Now I have been missing my times three months and took sick with cramps every month was up, so I went to a lady doctor to be examined. She says my bladder is out of shape, my womb is clear upped over, heart trouble and I can’t tell all what else. I am so weak, just ready to fall over, so I wanted her to doctor me up and sew me up[,] just what she thought I would need. No, by God, she would not touch me. She was afraid I’d be in the family way and might get a miscarriage. I told her if l should really be I sure would like to have a miscarriage but she would not.
Now I have tried all kinds of other pills and stuff for monthly periods but no success. I am scared to death that I really am in that way and if I do not get any help it will be born before the other is a year old. Now tell me[,] what is there no mercy for me[?] I just sit down for hours and weep away. I can’t go no place, I can’t walk with all my pain, bad large legs. I carry the baby on my arms, no baby buggie, poor clothes and seems everybody despises children nowadays.
Well, I don’t want to lose what I have got but oh, God, I do not want any more. We are poor,—hardly any furniture and not our own place.
If I do give birth to any more I will have to give them away, the poor things and who wants children, and if I keep them to mother them myself they will have to starve, where the world is so full. When my third baby was born I got heartbroken. I was sick in bed, as sick as a person can be.
I had to stay all alone in the house in bed and the two bigger ones crying without my help. My man run off to the show till midnight. When my fourth one was born I was awful sick again. He came crossways without a doctor. There was none in town. The next day my husband run seventy miles to go fishing with other men and how I was wishing I were dead. But no, I had to live to be this way again, so I do not know what to do. If I take my life, what will become of my beloved ones I got already?
I am thirty-one years of age, have had six children. Married at the age of eighteen. My husband is twenty-eight, drinks habitually, don’t think women are for anything else only to cook, wash, work in the field and have children. I don’t get stout from one time till I am that way again. I have the care of the whole family. He doesn’t ever seem in a good humor. I have tried everything I have heard of but doesn’t do any good.
I am sad, downcast, ashamed to go out in company because I have so many children and cannot fix them like other children.
I have refused sexual relation, but this causes awful quarrels, grouches and everything else. If there is anything you can do to help me I would be glad to hear from you at once. My baby is four months old so I must get busy in time or I’ll be gone again without remedy. My family physician says I have fallen womb caused by lifting things too heavy. I wish I could see you face to face and tell you all I want to. I am in despair. Can you help me? Will you help me?
Source: Margaret Sanger, Motherhood in Bondage (New York: Brentano’s, 1928), 221–237.
See Also:Enemies, A Drama of Modern Marriage: The Sexual Revolution Enacted
"Love and Companionship Came First": Floyd Dell on Modern Marriage
"The Civilizing Force of Birth Control": Margaret Sanger Becomes a Moderate
"No Gods, No Masters": Margaret Sanger on Birth Control