Block Twenty-Six: Ladies’ Wreath

Perhaps my post from earlier this week regarding my great-grandmother was more timely than I knew.  Louise was mother to a step-son, fifteen biological children, and one foster daughter.

By coincidence, this week’s block in the Fight For Women’s Rights quilt project is Ladies’ Wreath, in remembrance of all the women who destroyed their health, or worse, died, by overburdening their bodies through childbirth.

Ladies' Wreath Barbara Brackman Fight For Womens Rights Quilt Grandmother's Choice

It was called the social purity movement

In the late 1800’s a form of thinking took root in middle-class American and European homes.  A movement was born that became known as the social purity movement (social was a euphemism for sexual).  This movement fought to abolish prostitution, pornography and other immoral sexual practices.  Additionally, the movement sought to outlaw any form of contraception between married, consenting adults.

Here in the US, birth control in whatever form you practiced was legal up until the passage of the social purity movement backed Comstock Act in 1873.  After that point in history, any form of contraception was not only morally but legally condemned.

Here’s a tasty little factoid for you: After the Comstock Laws were passed, it was illegal for a physician to discuss birth control or even suggest contraceptives to a patient.

And Then Margaret Sanger Stepped Forward

Birth control in the early to mid-20th century was still a risky proposition, but a few drug stores sold condoms as “rubber goods” and diaphragms as “womb supporters”.  Pamphlets were discretely passed around, but a few radicals, free speechers, bohemians, libertarians and utopians among whom Margaret Sanger numbered herself, took a stronger approach as demonstrated in this 1926 advertisement:

1926 US advertisement. "Birth Control"

Beginning in 1916, Sanger not only wrote and openly published periodicals discussing birth control, but founded birth control clinics, which inevitably led to her arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in a workhouse for distributing information on contraceptives. Sanger continued to openly campaign against the Comstock Laws, which she felt contributed to premature death in women and the dangerous practice of self-induced and back-alley abortions.

Major changes were effected less than fifty years ago when in 1965 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to prohibit a married couple from practicing birth control.

Margaret Sanger died in 1966, but she lived to see the Comstock Laws abolished, safe contraceptives made available, and a small portion of women’s personal rights restored.

Small progress, I know, but there is still the fight for women’s rights going on, world-wide, and we’re still swinging away.

Note: If you’re money minded, contraceptive use saves almost $19 billion US in direct medical costs each year.

Sources that I found interesting:

Ladies’ Wreath

Margaret Sanger

Birth Control In The United States

Comstock Laws

Social Purity Movement

8 thoughts on “Block Twenty-Six: Ladies’ Wreath

  1. heathergarcia81

    This post reminded me of the paper I wrote this past semester of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It’s shocking that many young women today do not realize how difficult life was for women; and how it has not been that long that women have had equality in their rights. Love your posts; this issue is one I enjoy studying in school. 😀


    1. Jo Post author

      The Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story is one of my favorites, and a source that I should have remembered to add. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for the reminder!

      I highly recommend The Yellow Wallpaper to anyone who is interested in a woman’s perspective on life after marriage in the latter part of the 19th century.

      Google Reader, Amazon, Project Gutenberg… there are a lot of free sources out there, so take advantage of the opportunity to read the short story – and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


  2. gapo

    Thank you so much for your research and essay. I was a young woman when Sanger died, but still there was a lack of information with the typical consequences. It took the second wave of feminism to insure that all American females have available the information about their own bodies. I look with gratitude to all our foremothers who worked to make our freedoms available.


    1. Jo Post author

      Very nicely said, gapo!

      Thanks for sharing your experience to point up the fact that the changes that impact the personal lives of women today weren’t made in days of yore as some suppose – they’ve occurred within our living memory.


  3. akagracie

    What a great post, Jo! Love the work you’re doing on this blog (not to mention the quilt that’s inspiring some of your research and comments). Agree with Gapo’s comment. I, too, remember the lack of information available when I was a young woman. It wasn’t until the mid-70s, when I joined a women’s consciousness raising group, that I began to understand that I wasn’t alone in my concerns and misunderstandings (the evening I joined a small group as a (female) doctor used a speculum to show us a volunteer’s genitals and explain exactly what was what still stands out in my mind). I expect it’s hard for girls and women now to understand how different things were even 40 years ago; it’s hard for me to believe I knew that little, even after having two children, but the information simply wasn’t readily available.
    One more thing: Gapo’s comment about the second wave of feminism also reminded me of marching for the passage of the ERA in Illinois, and calling radio programs to discuss it and NOW, and how exciting it was to read the first issue of Ms magazine (wish I’d kept those early issues, which sparked interesting arguments in my home). Oh yes, when I told my husband I was going to my first meeting with the consciousness raising group, he said, “But you didn’t ask me if it was okay.” And he was serious. Then, getting him to agree I could use the car that day was another whole hassle. How does one explain to young women that this all seemed normal at the time without sounding demented?
    Anyway, thanks! Keep up the good work


    1. Jo Post author

      There is no easy way to explain to a young woman of today how different ‘normal’ was not so very long ago as compared to ‘normal’ today unless you’re willing to endure a certain amount of eye-rolling.

      Wouldn’t it be nice if women could have equal standing in American History curriculum? IMHO, women were equally responsible for building (and populating) this country. The women that came before us endured ridicule, personal injury, imprisonment, and a few even died to ensure that we could vote. They also 86ed the Comstock Laws, gave us Planned Parenthood, Title IX and the EEOC, to name just a few more hard-won concessions.

      Don’t you agree that this is an awful lot of pertinent history to gloss over or ignore completely?

      In a very small way I’m trying to keep the subject alive, and I hope that I don’t bore y’all to tears in the process. But I must be doing something halfway right – I’m loving the comments and discussion!


      1. akagracie

        Was just asked to complete a 3-question survey for the Smithsonian re: my thoughts on the civil war. When asked if I could ask just one subject-related question of the Smithsonian director, I said I would like to know more about the families left at home while the men were off fighting, from how they managed financially to the emotional and personal pressures they faced.
        Have been thinking quite a bit lately about how my paternal ancestors made the decisions they did to move west and even farther west, from England to Virginia and on to the northern banks of the Red River – and wondering how instrumental the women were in making those decisions and then living with the consequences, from excessive childbearing and poverty and leaving family behind to follow her man. Also, what on earth possessed them all to want to farm? Really! (Guess I just didn’t inherit that gene)
        Third thing: I know about the eye rolling. When I was writing my earlier comment I kept thinking about the new ATT U-verse commercials when older siblings are telling younger ones they don’t know how well off they are.


        1. Jo Post author

          Your wondering calls to mind a National Geographic article I once read on the Westering impulse, and how it may be hardwired genetically in some. It’s certainly a romantic concept – born under a wandering star, &tc. – but there’s probably a grain of truth there to explain why we eternally migrate, and not necessarily for political or economic reasons.


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