Birth Control / Sex Radicalism

In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Amer- ica, birth control was a radical, even frightening idea. Activists, many drawn from the freethought movement, argued that "science ... should put it in the power of woman to decide whether she will or will not become a mother" (the quotation is from agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll). To put an argument for birth control -- much less information about actual birth control methods -- into print was to invite prosecution under the era's expansive obscenity statutes.

Pictured at right, Moses Harman (1830-1910), sex radical, free-love activist, and birth control advocate. The sale of his marriage-reform tract Cupid's Yokes at the 1878 convention of the New York Freethinkers' Association at Watkins, later Watkins Glen, New York led to the arrest of atheist publisher D. M. Bennett here and, ultimately, to a court decision that would define the U. S. legal standard for obscenity until well into the twentieth century.