Review: The Pill, Bernard Asbell; or, MARGARET SANGER WAS DOING IT WITH HAVELOCK ELLIS

Verdict: I like learning new information. (This is the verdict on, like, most history books I ever read.)

Here’s a news flash that is COMPLETELY SHOCKING to me but everyone else I spoke to about it was mostly unmoved. (Alice responded with the appropriate level of enthusiasm.) Margaret Sanger was totally doing it with Havelock Ellis. That is not a good piece of trivia to explain to someone. It’s one of those trivia where you have to already be separately familiar with the two parties involved.

Margaret Sanger: Founder of Planned Parenthood, one of my absolute favorite organizations. She thought some terrible things, but still Planned Parenthood kicks ass.

Havelock Ellis: Pioneering sex researcher in English. This is a big deal because a lot of the early sex research guys were publishing in German. Krafft-Ebing was German (or okay, Austrian I guess), and so was Magnus Hirschfeld, my favorite sex researcher (campaigned for women’s rights and the gays and lost his library to the damn Nazis). To be honest it would have pleased me more if Margaret Sanger had been doing it with Magnus Hirschfeld, but I guess there would have been a language barrier.

So now you know. It would have been cooler if you’d learned this after already knowing who Havelock Ellis was, but that’s okay, I recognize that not everybody spent their college years reading about how Victorians and Edwardians thought about (and practiced) sex. That is an atypical past-time. It’s just because I love Oscar Wilde so much, and also because sexual mores are fascinating.

Speaking of sexual mores, and of this book (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), it is pretty awesome how the pill was developed. Basically this feminist rich lady called Katharine McCormick offered to pay a doctor called Gregory Pincus a shit-ton of money if he would work on developing an oral contraceptive. And then she paid him a ton of money, and he developed an oral contraceptive, and that’s why we have oral contraceptives. Because of the dollars of this one lady. I don’t know about you, but that makes me imagine Future Wealthy Jenny tracking down doctors who are doing research into stuff that interests me and just being like, Could you take all my money and use it to develop a pill that X?

(I might do this a few times. Future Wealthy Jenny will be very wealthy indeed, since it’s my imagination and I have no limits there. If I do it just once my odds are still not great of being the person who funded the life-changing discovery. If I do it a bunch of times that’s a bunch more opportunities for a Legacy.)

The other section of the book that fascinated me — it’s quite well-written, but some of the science stuff was beyond me — were the chapters about Church opposition to the pill. Asbell goes into depth about the commission set up by John XXIII (COOLEST POPE EVER) and the research they did and the findings they reported back to the Church, and what the Church did with them. (Spoiler alert: Nothing. John XXIII was dead by that time.) It was heartbreaking to hear all the stories of women whose lives were being ruined (and lost) by pregnancy after pregnancy after pregnancy, and the Church carried on doing nothing. And that is the part of the Church that I really hate and is the reason it’s sometimes weird and hard for me to be a woman and a Catholic at the same time.

Meanwhile there were some Catholics, even Catholic leaders, who were saying how amazing this new technology was, and how it could change lives for the better because it prevented conception in basically the same way the rhythm method does except like way more effectively. They brought in very very old Catholic writings about women and conception to support their points. And that is the part of the Church that I really love, how there are centuries of very smart people all over the world thinking and writing about important ideas.

This has been a very feelingsy post! Basically, The Pill was a most interesting book about a most interesting topic. I would now like to read a book about the last twenty years of birth control developments, as Asbell’s book was published in 1995 and thus does not include anything very recent.

Note: The above links to places you can buy this book are affiliate links. If you click on them and then buy a book from that website, I get a very small amount of money. This in no way influences my reviews.

19 thoughts on “Review: The Pill, Bernard Asbell; or, MARGARET SANGER WAS DOING IT WITH HAVELOCK ELLIS

  1. I was in the first generation of women who took the pill their whole reproductive lives, from 18 to 50, and was always conscious of how great it was that I could decide exactly when I wanted to have babies, unlike my mother or older cousins.

    • Yeah, I never cease to be grateful to have those options. My parents both come from very large families, and although I adore all my aunts and uncles, I know that all those children took a toll on my grandparents.

  2. DID YOU KNOW THAT KRAFFT-EBING (or the other German guy) INVENTED THE TERM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’ SO IT WOULD JUST BE TWO DIFFERENT SCIENTIFIC CATEGORIES OF PEOPLE AND MAYBE IT’D BE CONDEMNED LESS?

    You tried, sir.

    • Aw, don’t call Magnus Hirschfeld the other German guy! Hirschfeld is the BEST German guy. He’s my favorite. His library got all burned up by the Nazis, AND he hung out with Isherwood & Auden one time, AND furthermore he did feminist activism too which Krafft-Ebing didn’t. Also his motto was “Through Science to Justice!”

      (PS I super love people who have a crush on Science.)

  3. On a somewhat-related note, I’ve been watching the tv show “Call the Midwife” lately, and in some episodes it really highlights how poor people struggled with having all those kids, one after another, and how devastated some women were with it. Being exhausted, and near-starving, too many kids to feed and would go to desperate measures to not have more kids. It made me really glad that I live in a time where we can choose when/if to have children. I think the Pill (and other contraceptives that followed it) have changed the situation of women’s lives forever, in a most liberating way.

      • Yes! It’s very well-done. In fact, it’s so close in spirit to the book that was the source, I recognized parts of the storyline before realizing why. I had to look back on my own book blog to find where I’d read it, and then I knew it was the same thing (the book’s title is different, so I was confused at first on that.

    • Right? Right? Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis, having a beautiful romance. (Or well, no, not really. But still, it is cool and insane.)

  4. Every now and then I pause to wonder about what my life would be like if my mother had had access to the Pill. (Although there is a good chance my life would be a moot point, since I probably wouldn’t exist.) Particularly poignant to me are Catholic famiies like that of one kid I went to school with: four of the kids had cystic fibrosis, and the parents just had to go on producing children who were doomed to die. I still think of those little girls’ faces whenever people talk about birth control. So many, many tragedies.

    • Oh, that’s awful. That’s an awful story.

      You might exist! You wanted four kids, maybe your mother would have also.

  5. Totally cool post about lots of stuff I never knew. Thanks for making me say, “Wait, WHAT?” I love saying that when there’s a good reason!

    (And let me know if you need any help giving away all that money! I’d be really good at that.)

  6. I’m doing research on both of these individuals, and I have to say I am less impressed by their achievements. Have you read “The Pivot of Civilization” by Sanger? Or “Men and Women” by Ellis? That’s some disturbing stuff right there. I suspect you might already be aware of this, but one of Sanger’s main rationales for birth control was “racial betterment.” Look it up. Ellis promoted theories of scientific misogyny. In “Man and Woman” he looked at a pool of 50 students, 25 male, 25 female, to draw conclusions of female intellectual inferiority. I’m no statistician, but that’s got to be the worst imitation of science I’ve ever heard of. Also, Sanger supported compulsory sterilization of the “unfit”: “While I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit…” (Sanger, “Birth Control Review,” 1919)

    • Sadly, I know about all their crazy ideas. But I suppose that what I think about Sanger is that her legacy isn’t eugenics; it’s Planned Parenthood, a really good and important organization that the country really, really needs. She had shitty ideas but she produced something really great. And for Ellis, eh, all the early sex researchers got a lot of stuff terribly wrong, and still, they had to happen before all the rest could follow. You know?

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