Freedom through Knowledge: Liberalism, Censorship, and Public Health in Early Planned Parenthood Campaigns

“Freedom through knowledge” was one of the slogans of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign in 1942.1 Publishing pamphlets, posters, and testimonials under the headline “Planned Parenthood in Wartime,” the organization related contraception to the need for women workers in the war industries, the urgency of high maternal death rates, and the superiority of American democracy over totalitarianism. This was the organization’s first campaign since changing its name from the Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The campaign and the new name marked a shift in focus from promoting birth control, that is the use of contraceptives once there were too many children in a family, to advocating child spacing, the idea that couples should consciously plan the arrival of their children from the beginning of their marriage.

One major claim of the campaign was that American democracy was superior to fascism as U.S. birth rates “out-distanced the bonus system of frightened Germany and Italy combined.”2 Mothers, who could freely choose when to give birth, the pamphlet argued, would bear more children than those coerced to bear a child in an authoritarian regime. But making such choices required knowledge—knowledge about human reproduction, about available contraceptives, and about where to find help in cases of infertility or unwanted pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood was eager to disseminate knowledge on how to practice child spacing. This reproductive knowledge included the concept of family planning, the principles of contraception, and treatments for infertility. It contained scientific insights into human reproduction, including information about different contraceptive methods and their side-effects. But the organization’s messaging also presupposed social and cultural capital, such as notions about the ideal family size for middle-class respectability, or where to find information about the legal situation surrounding birth control and abortion. Its 1942 brochure Planned Parenthood in Wartime only offered knowledge about the concept of family planning. The information it contained on contraceptives was vague, and abortion, which was illegal, was presented as a threat to the wartime economy because any woman who underwent one would have to call in sick at her war industry job. For information on specific contraceptives and their use, the brochure referred women to a private physician, a hospital, or a Planned Parenthood clinic. The idea was to ensure that only married women received scientifically validated information from experts through formal channels. The campaign thus rendered contraception a medical affair that required consultation with a physician.

Nine warplanes flying in formation, lower left quadrant, and a family in a circle to the right and slightly above those of those planes. The family: mother, father, child standing, and toddler in mother's arms.
Cover of the 1942 pamphlet Planned Parenthood in Wartime. The illustration linked family planning to modern weapons technology, presenting it as a wartime measure to strengthen the home front. At the same time, the illustration showed the planned nuclear family with two happy kids as the institution that America was fighting for in war. Note, too, the implied discipline of the pilots flying the planes in perfect, evenly spaced formation, their controlled behavior matched by the family, whose kids are spaced a few years apart. Source: Planned Parenthood Federation of America records group II, Sophia Smith Collection, SSC-MS-00371a, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Contraceptive knowledge is an essential resource for reproductive decision-making. It is necessary for families wishing to decide how many children to have and when to have them. Investigating family planning campaigns helps us to understand the history of the family in the twentieth century from a broader perspective. To begin with, it reveals the interconnectedness of social change and technological advances in birth control methods and social change because contraceptives enabled couples to plan smaller families and women to combine motherhood and professional careers. More specifically, it highlights the important role of family planning associations as gatekeepers of reproductive knowledge. Investigating what reproductive knowledge was available and which channels disseminated or passed it on can explain how couples were able to align their families to the normative family structure of a working father, a homemaking mother, and two or three children spaced two years apart. This nuclear family became the archetypical family structure of the twentieth century that mid-century sociologists associated with the modern industrial social order of the United States.3 In context of 1950s modernization theory, population control activists began to promote the planned family as a pathway to prosperity and middle-class respectability for immigrant communities and the Global South.4 As Nicole Bourbonnais argues on this blog, however, critics perceived such advocacy as American “cultural imperialism,” while fieldworkers in places such as the Caribbean were often desperate to find accurate, usable information to share with their patients and clients.5

Family planning advocates’ narratives about unplanned families in earlier times emphasized the lack of knowledge about contraceptives that lead to family disintegration. Countless Planned Parenthood brochures in the 1940s reprinted the story about how the nurse and labor activist Margaret Sanger had become a birth control pioneer—a story she first told in her 1938 autobiography: In 1912, Sanger had assisted a doctor, who was treating a young Jewish immigrant mother, Sadie Sachs, after a botched illegal abortion. When the patient asked the doctor about what she could do to avoid another pregnancy, the only advice the doctor could give was “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.”6 Since even the doctor couldn’t give the young mother any reliable information on how to avoid conception, Sanger began to do the research herself, and she published her first birth control pamphlet two years later.

According to historian Linda Gordon, this anecdote was probably apocryphal.7 Even before 1912, she argues, knowledge about how to prevent conception was available, but that knowledge circulated through informal, nonmedical channels. In fact, labor activist Robert Dale Owen, the son of Scottish social reformer Robert Owen, printed the first American birth control pamphlet in 1830.8 Like his father, he disagreed with British political economist Thomas Malthus, who claimed that population growth could only be controlled through sexual abstinence and would, in fact, cause widespread poverty and famine. The Owens instead believed that poverty and famine could be averted through technological intervention and rational planning. While the elder Owen saw the solution in mechanized agriculture and the rational planning of work cycles, his son considered contraceptive knowledge to be an important element of social reform for the working classes.

In Europe, information on contraception could circulate rather freely, and the Malthusian League in Britain and Birth Control Clinics in the Netherlands were the first to actively promote birth control.9 In the United States, by contrast, the Comstock Law of 1873 prohibited the circulation by mail of material deemed obscene, which included information on birth control. To circumvent this censorship, birth control and abortion knowledge was distributed through informal channels. In addition, back-alley abortionists used euphemisms to advertise methods to “induce menses” and “Dutch caps,” a term for diaphragms. Even Sanger herself used the guise of research when calling her first permanent birth control clinic in Brooklyn a Birth Control Research Center.10

Along with her fellow activist Hannah Stone, Sanger fought the Comstock Law by illegally importing a package of pessaries from Japan and taking the case as far as the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (1936), the court ruled that birth control information was not subject to censorship if it was medically sound and was disseminated as a preventive health measure. This meant that the Birth Control Federation of American, later Planned Parenthood, could present birth control information as medical in the context of preventive health care without arousing the suspicion of censors.

Adhering to the Supreme Court ruling became a balancing act for Planned Parenthood, especially after the organization shifted from promoting birth control as a means to prevent too many pregnancies in working class families to promoting family planning as central to American freedom. The slogan “freedom through knowledge” alluded to two concepts of liberty. On the one hand, it represented the freedom of speech and the press to talk about controversial topics such as birth control as a central pillar of American democracy. On the other hand, it alluded to women’s freedom of choice in determining how many children to have. It also juxtaposed the public health advantages of family planning for individual women and their children with the benefits to the war industries of maintaining a healthy female workforce.

Cover of The Soldier Takes a Wife, a 1945 pamphlet distributed to soldiers demobilizing to the home front at war’s end. It advised them not to attack the project of making a family willy-nilly but to form a strategic battle plan that spaced the time between children in order to improve the health of mother and infant. If family planning had lofty goals, including strengthening the nuclear family as the bedrock of American society, the cover image also made a humorous pitch to the soldier’s enjoyment of life. The man hasn’t even had a chance to don civilian clothes before he and his stylishly dressed wife are pushing around seven babies. Source: Planned Parenthood Federation of America records group II, Sophia Smith Collection, SSC-MS-00371a, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Early Planned Parenthood campaigns always emphasized the public health advantages of child spacing, as the 1945 brochure The Solider Takes A Wife illustrates. Aimed at demobilized troops after the end of World War Two, the brochure told the fictional story of Flash Edwards, a soldier returning home from the Pacific front who swiftly married a “little wisp of a blue-eyed blonde and started his entire unplanned family.”11 Without planning their family, the couple had four children, one right after another, until the “frail” wife died in childbirth, leaving the veteran alone with the kids. “With a little planning—a little time between births to give his wife a chance to build up her strength, they might have had their four babies and the fun of raising them together,” the brochure explained, presenting child spacing as a means to preserve not only the mother’s health but also the stability of the nuclear family, the purported bedrock of American society.12

Emphasizing the public health angle was important to promoting family planning as a respectable medical matter because Catholics, conservative white and African American Protestant church leaders, among other groups, felt that even talking about birth control was obscene. By contrast, Planned Parenthood’s brochures presented contraception not as something obscene obtained through informal channels but as officially sanctioned and central to public health. Consequently, family planning was not a means to undermine the moral order but a technology to strengthen the nuclear family that even Protestant and Jewish clergy could support. Catholics, however, continued to follow the papal doctrine of rejecting all artificial means for the prevention of conception, much to the dismay of the Planned Parenthood campaigners.

Man in uniform with a woman in a red dress holding up a technical drawing labeled "Plan" that shows a baby and includes a legend with a "specification".
Image from inside The Soldier Takes a Wife. Captioned “Why Planning is Important,” it associated reproduction with scientific planning by showing a soldier and his wife approaching the topic of child bearing with the careful precision of a technical drawing that came with detailed instructions and the promise of a healthy baby. Source: Planned Parenthood Federation of America records group II, Sophia Smith Collection, SSC-MS-00371a, Smith College Special Collections.

This history-of-knowledge approach to the early years of family planning in the United States shows that information channels mattered. Contraceptive knowledge that circulated through informal channels was deemed obscene or even harmful. Knowledge offered in doctors’ offices and family planning clinics, on the other hand, was a legal and necessary public health measure. In its early years, Planned Parenthood strengthened these formal channels by referring women to clinics for factual information on contraceptives. Thus, it presented family planning as an expert-endorsed rational pathway toward middle-class respectability. But in the process, it alienated feminist and labor movement supporters who had previously circulated this information under the radar. By cutting these progressive ties, Planned Parenthood was able to circumvent censorship and offer middle-class couples a way to manage their reproduction. Planning one’s family became a patriotic duty, and family planners became supporters of the war effort by promoting “freedom through medical knowledge.”

Claudia Roesch is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, where she recently joined this blog’s editorial team. She is author of Macho Men and Modern Women: Mexican Immigration, Social Experts and Changing Family Values in the 20th Century United States (De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015).

  1. Planned Parenthood in War Time (1942), Planned Parenthood Federation of America (hereafter: PPFA) Records II, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA, Box 18.14. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Talcott Parsons, “The American Family,” in Family, Socialization and Interaction Process ed. Talcott Parsons and Robert F. Bales (New York: Free Press, 1955), 3–33. ↩︎
  4. For the role of family planning and population growth in modernization theory, see Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 36–38. For a translation of modernization theory into family planning campaigns for immigrant families, see Claudia Roesch, “Planning a Puerto Rican Family in New York: Symbolic Violence and Reproductive Decision-Making in the Planned Parenthood Film La Sortija de Compromiso (1965),” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 15, no. 3 (2019): 213–29. ↩︎
  5. See Nicole Bourbonnais, “Spreading the Good News: International Family-Planning Activism and Grassroots Information Networks in the 20th Century,” History of Knowledge, ↩︎
  6. See Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938), 91, available at the Internet Archive, ↩︎
  7. Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 3rd ed. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 144–45. ↩︎
  8. For Robert Dale Owen’s life, his publications on birth control, and his disagreement with Malthus, see Richard William Leopold, Robert Dale Owen: A Biography, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1940), 78–79. ↩︎
  9. See Mineke Bosch, “Aletta Jacobs and the Dutch Cap. The Transfer of Knowledge and the Making of a Reputation in the Changing Networks of Birth Control Activists,” in “Forging Bonds Across Borders: Transatlantic Collaborations for Women’s Rights and Social Justice in the Long Nineteenth Century,” ed. Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson and Anja Schüler, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Supplement 13 (2017): 176–77, ↩︎
  10. See Cathy Moran Hajo, Birth Control on Main Street: Organizing Clinics in the United States 1916–1939 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 158. ↩︎
  11. The Soldier Takes a Wife (1945), PPFA Records II, Box 22.55. ↩︎
  12. Ibid. ↩︎

Updated on March 26, 2021.

Suggested Citation: Claudia Roesch, “Freedom through Knowledge: Liberalism, Censorship, and Public Health in Early Planned Parenthood Campaigns,” History of Knowledge, March 24, 2021,