Progressive is as Progressive Does

I was reading something recently in which a historical figure was described as ‘quite progressive’ on birth control, ‘despite some unfortunate eugenic views.’ I’m being deliberately vague here because my intent is not to call out the author of said piece, but rather to discuss a larger trend that’s extremely troubling. The discussion of this supposedly progressive individual elided some rather serious issues, and raised some questions about how we evaluate historical figures, who does the evaluating, and how we judge the outcome.

What the author saw here was a man living in an era when attitudes about birth control were prohibitionist and sometimes very harsh, who chose to go against the grain and support access to birth control. She noted that his coinciding support for eugenics was a shame, but also a product of his time; curious that he was apparently socially progressive in one way, but not so in others.

This reading is pretty much antithetical to my own, because I saw a man supporting eugenics, and viewing birth control as a means to that end. The eugenics movement as a whole was in fact tremendously supportive of birth control, because it provided a neat and obvious way of achieving the goals of eugenics: to breed a stronger, healthier, ‘improved’ version of the human race. Eugenicists wanted white, wealthy, ‘beautiful’ people to populate their envisioned world of the future, and while sterilisation might be the preferred line of defense against the propagation of the poor, the disabled, the nonwhite, they’d take birth control as an agreeable second.

While some modern viewers look at birth control rhetoric from this period and see it as empowering, as being about putting the tools of procreation into the hands of women and embracing the idea that people should be able to control their fertility and have sex for pleasure, I see it as something much deeper and darker. On a larger social level, a huge component of the birth control movement was backed by the eugenics movement. They weren’t synonymous; obviously many people working in the birth control movement were concerned about the health impacts of having numerous children with short breaks between pregnancies, for example, and some were also focused on the idea of pleasure without fertility.

But the movement didn’t take place in a vacuum, and the growth of the birth control movement happened at the same time the growth in the eugenics movement did. Thankfully, the two movements eventually largely diverged, and today birth control is about things like the right to control your own body, to control the timing and spacing of your family, to choose if you want to have children at all. But that wasn’t always the case, and many people seem reluctant to acknowledge that in their history of the movement, something I’ve discussed at length before.

When people look at a historical figure and say that the person they’re examining was progressive for the time on birth control and oddly also supported eugenics, these things are not an unrelated coincidence. They are, in fact, tied together; someone who supported both birth control and eugenics probably supported birth control for eugenic reasons. (Conversely, someone who supported birth control and opposed eugenics clearly supported birth control for reasons of bodily empowerment, public health, and other issues.)

The growth of eugenics in the United States is something people rarely discuss, because it was so quickly overshadowed by Germany’s brutal and horrible eugenics movement (heavily inspired by that of the United States, I might add). Yet, it’s a part of our history, and it’s an ugly, complex, troubling part of our history that should always be kept in mind when talking about issues like reproductive rights, birth control, and who, historically, has been ‘allowed’ to reproduce.

When looking at individuals who supported birth control in an era when it wasn’t broadly supported, it’s important to ask why. It’s possible to simultaneously evaluate motivations and put people in context and to note that they contributed important victories to the fight for bodily autonomy—people may have fought to increase access to birth control because they thought women of colour shouldn’t ‘breed,’ and that is hateful and disgusting, but the net result was to improve access to birth control. A good thing can happen because of bad motivations, because people believed bad things.

That doesn’t mean that people should be permitted or encouraged to go around pushing for disgusting social policies on the off chance they might accidentally achieve a good result, of course. But it does mean that ignoring the context of historic social movements benefits absolutely no one. We should be talking about why birth control and eugenics were tied, why so many people bought into the eugenics movement and believed that birth control was not, in fact, a pass to greater bodily autonomy, but just the opposite: a way to control populations of people and to ensure that they died out.

In that context, the birth control movement seems much less empowering, and much more complicated. And it’s okay to be complicated. History is complicated. People are complicated. Admitting these things and confronting them helps us engage with them and pick apart feelings, motivations, and our own past. Ignoring them simply pushes them deeper, and creates a world where we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past in our haste to erase them as though they never happened, and could never happen again.