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Topic section: The battle over birth control
The battle over birth control

Contraception was almost universally condemned.. but women sometimes improvised their own methods

The medical profession took little interest in sexual matters before the twentieth century, apart from sexually transmitted diseases.Syphilis had been known since the sixteenth century and some men wore condoms made of animal gut for protection. Contraception was almost universally condemned on religious and moral grounds, but women sometimes improvised their own methods. Victorian social reformers, aware of appalling conditions in city slums, began to advocate limiting family size.

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An iron chastity belt, c 16th century.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Birth control was only slowly accepted. But by the end of the twentieth century it was widely available in most countries. The study of sexuality itself was put on a new footing by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), whose work was highly influential in both medicine and the wider culture.

Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in Britain in 1921. Stopes was a botanist, not a medical doctor. She campaigned for birth control for all married women, especially the poor. At this time the subject was still taboo and most doctors would have nothing to do with it. Her clinic offered advice and the fitting of contraceptive devices by trained nurses. It attracted fierce opposition from both medical and lay groups. Eventually, a national network of clinics was set up. Stopes’ motivation came from her support for eugenics, and her huge correspondence with ordinary women who told her of the horrors of poverty and repeated pregnancies.Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) played a similar role in legalising birth control in the United States.
Picture: contraceptives.jpg

Vaginal douche, tampon, sponge and contraceptive sheath, early 20th century.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The contraceptive pill became available in 1960. It was simple and reliable, unlike earlier methods of birth control. At first it was only pres
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A paperweight in the form of a giant contraceptive pill, circa 1970.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
cribed for married women, or those who could ‘prove’ they were about to be married – with a wedding dress receipt, for example. By the late 1960s, however, the pill was generally available and had caused a revolution in sexual lifestyles.

The pill uses female hormones to control fertility. Its commercial production was made possible by the discovery of a cheap natural source of these hormones in the Mexican yam. Prior to this, only small yields of hormones could be prepared in the laboratory from animal tissue.

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Topic section: Out of the home into the maternity ward
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After doctors took over the management of childbirth, they introduced instruments and drugs to manage the birthing process better. These practices are still debated today. The number of caesarean sections is rising, but more women are choosing natural childbirth.  > more

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Topic section: A woman’s body; a surgeon’s eye
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Anatomical figures represent women’s figures to future medical practitioners, but they also reveal the doctor’s view of women. The female models recline as passive objects, sometimes in sexually inviting poses.  > more
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