“Two tough women; and they clicked.”

In a 565-page history book (A History of the World, Andrew Marr) I found four female names: Cleopatra, Katharine, Margaret, and Jiang Qing. From these, two raised my admiration.










“In New York in the summer of 1921, while Adolf Hitler was ranting in Munich drinking-dens, two women in their forties one day sat down and eyed one another. One was a red-haired agitator, born of working-class Irish stock in upstate New York. The other was an elegant daughter of America’s industrial aristrocracy, who spent much of her time looking after her schizophrenic husband […]. Margaret Sanger [whose mother had no fewer than eighteen pregnancies in twenty-two years, and died aged fifty of cervical cancer] and Katharine Dexter McCormick were very different kinds of American, who together would do more to change women’s lives by the later part of the century than any politician, in the US or Europe. Their cause, however, was undeniably political. It was to give women control over their own fertility or, to put it more bluntly, to help them stop having babies they did not want, while continuing to have the sex they did want.”

Contraception was not welcomed by puritanism, so Sanger had to flee from the law more than once. But thanks to that, she discovered the contraceptive devices doctors were working on in Europe. And she wanted them for her clinic.

Katharine had the money and connections to get them. In 1922 she went shopping in Switzerland. Pretending she was a doctor, she ordered large quantities of diaphragm, and bought lots of dresses and coats which would later hide more than a thousand diaphragms. “She then imperiously marched her contraband past French and US customs officials, delivering them by truck to the Sanger clinic.”

In 1950 these two women, now in their seventies, met a research scientist and invested around $2 million in a drug that would finally be “unveiled on 11 May 1960 as a contraceptive”: the Pill, which still remains controversial and “it probably always will be.”

And, what if more effort had been made to find an oral contraceptive for men? Anyway, “women were for the first time easily and reliably able to distance sexual pleasure from the likelihood of pregnancy. A different relationship, between the body as a zone of pleasure and delight, and reproduction, became possible – something the young Sanger and her anarchist friends had talked about nearly sixty years before.”


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