Joan Marie Johnson: Supporting the Struggle for Women’s Reproductive Rights

Joan Marie Johnson, Funding FeminismToday we welcome a guest post from Joan Marie Johnson, author of Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870–1967, on the anniversary of the founding of America’s first birth control clinic, and the women behind the scenes who made it possible.

In Funding Feminism, Joan Marie Johnson examines an understudied dimension of women’s history in the United States: how a group of affluent white women from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries advanced the status of all women through acts of philanthropy. This cadre of activists included Phoebe Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst; Grace Dodge, granddaughter of Wall Street “Merchant Prince” William Earle Dodge; and Ava Belmont, who married into the Vanderbilt family fortune. Motivated by their own experiences with sexism, and focusing on women’s need for economic independence, these benefactors sought to expand women’s access to higher education, promote suffrage, and champion reproductive rights, as well as to provide assistance to working-class women.

Funding Feminism is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Supporting the Struggle for Women’s Reproductive Rights

Just more than 100 years ago, Margaret Sanger, the woman at the center of the birth control movement for five decades in the early twentieth century, opened the first birth control clinic in America. At the time, birth control was illegal: the dissemination of birth control information in the mail was forbidden under the federal Comstock law, which deemed such information obscene. States had various laws banning the distribution or use of birth control devices and information. Given the current political climate, in which not only is a woman’s right to legal abortion under assault, but even contraception is under attack, it is an appropriate time to look back at the women who fought so hard to give women the right to determine whether or not and when to have children.

Sanger opened a clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on October 16, 1916. The clinic was raided on October 26, resulting in the trials of Sanger, her sister and a volunteer. Notably, Sanger’s supporters included both immigrant women, who had little money and desperately wanted access to birth control information, and many wealthy women who also believed a woman’s right to control her body was essential to women’s freedom. Many of these wealthy women were also fighting for political equality in the women’s suffrage movement.

Margaret Sanger had a group of women who made her work possible. They befriended her, provided her with moral support and legitimacy, and underwrote her legal defense. They ran these organizations, serving as officers, raising money, donating money, writing letters, holding meetings, editing magazines, and organizing conferences..

Sanger had a group of women who made her work possible. They befriended her, provided her with moral support and legitimacy, and underwrote her legal defense. When Sanger and her sister were arrested, society women showed up in the courtroom in Sanger’s defense. They organized around her, forming first the Committee of 100 and then the American Birth Control League. They ran these organizations, serving as officers, raising money, donating money, writing letters, holding meetings, editing magazines, and organizing conferences.

Elsie Clews Parsons was one of these women. A member of New York’s society elite, her father Henry Clews was a wealthy Wall Street banker and her mother coordinated the family’s social life, with homes in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Despite her privilege, she broke convention and insisted on a college education, which she obtained at Barnard College in New York. Studying first sociology, then anthropology, she eventually earned a PhD from Columbia University. Her husband Herbert Parsons was a congressman.

Elsie’s passionate beliefs about remaking women’s place in society were undergirded by her anthropological research into gender and culture. She believed that women became shallow and dependent when they were not allowed to work outside the home and were relegated to serving as their husbands’ sexual companions. While she was in favor of women having the right to vote, her primary interest was in unshackling women from traditional marriage. She wanted women to have control over their bodies, so they could enjoy sexual intercourse apart from reproduction. She thought sexual pleasure should be mutual. Elsie Parsons defended her positions by arguing that other cultures did have alternative sexual norms.

Gertrude Minturn Pinchot was another faithful friend and follower of Margaret Sanger. Moving in the same social circle as Elsie Clews Parsons, Gertrude was the daughter of Susanna Shaw and Robert Browne Minturn, Jr., a shipping and mercantile businessman and railroad investor. Her mother and aunts were active philanthropists and reformers who promoted women’s education and social service work. She married Amos Pinchot, a lawyer, reformer and publicist whose brother Gifford was a politician and ally of Theodore Roosevelt. Gertrude Pinchot was an avid support of woman suffrage as well as labor unionism, traveling to Lawrence, Massachusetts, during the famous textile strike of 1912. She also chaired the New York branch of the Woman’s Peace Party.

But Gertrude Pinchot was perhaps most devoted to the birth control movement. She supported Sanger’s family and traveled with Sanger to meet Governor Charles Whitman to ask for assistance when Sanger’s sister fell ill from a hunger strike while in jail after the raid at the clinic. Gertrude Pinchot argued that birth control was the most fundamental right that women needed, more important, even, than the right to vote.

Juliet Barrett Rublee was perhaps Sanger’s closest friend, confidante, and supporter. Originally from Chicago, she inherited money from her family’s roofing supply company. She married lawyer George Rublee. Juliet was a pacifist, who demonstrated against America’s entry into World War I, and a suffragist who can be seen in photographs regally riding a horse in a suffrage parade. A free spirit, she also was a modern dancer. Rublee believed that access to birth control would free women to think for themselves rather than blindly following men. Birth control, she thought would help free women’s desires and imagination so they could “become Goddesses.”

These fiercely determined women would be aghast at the attacks on women’s reproductive rights taking place today. They would, however, be heartened by the women in red robes representing Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, protesting in their state legislatures. They would take heart in the support for Planned Parenthood evident at the Women’s Marches earlier this year. And they would be cheered by Melinda Gates, who believes that access to contraception allows women to gain education, economic independence and empowerment and is using her fortune and foundation to fund her efforts to dramatically expand access to millions of women around the world. They understood how essential it was for women to be willing to demand the right to control to whether and when to have children.


Joan Marie Johnson is a historian and faculty coordinator for the Office of the Provost at Northwestern University.