Planned Parenthood & Birth Control History: Collections

Founded in New York by Margaret Sanger in 1916, today Planned Parenthood is the United States’ largest provider of reproductive health-care services, from birth control and contraceptives to pregnancy advice and abortion. The materials in Gale’s Women’s Studies Archive allow researchers to explore the long history of this organization alongside other primary sources that cover female health, especially birth control and reproductive rights.

From the first birth control clinic, opened in New York in October 1916 by founder Margaret Sanger along with Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell at a time when it was still illegal to educate women about birth control in the United States, Planned Parenthood has long advocated for reproductive rights. That clinic was shut down by the police within nine days, but it started over a century of efforts to educate the public about birth control, along with campaigning and support for women throughout the country.

Sanger’s activism and the work of Planned Parenthood has led to significant changes in the availability of family planning across the United States. The work of Sanger and her Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League, alongside that of other activists, led to the legalization of birth control devices—first in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, and many years later, more broadly across the country. Sanger and her organization continued this work, and in 1948 Planned Parenthood funded research into a birth control pill, the widespread use of which, despite unethical exploitation of women during development trials in Puerto Rico, has changed the lives of women and families globally. In 1970, with Title X of the Public Health Service Act, it became available everywhere in the United States.

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Even after Sanger, Planned Parenthood continued to campaign for increased reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood backed the movement for safe and legal abortion, leading to the court ruling in favor of abortion rights in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973. An expansion of abortion rights soon followed, once again supported by Planned Parenthood. Despite these successes, the organization had to ride out the conflict of the 1980s and 90s, when proabortion activists clashed with antiabortion campaigners, who frequently committed acts of violence against health-care providers, birth control clinics, and health centers. Throughout, Planned Parenthood continued to support women and advocate for access to sexual and reproductive health care.

More advancements in reproductive health came in the final years of the twentieth century, with FDA approval of new, effective methods of birth control other than the oral contraceptive, such as the implant and the patch as well the Plan B emergency contraceptive, and through the start of the twenty-first century, including the medication abortion, hormone replacement therapy, and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Planned Parenthood has worked to make these available at its health centers and continues to educate the public.

Throughout over a century of existence, Planned Parenthood has built on the work started by Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell with the New York clinic, and has consistently advocated, and actively campaigned for, reproductive rights. From the birth control pill, emergency contraception, and other forms of contraception to advice around family planning, pregnancy, and abortion, the organization has played a key role in the development of reproductive rights. By exploring the primary sources available in Gale’s Women’s Studies Archive, researchers can examine this long history of advocacy, not only through the records of the organization itself but also through other collections that offer materials on women’s health, women’s rights, and reproductive health, including abortion, birth control, menopause, childbearing, breastfeeding, and menstruation.

  • Herstory Collection

    The Herstory Collection comprises full texts of journals, newspapers, and newsletters tracing the evolution of women’s rights movements in the United States and abroad from 1956 to 1974. Compiled by the Women’s History Library from materials donated by the organizations that published them, the collection includes documents from the National Organization for Women (NOW), Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Women Strike for Peace (WSP), and many other groups.

    Among the longest-running periodicals in the collection is The Ladder, the journal of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first organization in the United States specifically dedicated to lesbian civil and political rights. The collection includes nearly a complete run of this important title.

    Also featured in the Herstory Collection are the newsletters of many local and regional chapters of the National Organization for Women, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Portland, Oregon, and many larger and smaller cities in between. Several newsletters are devoted to efforts to legalize abortion. Among these are the newsletters of the Women’s Ad-Hoc Abortion Coalition, the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, and the Indiana Abortion Coalition. These texts date from 1969 to 1971 and provide unique insight into the activism leading to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade.

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  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America Records, 1918‒1974

    This collection includes documents from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), dating from its founding by Margaret Sanger in the early part of the twentieth century to 1974. Today, Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest provider of reproductive health-care services, from contraceptives such as the birth control pill, IUD, and condoms to health advice to pregnancy planning and abortion services. Featured in the collection are meetings, articles, speeches, and other media reflecting the early history of the birth control movement in the United States, including files of several Planned Parenthood forerunners as well as legal materials documenting the organization’s efforts to educate the public and legalize birth control from 1931 to 1941. Meeting minutes, conference notes, and administrative files from 1943 to 1947 shed light on how the PPFA reorganized and adjusted its mission to meet the changing needs of Americans following the Second World War. Also included are the PPFA’s correspondence, mailings, and subject files, which offer insight into the people behind the policies and how programs were established, as well as interaction with other agencies.

    The records in this collection provide unique insight into the founding of PPFA by Sanger, and how it competed and cooperated with other family-planning organizations, government agencies, corporate enterprises, and individuals throughout the twentieth century.

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  • Women and Health/Mental Health

    The Women and Health/Mental Health collection, from the Women’s History Library, features pamphlets, speeches, newsletters, reports, memos, conference papers, mainstream and alternative newspaper stories, and academic journal articles. A subset of the collection comprises special issues of mass periodicals that focus on topics relevant to women’s health, including People (women’s medicine, sterilization, Planned Parenthood, sex education), Harper’s Bazaar (sexuality), and Psychology Today (sexuality and sex education). Together, these sources provide a comprehensive account of the liberation movement era’s perspectives on women’s health and illnesses. The largest focus relates to abortion and birth control, including the legal, financial, medical, and political aspects of the topics. Other topics include nutrition and dieting, sleep and insomnia, hygiene, depression, puberty, menstruation, childbirth, breastfeeding, menopause, aging, death, gender identity, sex and sexuality, affairs, and pornography. Some of the collection’s resources are specific to women from other parts of the world, including statistical and health information concerning sterilization, family planning, and health care.

    This collection offers unique insight into the evolution of thought and public discourse regarding women’s bodies and health during a pivotal moment of social change in America.

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