“Quality is everything” : rhetoric of the transatlantic birth control movement in interwar women’s literature of England, Ireland and the United States

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2009-12

Authors

Craig, Allison Layne

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Abstract

This dissertation suggests that burgeoning public discourse on contraception in Britain and the United States between 1915 and 1940 created a paradigm shift in perceptions of women’s sexuality that altered the ways that women could be represented in literary texts. It offers readings of texts by women on both sides of the Atlantic who responded to birth control discourse not only by referencing contraceptive techniques, but also by incorporating arguments and dilemmas used by birth control advocates into their writing. The introductory chapter, which frames the later literary analysis chapters, examines similarities in the tropes Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, the British and American “Mothers of Birth Control” used in their advocacy. These include images such as mothers dying in childbirth, younger children in large families weakened by their mothers’ ill-health, and sexual dysfunction in traditional marriages. In addition to this chapter on birth control advocates’ texts, the dissertation includes four chapters meant to demonstrate how literary authors used and adapted the tropes and language of the birth control movement to their own narratives and perspectives. The first of these chapters focuses on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a 1915 political allegory about a nation populated only by women who have gained the ability to reproduce asexually. Gilman adopted pro-birth control language, but rejected the politically radical ideas of the early birth control movement. In addition to radical politics, the birth control movement was associated with racist eugenicist ideas, an association that the third chapter, on Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand examines in detail by comparing birth control and African-American racial uplift rhetoric. Crossing the Atlantic, the fourth chapter looks at the influence of the English birth control movement on Irish novelist Kate O’Brien’s 1931 Without My Cloak, a novel that challenges Catholic narratives as well as the heteronormative assumptions of birth control discourse itself. The final chapter analyzes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Three Guineas (1938), illuminating Woolf’s connections between feminist reproductive politics and conservative pro-eugenics agendas. Acknowledging the complexity of these writers’ engagements with the birth control movement, the project explores not simply the effects of the movement’s discourse on writers’ depictions of sexuality, reproduction, and race, but also the dialogue between literary writers and the birth control establishment, which comprises a previously overlooked part of the formation of both the reproductive rights movement and the Modernist political project.

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