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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Reproductive Health

“The Complete Dainty Maid Outfit.” Undated. Advertisement. Box 252, Margaret Sanger Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.21

Among the most famous of public health nurses was Margaret H. Sanger (1879-1966), who for many years led the campaign for birth control in the United States and abroad. In 1914, believing that effective birth control was essential for women's freedom and independence, Sanger published the illustrated pamphlet Family Limitation, in direct violation of the 1873 federal Comstock law, which prohibited the dissemination of contraceptive information. Two years later she opened the nation's first birth control clinic, which resulted in her much-publicized arrest and imprisonment. Undeterred, Sanger proceeded to organize the first American and international birth control conferences, founded numerous organizations, and mounted important legal battles, including the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. One Package. Her papers (130,000 items; 1900-1966; bulk 1928-40) include the records of various birth control groups with which she was associated and document her interest in socialist politics and liberal reform groups. A related set of Sanger pamphlets may be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University, published a four-volume set of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002-2016, HQ764.S3 A25) edited by Esther Katz as well as a two-series microfilm edition of the Margaret Sanger Papers, including the Smith College Series and the Collected Documents Series, all of which are available in the Manuscript Reading Room. In collaboration with the subscription database ProQuest History Vault, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has also made this two-series microfilm edition available. In addition, a selection of Sanger documents held by the Library of Congress, Smith College, and other repositories throughout the world are available on the Margaret Sanger Papers Project External web site as are the indexes to the Smith College Series, the Collected Documents Series, and the Library of Congress Sanger documents.

Newspaper clipping. Circa January 1914. Box 4, Kate Waller Barrett Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.22

In the early 1950s, Sanger introduced philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick to biologist Gregory Pincus (44,000 items; 1920-69; bulk 1950-67), who was then studying the hormonal aspects of mammalian reproduction and had recently begun testing the therapeutic properties of steroid compounds for the drug company G.D. Searle. Shortly thereafter, McCormick provided funding for Pincus to develop the “birth control pill,” an oral contraceptive released on the market as Enovid in 1960. The Pincus Papers include correspondence with McCormick, Sanger, and G.D. Searle officials; reports of trial tests in Puerto Rico and Haiti recording women's experiences, side effects, and personal feelings about the pill; and files relating to the Planned Parenthood Federation and the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.

Although Sanger and many of her followers campaigned for birth control as a woman's right, other advocates of contraception, including geneticist and demographer Robert C. Cook (19,600 items; 1882-1992; bulk 1940-70) focused on issues of eugenics and population control. Cook's papers include more than two hundred essays by him and others on birth control, overpopulation, medicine, and fertility.

Other aspects of women's reproductive health emerge from the papers of women doctors. Mary Dixon Jones (1829-1908) was a physician and surgeon specializing in gynecology. Her papers (2,000 items; 1839-1925) document her work as chief medical officer (1882-1884) and gynecologist (1884-1891) at the Woman's Hospital of Brooklyn, criminal lawsuits against Dixon Jones for the deaths of two patients and her lawsuit for libel against the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the murder of her daughter Mary D. Jones and death of her son Henry D. Jones in 1906.

Before becoming a physician in midlife, Kate Waller Barrett (1858-1925) assisted her minister-husband in pastoral work among Georgia prostitutes. After receiving her medical degree in 1892, she became affiliated with Charles N. Crittenton and later assumed leadership of his National Florence Crittenton Mission, a series of homes designed to rescue “fallen women.” Under Barrett's direction, the missions gradually gave up the goal of reclaiming prostitutes and concentrated on providing homes, guidance, medical care, and vocational training to pregnant unmarried women, encouraging these women to keep their babies rather than abort their pregnancies or give their children up for adoption. Barrett's papers (625 items; 1895-1950) touch on this work as well as on her affiliation with the National Council of Women and her efforts to secure passage of the Mann Act and other women's rights legislation.

Physician, pharmacologist, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-2015) is best known for her refusal to approve the commercial distribution of the sedative drug thalidomide in the United States, a decision for which she received the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962. Her papers (12,000 items; 1913-97; bulk 1960-70) concern the tragedy surrounding the use of this drug, primarily in Europe, by pregnant women whose children were born with missing, stunted, or malformed limbs. Against great pressure from drug manufacturers, Kelsey and her supervisors held firm, and the publicity generated by their stance helped spark passage of the Kefauver-Harris Amendments, mandating that drug manufacturers provide the FDA with proof of a new drug's safety and effectiveness.

Margaret Sanger Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879-1966), a public health nurse, was arrested in October 1916 after opening the first American birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, in violation of state law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptive information. A leader in both the national and international birth control movements, Sanger assembled a collection of personal papers and organizational records documenting her long struggle for women's reproductive rights. Like many of her contemporaries, she retained all kinds of printed matter accumulated during her career, including pamphlets like this one relating to women's gynecological health and hygiene. Back to text
  2. Kate Waller Barrett (1858-1925), physician and leader in the National Florence Crittenton Mission for unwed mothers, was among the delegation of women reformers who successfully lobbied President Woodrow Wilson in January 1914 to postpone enacting a law that would dismantle the capital city's notorious red-light district until arrangements could be made to assist and rehabilitate the many prostitutes who would be displaced from the triangular area that stretched below Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House to the edge of Capitol Hill. Wilson was sympathetic to the reformers and later supplied Barrett with a letter of support for the Crittenton Mission's work to be used in the organization's fund-raising campaigns. Scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, like this one from the Barrett Papers, are often found in collections of personal papers. They provide access to articles not easily located in unindexed newspapers and provide clues about other sources to consult, in this case, the papers of Woodrow Wilson, which contain scattered letters from Barrett and a case file on the 1914 Kenyon Act to Enjoin and Abate Houses of Lewdness, Assignation, and Prostitution (S. 234). Back to text