Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement

Jul 16, 2015

It's that time of year again! Every summer interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Aimee Duchsherer examines and reflects on documents from the Margaret Sanger Papers Project.

When it comes to women’s rights and equality, while some modern politicians advocate other means than reproductive rights and access to birth control to achieve this end, few boldly urge women to have more children or claim that failure to do so makes them unpatriotic.

However, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt did just this.

His stance reflected his intense concerns over “race suicide” and directly confronted the ideas of early birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Roosevelt and Sanger held very different, but very passionate, beliefs about the role of fertility in American society. Roosevelt saw increased population as the method by which to preserve the morality and strength of America. Sanger saw decreased population as the way to address social ills. The Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library recently had the good fortune to acquire documents from the Margaret Sanger Papers Project. These resources unequivocally reveal the struggle between Sanger and Roosevelt—and the seeds of the struggle over reproductive rights that continues today.

Roosevelt sought to prevent race suicide—essentially, the overtaking of Anglo-Saxon dominance as a result of immigration and increased reproduction of less-desirable ethnicities. Like many of his time and class, he believed the best way to address this issue was by encouraging white couples to have large families. In a letter to Bessie Van Vorst in 1902, Roosevelt wrote, “…the man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage and has a heart so cold as to know no passion and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children, is in effect a criminal against the race and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people.” In Roosevelt’s perspective, the willful failure to have children—and, by implication, the use of birth control—was “criminal” and contributed to race suicide. In a 1917 article, he denounced birth control and those individuals who “advocate[d] a profoundly immoral attitude towards life in the name of ‘reform.’” 

Margaret Sanger, one such advocate, firmly believed in “better babies or no babies,” arguing that women should be allowed to only have children they wanted and could afford. She claimed that wealthy women knew how to prevent pregnancy but this information was kept from the working class in order to further their oppression. Providing birth control education and resources to women—particularly to working class women—could reduce infant and maternal mortality, abortion, and poverty. These views directly challenged those of Roosevelt, whom she derisively referred to as “America’s grown up boy scout.” 

Sanger often encountered resistance to her public discussion of reproduction on moral concerns. She pointed out, however, that these discussions were already occurring: “Nobody called Roosevelt immoral for advocating larger families. I wonder if you will call me immoral for advocating small families.”  As such, Sanger joined Roosevelt in pointing to fertility as the answer to America’s problems.

Of course, while Roosevelt was trying to prevent race suicide, Sanger found such an outcome preferable to the conditions she saw among the poor. If Roosevelt and Sanger could agree on anything, it was that white couples of the upper classes were choosing to have fewer children. Since Sanger believed wealthy women had access to birth control while poor women did not, Sanger viewed the issue as largely class-based. She witnessed the terrible living conditions of the working class and found birth control essential in these cases, writing, “There is all this talk about race suicide…I say the race ought to commit suicide unless it can take care of its children better.” 

While Roosevelt and others encouraged women to have many children, Sanger believed that these policies directly contributed to the population housed in mental health facilities, prisons, and workhouses. Her activism, although often challenged, ultimately won a hearing. Many women across the country—from all classes—flocked to hear Sanger speak and supported her advocacy—as well as her opinion of Roosevelt. When she spoke in Oakland, California, in 1916, the female support was so great that a journalist commented, “…the Rooseveltian theory would never win him many of the women’s votes.” 

The conflict we see now over reproductive rights is by no means a recent issue. Questions of morality and the public versus personal good continue to cause conflict in these conversations in the twenty-first century. The ability to think historically and to understand the origin, legacy, and struggle over birth control is a crucial—but often overlooked—element in that debate. These documents brought to the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library by the Margaret Sanger Papers Project address these issues, revealing the intense significance and legacy of reproductive rights in American history and the lasting roles of activists and politicians. 

Please click here to view the items in the collection. 

Aimee Duchsherer recently graduated with a master’s degree in history from the University of North Dakota. Her research explores the social response to the African American boxer Jack Johnson’s relationships with white women in the early twentieth century. She has presented her work at several conferences including the annual conference of the Western Association of Women Historians. In addition to her internship with the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Duchsherer currently teaches online with Dakota College at Bottineau. 

Posted by Aimee Duchsherer on Jul 16, 2015 in Current Events  |  Permalink  |  Comments (3)  |  Share this post

Rick Marschall said,

Some details might have been overlooked here. Theodore Roosevelt certainly was proud of Western Civilization, not only as an inheritor of its traditions and values, its bloodline; but what he saw as its force for good in world history. He viewed history -- the forces of cultures and the patterns of physical, intellectual, and moral virility -- in a rather abstract way. When he spoke against "race suicide" he clearly and frequently spoke of a civilization's decline reflected in tendencies to shrink in numbers, replace expansion with contraction, and selfish materialism overtaking consciousness of responsibility for the future. As, therefore, a generalist, he was as supportive of Black families he learned about in America, when they were large (and, sometimes, named a son Theodore!) ~~ His statement about women's "role," that "Equality of rights does not mean equality of function," sounds to 2015 ears awfully repressive, but he was a man of his times, and parsed the details the same way he did for every man, woman, child, every citizen: we have roles, duties, responsibilities; and should perform all with strenuous honor. ~~ Among the overlooked details that might have been pertinent here -- if for no other reason that revelations about Margaret Sanger have been in the news lately -- are her views about Blacks. And women. Specifically, that Blacks in her view should be eliminated from society, and abortion ought to be promoted especially among Blacks. A direct line from promotion of women aborting their babies, to Planned Parenthood, to this week's revelation that PP promotes and sells the sale of aborted babies' body parts and organs... is inescapable. Whether by 100-years-later standards, or any standards of humanity. ~~ It is interesting, and little noted, that O.K. Davis, in his memoir "Released for Publication" (Houghton Mifflin, 1924) recalled that he was alone with TR, driving him to small-town appearances on behalf of Progressive candidates in 1914; and that he challenged TR on the matter of "large families," pointing out that some families simply could not afford their home-grown population explosions. He said that TR, as unlikely as it sounds, appears to have considered that point for the first time.

Cathy Moran Hajo said,

Great job on this post!

Cathy Moran Hajo said,

Rick Marschall -- Sanger's views on abortion and African Americans are grossly misrepresented in "the news." For more on Sanger and race, please read and on abortion,

Add A Comment

Required Fields