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The politics of female pain: women’s citizenship, twilight sleep and the early birth control movement
  1. Lauren MacIvor Thompson1,2
  1. 1College of Law, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  2. 2Department of History and Political Science, Georgia State University Perimeter College – Alpharetta Campus, Alpharetta, Georgia, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr.  Lauren MacIvor Thompson, College of Law, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30302, USA; lmacivor1{at}gsu.edu

Abstract

The medical intervention of ‘twilight sleep’, or the use of a scopolamine–morphine mixture to anaesthetise labouring women, caused a furore among doctors and early 20th-century feminists. Suffragists and women’s rights advocates led the Twilight Sleep Association in a quest to encourage doctors and their female patients to widely embrace the practice. Activists felt the method revolutionised the notoriously dangerous and painful childbirth process for women, touting its benefits as the key to allowing women to control their birth experience at a time when the maternal mortality rate remained high despite medical advances in obstetrics. Yet many physicians attacked the practice as dangerous for patients and their babies and antithetical to the expectations for proper womanhood and motherly duty. Historians of women’s health have rightly cited Twilight Sleep as the beginning of the medicalisation and depersonalisation of the childbirth process in the 20th century. This article instead repositions the feminist political arguments for the method as an important precursor for the rhetoric of the early birth control movement, led by Mary Ware Dennett (a former leader in the Twilight Sleep Association) and Margaret Sanger. Both Twilight Sleep and the birth control movement represent a distinct moment in the early 20th century wherein pain was deeply connected to politics and the rhetoric of equal rights. The two reformers emphasised in their publications and appeals to the public the vast social significance of reproductive pain—both physical and psychological. They contended that women’s lack of control over both pregnancy and birth represented the greatest hindrance to women’s fulfilment of their political rights and a danger to the healthy development of larger society. In their arguments for legal contraception, Dennett and Sanger placed women’s pain front and centre as the primary reason for changing a law that hindered women’s full participation in the public order.

  • feminism
  • history
  • reproductive medicine

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Footnotes

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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