Any Friend of the Movement: Networking for Birth Control, 1920-1940. By Jimmy Elaine Wilkinson Meyer. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. 296 pp. Cloth, $54.95, ISBN 0-8142-0954-8).

Reviewed by Carole R. McCann

       

   Founded in 1923, the Cleveland Maternal Health Association opened its first contraceptive clinic in 1928. Jimmy Elaine Wilkinson Meyer's new book offers an account of the social networks that sustained the Association in the years before it affiliated with any of the national birth control organizations. The title refers to the familial and social network of prominent women (and their husbands) who ran the Association, managed the clinic's day-to-day operations, raised funds, and occasionally smuggled diaphragms in their luggage on trips from New York.

   With a focus on the "various stories within the story" (xviii) of the Cleveland Association, Meyer explores the local network's activities, policies, and especially the links between the women of the Association and related social welfare, voluntary, and philanthropic organizations. In so doing, she argues that the networks supported "utilitarian strategies" of "quiet persuasion and private networking" (xvi) to achieve the goal of providing contraceptive services to all races of poor women in Cleveland. As a central part of its strategy, the Association actively avoided controversy. The words "birth control" did not appear anywhere in its name, early materials, or press releases. And the Association consciously distanced itself from national organizations, eschewing formal affiliation with any group before 1942, when it joined Planned Parenthood. Instead the Association stressed the benefits of its advice to the health of mothers and children, "especially to the end that children shall be begotten only under conditions which make possible a heritage of mental and physical health." (58) In practice, this cautious stance led the Association to limit its services to poor married women who were referred by social service agencies and medical personnel with health reasons for contraception and led the Association to adhere strictly to proper medical practice, as defined by its all-male medical advisory board. Meyer makes the useful point that historians' focus on the professionalization of birth control in the late 1920s has overshadowed investigation of gender-specific voluntarism which sustained movement clinics such as the one in Cleveland. Readers may be disappointed, however, that Meyer does not explore the texture of the relationship between the Cleveland clinic's volunteers and the medical professionals who exercised such a strong influence there.

   The strongest section of the book, and its most important contribution, explores the relationship between the clinic and it clients. Meyer walks readers through each stage of a clinic visit, and she details efforts by staff and volunteers to make the clinic a welcoming and friendly place. But most important, Meyer provides a client's-eye view contained in 231 letters she discovered in a clinic scrapbook. The scrapbook carries the clear imprint of the clinic providers in sections labeled "failure--man objects," "failure--religion," "poor background of patients," "good reactions to method," and "cooperative spirit of patients." Nonetheless, the unedited letters provide a rare glimpse into the clients' perspectives on the clinic and their individual life circumstances. While a few letters include complaints about the clinic, overwhelmingly, Meyer concludes, they express gratitude for the clinic's help. When women wrote of unwanted pregnancies, however, they usually blamed themselves and sought to assuage possible disappointment or anger from the staff. Meyer reads these entreaties as indicators of a judgmental undercurrent in the friendly atmosphere of the clinic. She also notes that while clients often spoke of economic hardship, few used the eugenic rhetoric found in the clinic literature. Drawing a sharp distinction between the clients' very practical concerns and the "lofty ideals" expressed by the Association, she concludes that although clinic staff members recognized the clients' needs for reproductive control, they "misunderstood their motives," which were far more immediate and pragmatic than the clinic's focus on "heritage" could admit. (114)

   The small stories within the larger story of the Cleveland clinic are engagingly presented but, because the focus is on social networks, some readers may find that the book does not offer a strong enough chronological account of the clinic's history. Similarly, readers may be frustrated by Meyer's diffuse portrait of the national birth control movement, which makes it difficult to situate the Cleveland Association within that wider context. A fuller investigation of the multiple associations between Cleveland's advocates and national and international advocates may have helped to elucidate Cleveland advocates' position within national and international birth control networks. For instance, Dorothy Brush, who spearheaded the Cleveland clinic effort, attended the famous 1921 Town Hall meeting in New York that ended with Sanger's arrest. Brush had been invited to attend the event by her husband's cousin, Juliet Rublee, one of Sanger's closest confidants. Brush also maintained strong ties with Sanger throughout her life. In addition, the clinic's first physicians received contraceptive training through Sanger's New York birth control clinic. In the 1930s, the American Birth Control League provided literature and other materials to the Cleveland clinic and relied on it as a mid-western training center for its affiliated clinics.

   Given the important role Dorothy Brush would go on to play in international family planning during the 1950s, readers may also be disappointed that the local focus of the book precluded exploration of the social network between the Cleveland clinic, the Brush Foundation, and national and international eugenics groups. In the final chapter, Meyer discusses the Cleveland Association's collaboration with the Brush Foundation in research at Puerto Rico's early birth control clinics. This discussion, which oddly overlooks Laura Briggs's work, again focuses on local connections independently of the national and international network that brought Clevelanders to Puerto Rico.1

   The book makes an important contribution to a growing body of local birth control histories, which have enriched our understanding of U.S. birth control history. Such local accounts raise important questions about the extent to which national groups actually led the birth control movement, and they suggest the need to explore more fully the complex connections among local, national, and global networks that defined twentieth-century reproductive policies and practices.

   Carole McCann is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMBC), and is the author of Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945 and co-editor with Seung-kyung Kim of Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. She is currently working on a book about mid-twentieth century demography and international family planning.


1 Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

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