Leading the Way: English Women Doctors and Contraception in Transnational Perspective (1930-1970)

BISR Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Caroline Rusterholz, discusses her research on English women doctors.

“It is surely time that members of the medical profession should cease to make such rash statements about birth control and should weigh this matter from a scientific standpoint unbiased by any personal, ethical or sociological considerations” (Margaret Jackson, 1930)

This quote from Dr Margaret Jackson, gynaecologist, Medical Officer of the Exeter family planning association clinic, illustrates the main aim of my research project; assessing the contribution of women doctors in the production of scientific knowledge on contraception, a project on which I have been working since my arrival at Birkbeck.

Women doctors as leading actors in contraception

This research focuses on a set of specific women. Their names were Helena Wright, Margaret Jackson, Joan Malleson and Gladys Cox and they were all doctors or gynaecologists and pioneers in the field of contraception. However, their role has been obscured until now by more famous and controversial figures within the birth control movement such as the botanist and birth control activist Marie Stopes who advocated birth control based on eugenic arguments. In the current context of increasing feminist criticism of the medicalization and scientization of the female body by male doctors, it is timely and important to re-examine how contraceptive knowledge was produced by taking women doctors’ contribution seriously. So, what was their contribution?

Producers of scientific knowledge on birth control

During the interwar years birth control became a hotly debated topic as part of the increasing attention b being given to population issues. Moral arguments were invoked by established scientists as a way of restraining the legitimation of birth control. In this context, women doctors helped to steer the debate toward scientific considerations in three key ways.

First, they were particularly active in spreading information about different methods of contraception throughout the medical community. Drawing on their private experiences in birth control clinics and private practices, they were able to present themselves as “experts”, and they wrote books and manuals for medical practitioners and the “lay” public.

Second, they engaged with contemporaneous debates on the side effects of birth control. Relying on statistical evidence, which was still a new tool for medical investigation, they criticised the position of the medical opponents of birth control by deconstructing their methodology and their lack of scientificity. Finally, they conducted trials on new methods of contraception and published their results in scientific journals.

Teaching birth control methods

Women doctors were also involved in the training of doctors and nurses at women’s welfare centres. For instance, Helena Wright gave evening lectures on physiology and sex at the North Kensington centre in London from 1929 onwards, as did Joan Malleson, who gave advice on marital adjustment. Dr Gladys Cox, Dr Greta Graff and Dr Cecile Booysen, all members of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics and the Medical Women’s Federation, taught medical students, midwives and practitioners between 1934 and 1939. These women doctors pursued their engagement after World War II. Wright designed a body model on which “actual caps can be fitted and has a transparent tummy so that trainees and patients can both feel and see how the cap is placed”. In the leaflet presenting this pelvis model, which was anatomically correct in shape and proportion, it is underlined that its aim was twofold: “the demonstration and teaching of contraceptive techniques to doctors, medical students and patients, and the teaching of bi-manual palpation of the uterus of medical students”. The central portion of the abdomen can be removed, allowing the detailed observation of the placing of contraceptive appliances. By designing such a model, Helena Wright committed herself not only to the teaching of birth control methods but to the accurate teaching of these methods. Indeed, with such a model, medical students could be trained on how to place  contraceptive devices, thus avoiding any harmful effects  when completing the procedure on real female bodies.

1Fig. 1. Demonstration pelvic front view

2Fig. 2. Top view showing interior cavity, with removal wall

(Picture from SA/FPA/A19/9 Pytram Pelvic model in Wellcome collection, Wellcome Library London)

Influence on France

They also contributed to the international circulation of scientific knowledge by citing foreign research on birth control. In so doing they became a central channel for well-informed, reliable and scientific considerations on contraceptive methods. This new position within the medical community made their knowledge particularly attractive to foreign doctors seeking accurate knowledge on contraception. It is thus unsurprising that French doctors turned to their English counterparts to gain insight into family planning issues. In the French national context, where the advertisement of and recourse to birth control methods were prohibited, the experience and expertise on contraception of English doctors constituted a useful and significant example on which to rely. By writing letters, attending training sessions and inviting English women doctors to meetings, the French medical community found the perfect example of a well-organised, efficient family planning movement where scientific considerations replaced moral arguments. : Therefore, alongside their significant intervention in debates surrounding contraception in England, English women doctors also played a pivotal role in the creation of the family planning movement in France.

This post was contributed by Dr Caroline Rusterholz, BISR Visiting Research Fellow, February – December 2016

Image of Helena Wright, date taken unknown (Patricia St. Ledger). Margaret Sanger Papers Project, hosted by New York University.



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