Layne Parish Craig, When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars.
When Sex Changed is an effective and accessible study of literary responses to issues surrounding the development and expansion of birth control movements in the UK and USA. Layne Parish Craig positions her readings of a diverse range of texts in the context of interlinked systems of exchange 'marked by physical and imaginative movement; by professional networks, social circles, and reading groups; and by rivalries and the anxieties of influence' (p. 4). This framework facilitates Craig's interdisciplinary approach as she interprets connections between modernist, utopian, short story, family saga and other narratives with other textual and historical materials relating to sexuality, contraception, reproduction and birth control activism in the early twentieth century.
Craig begins by introducing Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes as the founding mothers of the American and British birth control movements thereby laying the groundwork for her later analyses of literary texts in relation to these prominent birth control activists. The 'ideology' underpinning the work of Sanger and Stopes is described as both socially and politically motivated, addressing a range of issues encompassing 'race and nationhood, sexual freedom and women's rights, war, privacy, and the medical profession' (p. 8). These shared concerns are used to show that work of the two birth control advocates cohere in terms of their emphasis on healthy motherhood, greater access to birth control, crossovers with sexological and eugenicist discourses and the promotion of female sexual fulfilment. Craig nuances this argument by identifying a number of key divergences too, highlighting the personal rivalry between Sanger and Stopes and their differing political agendas in particular.
In Chapter One, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian novels Herland and With Her in Ourland are analysed in terms of overlaps between feminism and eugenics, as well as to illustrate Gilman's influence on Sanger. Craig argues that in the two novels, Gilman imagines 'a social world where communal ideals of motherhood, not sexual freedom, drove fertility control advocacy' (p. 23), a principle that enables Gilman to assert the view that motherhood should be in the service of the state, 'which has the best interests of the population in mind in both preventing and encouraging reproduction for eugenic purposes' (pp. 40-1). Biographical details of Gilman's life, including her meeting with Sanger, are placed alongside an analysis of Sanger's shift towards eugenics rhetoric in order to explain the impact of Gilman's work on Sanger's increasing political conservatism. Craig concludes the chapter with the remark that this incarnation of the birth control movement offered 'women unprecedented control over their bodies while simultaneously establishing political apparatuses for increased state intervention into reproduction' (p. 46).
Shifting to a British focus in Chapter Two, Craig further develops the argument that issues surrounding contraception could be utilised for both conservative and radical political aims through case studies on James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925). Craig contends that it is 'idealization of individual fertility control that ties together the representations of birth control in Woolf's and Joyce's novels' (p. 74) and the chapter persuasively explores the notion of 'free motherhood' in relation to literary and cultural contexts (p. 18). The interlinked issues around fertility, medical control and sexuality raised by the modernist writers and the birth control advocates are not always fully synthesised however, with the sub-section '"Having a Good Time": Mrs Dalloway and Married Love' including only the briefest mention of Stopes's text, for example.
The third chapter breaks new ground in its examination of literature by African-American writers Angelina Weld Grimke and Nella Larsen, both of whom depict black women characters who refuse motherhood, either through reluctance to procreate or through infanticide. The brief discussion of Grimke's 'The Closing Door'--a story published in the Birth Control Review in 1919 that focuses on a mother who murders her child to prevent future lynching by racists--is followed by a lengthier analysis of Larsen's Quicksand (1928)--a novel that depicts physical and emotional suffering caused by mothering multiple children. This chapter is a real highlight of the book as Craig considers the complexities of intersections between eugenicist discourse and contraception in insightful ways, recognising 'the slipperiness' of 'the strict categorization of racial uplift, eugenics, and the birth control advocates into "us" --the "fit" middle class--and "the others"--the poor, uneducated, and often racially othered "unfit"' (p. 98).
A comparative study of Kate O'Brien's Without My Cloak (1931) and Charles G. Norris's Seed: A Novel of Birth Control (1930) is presented in Chapter Four in order to explore the impact of Catholic pronouncements against contraception on the birth control movement and family sagas of the 1930s. Picking up on the theme of women weakened by repetitive reproduction raised in the previous chapter, Craig illustrates how the image of the large family present in both novels is utilised for different ends, with O'Brien enabling a 'reproductive choice paradigm to encompass a burgeoning concept of "sexual preference"' (p. 120) and Norris's novel ending on a 'conservative, romantic note' (p. 121). The impact of Stopes's work on the two novels is carefully traced throughout the chapter and integrated with a range of religious, eugenicist, journalistic and other sources to show how birth control discourse became normalised in the romance plot and other forms of popular fiction, albeit in support of disparate political positions.
The final chapter of the study, '"She Takes Good Care That the Matter Will End There": The Artist's Douche Bag in Three Guineas and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem', connects women's use of contraception in modernist literature with artistic output. The douching prostitute in the Woolf text and the artist in the William Faulkner are analysed in terms of eugenicist ideology in which labour (sexual, artistic, procreative and commercial) is shown to be a social, rather than individual, concern. In the conclusion, the ideas emerging out of the previous chapters are projected forwards to consider the legacy of Stopes and Sanger in relation to contemporary reproductive rights activism in literature and culture.
The interdisciplinarity of the book emerges in Craig's ability to weave together a range of seemingly disparate texts, including transatlantic literature, biographical information, marriage manuals, medical and sociological studies and histories of birth control. Craig convincingly tests her arguments on a range of literary forms in order to show how 'the politics of birth control' gave rise to narratives that both supported and challenged what she terms 'the movement's "official" agenda' (p. 125). The result is a persuasive and important interdisciplinary analysis that will be of interest to students and academics working across the humanities.
Jade Munslow Ong
University of Salford
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|Author:||Ong, Jade Munslow|
|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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