02/27/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

Back to the Future

What's it all about? From 1914 until the eve of the Second World War, Margaret Sanger and her allies fought and won the battle to make contraception widely available in the United States. Didn't they?

The recent brouhaha about contraception is eerily similar to the campaign against birth control waged during the last decades of the 19th century. In each era a campaign to cement the link between sex and procreation has deplored declining moral standards, and particularly those of indolent and irresponsible females. Like the earlier "social purity" movement, which hid behind the banner of social morality, the main concern of the Republican leadership, the evangelicals, the Tea Party and the Bishops today is not health care or religious freedom -- but rather controlling uppity women.

In the 1870s (as later in the 1960s and 1970s), American women were getting out of the house and into the political arena to agitate loudly for suffrage and temperance. Marching under the banner of righteousness, conservatives pushed back. As usual a primary target for the virtuous was female sexuality. A main goal of the spiritual purity crusade was to eliminate contraception, whose opponents appeared to believe that the best deterrent to women's waywardness was the ever-present prospect of pregnancy.

During the 19th century, contraception was legal in the United States, and several best-selling books were published in the 1830s lauding sexual pleasure for its own sake and recommending various methods of preventing pregnancy. In addition to prolonged breast-feeding, withdrawal and the rhythm method, couples who could afford to used sponges, diaphragms and douching. (The U.S. birthrate dropped by about 50 percent between 1800 and 1900.)

In 1873, a leader in the purity crusade, Anthony Comstock, succeeded in getting Congress to pass a law (the Comstock Act) forbidding the mailing of all abortion devices and information. State laws followed, often extending the prohibitions to include the use of contraceptives. As today, the Catholic Church played the major role in mobilizing the righteous, trumpeting the immorality and unnaturalness of staying God's hand, and threatening politicians with electoral disaster. By the turn of the century the rigorous enforcement of Federal and state laws had forced contraception underground.

As today, females were on both sides of this issue, but most of the activists, and their chief leaders, were women. Antagonism to the laws banning birth control was fanned into public outrage at forcible closure of clinics for poor women and the trial and imprisonment of birth control advocates. A U..S government campaign against venereal disease in World War I and the widespread use of condoms by returning soldiers also changed minds. The first birth control clinic declared legal by court order was established in 1923. In the 1930s judicial decisions legalized the manufacture and mailing of condoms and diaphragms.

In 1942 the Planned Parenthood Federation began to disseminate birth control widely -- and especially to poor women -- through a national network of clinics. From the '50s onward, concern about overpopulation and the human toll on the global environment expanded access to birth control widely in the following decades. In the Western world, contraception acquired a bright halo. By 1971, women were confident enough about their reproductive rights to happily proclaim "our bodies ourselves."

Thus the sudden renewal of right-wing efforts to cut back contraceptive access in 2010 seems astonishing. With most Americans and even most Catholics reliant on contraceptives, the electoral appeal of this stance appears dubious. Yet in 2012, a leading Republican presidential candidate has seized on the evils of contraception as eagerly as Comstock before him. Proclaiming that "contraception is a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be," Rick Santorum sounds as zealous for spiritual purity as his 19th-century forebears. His fellow Republican candidates are right beside him, responding in unison to a spate of draconian anti-abortion legislation passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures and to anti-Planned Parenthood legislation supported by the Republican-dominated House in 2011.

Although they are marching right now under the banner of "religious freedom," the traditional values crowd seems particularly turned on by the idea of reining in the uppity women who would be powerless without "socialist government." Rick Santorum's hostility for what he calls "the radical feminist pitch" that "men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace" states that position unusually bluntly. And the right's recent drive to implicate contraceptive techniques in the evils of abortion (i.e., in interfering with the union of sperm and egg) shows clearly that the main goal is women's reproductive rights.

It makes sense. A major foundation of the women's revolution of the last half-century was reproductive choice. The Republican right has long been working with some success in the "values" arena to undermine women's rights. Haranguing American audiences on the morality of contraception, they are striving to further chip away at women's ability to make moral choices about having children. Trumpeting stereotypes from the past, they cast doubt on the huge gains in social equality that have shed glory on American politics in the twentieth century. Clearly, Democrats -- and women -- urgently need to trumpet their values with heartfelt passion of their own.

Jennifer Seymour Whitaker is writing a book entitled The Women's Revolution, Interrupted.