LAWRENCE — In the 1928 novel "Orlando: A Biography," a feminist classic, Virginia Woolf draws a comparison between physical and literary fertility, when the pregnant protagonist Orlando writes poetry and can't stop, even as she admits it is drivel.
"I read it as an example of the lack of access to reproductive control in that era," said Aimee Armande Wilson, a University of Kansas assistant professor of humanities. "It was something that took over women's lives to a point where they didn't essentially have other options."
In Wilson's new book, "Conceived in Modernism: The Aesthetics and Politics of Birth Control," she examines the modernist literary movement and the roots of birth control activism. Most scholarship has treated them as parallel but ultimately separate movements, she said.
However, in analyzing works by Woolf and other modernist writers, Wilson argues a new perspective about how the literary movement of the early 20th century and birth control activism were deeply intertwined.
"The more digging I did the more I found that they did interact a lot," Wilson said.
Prior to 1920, Margaret Sanger, the first well-known birth control activist and founder of organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood, for example, would visit New York literary salons that writers like Djuna Barnes and photographer Carl Van Vechten frequented. Modernist writers also would publish their short stories and poetry in periodicals that Sanger published.
"It was basically propaganda to try to make access to birth control easier for women because it was illegal at the time to sell or distribute birth control," Wilson said. "Doctors could not talk to their patients about it."
However, the origins of the birth control movement aren't without controversy, especially involving Sanger and her British counterpart Marie Stopes, she said.
For example, there is a strong connection between Stopes, the birth control movement and the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. The eugenics social movement claimed to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization.
"It's unquestionable that women having choice over their reproductive lives is a good thing. That has been a positive benefit," Wilson said. "But Sanger and especially Stopes affiliated birth control with eugenics, a movement we now know to be racist, classist, ableist pseudoscience. So, as with all human beings and social movements, the history is complicated."
Still, Wilson said examining some of the literary work and rhetoric of the birth control movement is important because many of these themes still evolve around birth control and women's issues, including discussions related to the Obamacare contraception mandate and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Melinda Gates has made providing poor women in developing countries access to contraception a major mission of the global Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Why is it important?" she said. "It speaks to the way that women are often not allowed autonomy over their own bodies."