Resisting Reproductive Regulation in Early Twentieth Century American Women's Fiction

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Resisting Reproductive Regulation contributes to a growing body of criticism about how women participated in early twentieth century debates about reproduction in the United States. While the mainstream American birth control movement led to the legalization of contraception, it gained popular support by prioritizing the desires of married white women who were able-bodied, born in the United States, and members of the middle and upper classes. Because birth control advocates embraced eugenics and condemned abortion, their campaigns resulted in greater reproductive regulation for many women deemed “unfit” for reproduction by eugenicists, including unmarried, poor, non-white, immigrant, and disabled women. Resisting Reproductive Regulation examines the fiction written by American women during this period that challenges this limited agenda. These writers insist that women should be able to control the reproductive potential of their own bodies, regardless of their circumstances or forms of embodiment, and they examine the negative consequences that reproductive regulation enacts in American women’s lives. As a result, their texts depict women’s reproductive struggles in ways that anticipate late twentieth and early twenty-first century intersectional campaigns for reproductive justice.

Though Mary Hunter Austin, Josephine Herbst, and Katherine Anne Porter each enjoyed relative privilege as white, American-born, and generally able-bodied women, each experienced reproductive difficulties in her own life. Each subsequently challenged mainstream birth control advocacy from this period in her fiction by grappling with those difficulties and examining the conditions that caused them. In so doing, these writers expose the prejudices encoded in the arguments upon which early twentieth century American eugenicists and birth control advocates relied. Resisting Reproductive Regulation argues that their fiction reveals inextricable relationships between the reproductive regulations American women faced and American prejudices about (dis)ability, sexuality, class, race, and/or country of origin. By addressing these connections, these writers explore the ways that reproductive regulations secure and perpetuate existing patriarchal, nationalist, white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalistic, and ableist systems of power. By advocating for women to be able to control the reproductive potential of their own bodies, these writers also attempt to interrupt the reproduction of these systems of power.

Further, American women writing about contraception, abortion, and reproduction in the early decades of the twentieth century knew their depictions of these topics were subject to censorship, suppression, and marginalization. This dissertation argues that these writers resisted this form of reproductive regulation as well, developing innovative narrative and aesthetic techniques in order to communicate with readers about reproductive issues. While some of their concerns and experiences were successfully suppressed and marginalized during their lives, Austin, Herbst, and Porter each preserved illuminating materials in their personal archives. This dissertation recovers many of those materials, which provide new context within which to examine their published fiction and to recognize their literary and feminist contributions.