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Talking About Sex

Talking and writing publicly about sex in the United States hasn't been easy, especially when the topic is girls' sexuality. In the early 1900s, such talk could be illegal. The Comstock Act of 1873 forbade sending materials about sex through the mail. So filling the gap on what girls knew about their bodies could send advocates to jail.

Girls as a Health Hazard, 1910s

A national worry about young women's sexual expression has informed and motivated much advice, instruction, and popular discussion about girls' bodies and what they should and should not do with them. That concern also led the federal government to launch a national campaign for sex education in the 1910s.

This same fear, when paired with racial prejudice about underage immigrant mothers, led to some of the most disturbing practices in American history regarding the sterilization of girls.

Every girl should first understand herself; she should know her anatomy, including sex anatomy; she should know the epochs of a normal woman's life.

—Margaret Sanger, 1912

Margaret Sanger, 1917

Margaret Sanger, 1917

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Margaret Sanger Lampe and Nancy Sanger Pallesen, granddaughters of Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger, a writer and nurse, advocated for girls to know and control their own bodies - but only certain girls. Sanger believed that women who were poor or who had mental disabilities should not have children, in order to promote a "healthy" society.

While eugenics was popular in Sanger's time, today such ideas are offensive for devaluing certain lives. How do we reckon with this important but complicated historical figure?

American Social Hygiene Association Poster, around 1918

America had a problem with syphilis in the 1910s. This poster warned men against young women who might spread the disease.

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New York Call, 1913

New York Call, 1913

Courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries

The New York Call ran this page in protest when ordered to shut down Margaret Sanger's advice column.