Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

Document Type



Margaret Sanger's rhetoric in the US birth control movement demonstrates the social forces that act upon rhetors and women's bodies, conforming both to established gender norms even as they attempt to violate those standards. This project studies Sanger's birth control rhetoric to understand how her arguments for women's right to contraception conformed women's bodies to traditional feminine notions despite her early efforts to contradict such dictates of domesticity. Research on nineteenth-century feminist rhetors demonstrates a pattern of women challenging feminine ideals by speaking publicly but replicating the familiar themes that women must care for others. To explain such a pattern, this study combines the theories of interpretation and genealogy to analyze texts' meanings with a respect for the ways that social forces conform speakers to already established norms and themes. This project follows genealogical demands for a complex history by discussing the discourses that challenge and support early twentieth century birth control rhetoric . Early themes in Sanger's rhetoric focus on issues of class and women's personal liberation. Analysis shows that Sanger begins by addressing the class oppression working class experience before engaging in class maternalism in which she condescends to lower class women setting upper class women as examples of bodily discipline. Sanger's early themes of birth control as women's liberation give way to an emphasis upon women using birth control to better serve their families, thereby fulfilling their maternal duties. Later themes in Sanger's rhetoric emphasize birth control's utility to the state for managing the rate and quality of women's reproduction. The movement from earlier to later themes in Sanger's rhetoric shifts from speaking about women as subject with control of their bodies to objects whose bodies must be controlled. Employing capitalistic themes, Sanger argues that women's rate of reproduction must be controlled to safeguard national security. Using notions of social evolution, Sanger engages in eugenic discourse to demand the control of women's bodies who produce unfit offspring. The sweep of Sanger's rhetoric proves the utility of genealogical interpretation to understand the dynamics of power and discourse that conform feminist speakers to accepted gender definitions.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Laura R. Sells



Included in

Communication Commons