A “Semi-Official” Program: New Deal Politics and the Discourse of Birth Control in California, 1939-1942
O'Reilly, Kelly Rose
In February 1939, the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA) hired a registered nurse, Mildred Delp, and charged her with implementing a program to promote birth control among California’s migrant women. Over the next three years, Delp traveled throughout California and Arizona, educating both migrant women and the social workers who dealt with them in the importance of birth control. My paper tracks this project and explains its significance to our understanding of the birth control movement. Delp’s work highlights the complex relationship between the birth control movement and eugenic thought. At the national level, a number of prominent eugenicists wielded influence within the birth control movement. However, Delp herself was motivated less by a eugenic ideology than by a New Deal philosophy of the rehabilitation of the poor. In order for her efforts to be successful, Delp had to convince social workers of the importance of her work, thus placing birth control within a larger discourse of social work during the New Deal. In this dialogue between birth controllers and social workers, we can glimpse the beginnings of a new justification for birth control—one that posited birth control as an important step towards economic rehabilitation and, subsequently, full social citizenship.