From Icon to Bygone: The Rise and Fall of the Contraceptive Diaphragm in Twentieth-Century America

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Funding Source



Associate Professor

Project Summary

With Jumpstart for Juniors funding through CURF, I spent my summer completing research for my honor’s thesis. My project explores the history of the contraceptive diaphragm, a non-hormonal, female-controlled barrier device. I began this line of inquiry when I noticed a generational gap in understandings of birth control options. People who came of age in the 21st century have likely never used or even seen a diaphragm. Meanwhile, the generations of women who reached reproductive age in the twentieth century relied on this method to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. The data backs this up: according to the CDC, 17.1% of American women had ever used a diaphragm in 1982. By 2006, this number had dropped to 3.1%. What can account for the death of this once-popular device?

 To answer this question, I traced the diaphragm’s history, beginning in the nineteenth century and following through to the present. I combed through medical journals, feminist literature, and industry catalogues to understand how the diaphragm went from being the paragon of women’s reproductive autonomy in the early twentieth century, to a symbol of constraint during the heyday of the Pill, to a technology of resistance during the women’s health movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and finally, to a forgotten emblem of contraceptive antiquity today.

My Jumpstart for Juniors funding allowed me to fly to Boston, Massachusetts, where I was able to access archival collections of important figures in my story. In the papers of the first American historian of birth control, Norman Himes, I found that both doctors and pharmaceutical companies used a man with no medical education as a ghostwriter and information source for pamphlets and books on barrier contraceptives in the 1930s. I read letters written by concerned women to Barbara Seaman, a feminist health activist during the 1970s, telling her about their struggles with new hormonal contraceptives and how they chose to return to the diaphragm. These historical materials helped me fill in the gaps in my previous research, giving me a fuller picture of the story I want to write.

Thanks to CURF’s generous funding, I have completed the primary source research for my thesis. Over the next few months, I’ll use what I’ve found to write a compelling narrative with the help of my advisor, Professor Beth Linker, and I plan to have the first draft of the project completed by the end of the Fall 2018 semester. Throughout the process of developing my thesis, my love of research and writing in the history of medicine, science, and technology has deepened. I hope to pursue this kind of academic work after I graduate, and I am grateful to CURF for giving me the resources to explore an independent research as an undergraduate.