Visit our photo timeline for more about PPLM's history.
PPLM began as the Birth Control League of Massachusetts (BCLM) in a Joy Street, Boston residence in 1928. Encouraged by activist Margaret Sanger, a woman long committed to a national movement for family planning and the rights of women to control their reproductive lives, the number of active supporters soon swelled. The voices of those who believed that the future lay in teaching society how to make “every child a wanted child” grew in both volume and intensity. In 1932, the Massachusetts Mothers Health Council, the organization that would eventually become PPLM, opened its first clinic in Brookline and in five years, there were also clinics in Springfield, Worcester, Boston, New Bedford, Fitchburg and Salem. But by 1937, these seven busy clinics were closed and their staffs convicted of violating the law that prohibited selling or giving away contraceptives. No one then could have imagined how frequently this pattern of events, careening from success to defeat and back again, would repeat itself in the coming decades. Regardless, the cycle seemed then, as it has many times since, only to strengthen the movement’s unflinching determination.
In a 1940 poll of Massachusetts citizens, 82% of the respondents supported contraception, though many incorrectly believed it was already legal. In 1942, a binding referendum giving birth control to married persons was placed on the ballot. Though the opposition maintained birth control was a “violation of God’s law and should remain illegal,” support came from physicians statewide and also from an educator named Helen Keller. But the referendum was defeated, 58-42%, as were its later attempts, again and again. For the next 29 years—until 1966—medical professionals in the state were forbidden from prescribing, recommending or providing contraceptives of any kind. Courageous private physicians often broke the law and discreetly provided birth control to those who had the means to afford it. But the discrepancy between affluent and poor women’s ability to control their reproductive lives merely intensified the commitment of what was by 1945 called the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. The distinct disadvantage of poor women was intolerable, and not easily remedied.
One desperate young Boston mother wrote:
- I am only 21. I was married at age 18 and started carrying my first child after only one period. I am expecting my third child the same month my oldest will be only three. My husband is making $14.00 a week. If you could only help me I would be eternally grateful. Heaven knows after this one I don’t want to bring more helpless children into the world and not be able to provide for them right.
In the 1950s, PPLM sent those seeking birth control services to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, and paid that clinic, where contraception was legal, $3 per client. In fact, 40% of the Providence clinic clients were Massachusetts residents. Volunteers generously transported carloads of women to the neighboring state. It was neither the first, nor the last time volunteers would extend themselves on behalf of every woman’s right to control her reproductive life.