ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Complicating the Feminist

Intellectual Legacies of Birth Control in India

Margaret Sanger’s feminism blurs the lines between the East and the West. It carries continuities and a resemblance to strands of feminism understood and promoted by contemporary liberal India and their dominant positioning vis-à-vis marginalised groups, such as Dalits, Muslims and the urban and rural poor.

The author is grateful to Antoinette Burton, Subho Basu, Shanon Fitzpatrick and the anonymous reviewers of Economic & Political Weekly for their valuable comments.

This paper is an intellectual history of the language that surrounded birth control in India, with a focus on notable thinkers of the 20th century: B R Ambedkar, M K Gandhi and Margaret Sanger. This history refers to the intellectuals, ideas and ideological patterns that developed over time vis-à-vis birth control. It does not examine contraception as a physical mechanism to prevent pregnancy, nor does it discuss the production and sale of condoms, diaphragms and oral pills that entered the Indian markets from the 1930s onwards. This paper treats the issue of birth control not as static, but as one that existed within a changing social and political context.

This perspective is useful in understanding contraception not simply as a function to regulate childbearing, but as a moral and intellectual lens to understand how powerful thinkers approached women’s reproductive health. It nourishes scepticism about the permanence of concepts and openness to different moral and philosophical perspectives simultaneously. Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Sanger are individuals who represent the multiplicity of intellectual trajectories that informed public thought in modern India. Public discourse as well as state response to the “problem” of managing the reproductive bodies of lower castes, Muslims, and the rural and urban poor, was marked as much by ambiguity as it was by continuities between the colonial and postcolonial state.1 I argue that the ideological concerns of Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Sanger regarding birth control were representative of the material assumptions each carried regarding women and their roles within marriage and childbearing.

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Updated On : 23rd Mar, 2020
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