Family limitation.

“Last Call” has been on the nightstand, over there in the right rail, for a while now, but I’m still not done with it. It’s a time issue, not one of content; plus, I added “Freedom” to the mix, diluting my attention even further. But “Last Call” — a new history of Prohibition — is a great book, and I’m savoring it like two fingers of good scotch, a sip at a time.

Also, it’s dovetailing with the central plot lines of “Boardwalk Empire,” which takes place in 1920 Atlantic City, immediate after passage of the Volstead Act. It’s about the birth of American organized crime (or, at least, its vault into the big money) and a lot of other things, too, all of which were wrapped up with Prohibition, specifically the emergence of women as a political force to be reckoned with.

Women bore the brunt of their husbands’ drinking, sometimes quite literally cleaning up the mess it left behind, and became the driving force behind Prohibition. Many of the suffragettes came out of the temperance movement, and vice versa. A woman newly empowered in one area might look around for some other things to make right in her life, and so this week’s “Boardwalk Empire” episode introduced the once-taboo subject of birth control.

One of the dowagers of the local temperance movement hands a younger woman a pamphlet, which gets a significant-prop closeup: “Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger. Once it’s opened it’s a chamber of horrors — Lysol douche, anyone? — but it was a necessary step along the way. Everyone fights with their biology to some extent. This was how women had to do it, once upon a time.

One of the obvious traits of the so-called pro-life movement that isn’t often discussed is the large percentage of its adherents who oppose all artificial birth control, as well as abortion. To them, it’s very simple: Don’t want children? Don’t have sex. The act is designed to bring babies into the world, and in order to do it in the way God intended, you always have to be open to the idea of increasing your tribe. Nice Catholic married couples can practice something called Natural Family Planning, which works on the same principle, and if you look around the web you can find many enthusiastic adherents talking about how hawt it makes their marital sex lives, how in-tune they are with their bodies, etc. It always puzzled me why it was OK to consciously avoid making babies by regulating your sex life but not OK to use a device or drug. Isn’t this imposing one’s own human will on the Lord’s business, as well? Yes and no. There’s a concept called “prayerful consideration” involved, and well — I check out at this point. Whatever these folks are selling, I’m not buying.

A friend of mine works in upstate New York, near Kiryas Joel, that odd Hasidic town where everyone is orthodox Jewish (and many of them are on public assistance, because if there’s one thing a small town can’t provide for that many people, it’s a living). Orthodox Jews also condemn birth control. My friend tells me the No. 1 most-asked-for service at the public-health clinics in the area is the tubal ligation done on the QT (i.e., without the knowledge of husbands and/or rabbis), perfect for that population, because their own religious practices take women out of the sexual rotation for about two weeks out of every month anyway, and laparoscopic procedures leave no trace and have short recovery times. The women come to the doctors trailing a brood of six or seven, exhausted, impoverished, with one goal uppermost: No more. In many ways they are the counterpart of the women of 1920 — oppressed by their biology but smart enough to know there’s a way it can be different. And that way is worth fighting for.

I have a feeling Margaret Schroeder, the woman at the center of “Boardwalk Empire,” is going to discover the limitations of Lysol as birth control. I salute her, and all her real-life sisters of the period, just the same. It was worth the fight.

So, some bloggage:

The Onion AV Club on “Family Limitation.”

George Soros calls for an end to the other kind of prohibition.

Hysterical clip of John McCain, with the applause line that keeps on giving, via the Daily Show.

Office hours. I must give guidance to the young! Have a great, windy day.

Posted at 9:54 am in Television |

46 responses to “Family limitation.”

  1. Jeff Borden said on October 27, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Your argument today echoes one I’ve made for years, to wit, if you want to really limit abortion, provide birth control education, counseling and prescriptions. But the grand poobahs of so many religions –including the one led by dried up old men in Rome– say this also is wrong. Too bad these narrow-minded scolds hold so much sway because the teen pregnancy rates and the overall unwanted pregnancy rates are much lower in blue states than down there in the Bible Belt, where religious values are supposed to be more fervently held.

    Speaking of Prohibition, I read a book some years ago that argued the war on drugs, particularly marijuana, was launched because a sizable bureaucracy had been created to battle demon rum. When Prohibition was repealed, the book argued, those bureaucrats needed some other evil to battle and it became pot.

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  2. Julie Robinson said on October 27, 2010 at 10:16 am

    I’m with Hillary Clinton and my church; let’s keep it safe, legal and rare.

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  3. adrianne said on October 27, 2010 at 10:59 am

    I never could square the Catholic opposition to abortion AND birth control. Neither can many Catholics, apparently, because the percentage of Catholic couples who use birth control is higher than for other religions.

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  4. Sue said on October 27, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I seem to recall reading that Margaret Sanger’s fight for birth control was part of a larger public-health concern, which included the effects on women of all classes from std infections. Even in the upper classes where bad things do not happen, men who were expected to get the experience and then marry a good girl ended up with sick wives and dead babies after unknowingly passing their diseases on.
    What a position to be in: Don’t want kids? Don’t have sex. Oh by the way, it’s your duty to submit to your husband anytime he requires it.
    Angela’s Ashes had a good bit on that when Angela’s husband is demanding his rights and telling his wife that she will go to hell for refusing him, and she comments that at least it will be warm there.

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  5. alex said on October 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Jeff B–

    I once read that pot prohibition was spurred largely by William Randolph Hearst because of the forestry interests he owned; marijuana “trees” were a fast-growing, renewable resource for making newsprint and the timber industry just couldn’t compete with it. It was also the fave recreational drug of non-whites and the poor, which made it easy to demonize.

    Regarding the pro-life movement, I strongly suspect the reason for the rise in single motherhood is the stigma now attached to abortion, as well as the fact that abortions are now much more difficult to obtain because providers have been scared out of business in most of the non-urban U.S. You’d think the pro-lifers would be pleased with their accomplishments, but no.

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  6. Sue said on October 27, 2010 at 11:08 am

    That didn’t take long: the Kentucky Stomper wants an apology from the woman he attacked:

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  7. nancy said on October 27, 2010 at 11:09 am

    The episode of “Boardwalk Empire” introduces Al Capone’s infant son, who is thought to be feeble-minded but who really is, we learn, simply deaf. A little online spelunking turned up the fact that the real child was indeed deaf, a condition widely believed to be caused by congenital syphilis.

    So yeah, Sanger had a point.

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  8. LAMary said on October 27, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Some of the most vocal opponents to prop 19 are the medical marijuana clinics. They don’t want to lose their business. There are cops and judges who support legalization citing the time and money spent on busting crappy small time dealers and users while the big gangs keep making money. Want to put a serious dent in the hideous gang situation in Mexico? Take away their market. And then there’s the taxes the state could make on weed being sold like liquor.

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  9. Randy said on October 27, 2010 at 11:43 am


    I look forward to reading your take on Freedom.

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  10. Dexter said on October 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Sometimes I realize how old I am. I actually worked with a man whose favorite expression , when told great news, was “…best thing since repeal!”

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  11. beb said on October 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Catholic opposition to abortion and birth control is that both are the killing of a soul.

    Now according to Catholic Scholar Billy Joel catholic girls get a brand new soul on their confirmation which suggests that the souls of babies before confirmation are temporary place-holders of no importance. However other Catholics and fundamentalist religions hold that there is only one soul and it was implant in the egg as soon as it is fertilized by sperm. Therefore any birth control procedure that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall is the murder of a soul. However, since a third or more of all fertilized eggs fail to implant it must mean that God likes to kill his own souls. And thus, what’s a few more?

    Mostly it’s a fear that if women can have sex without fear of getting pregnant they would go around cheating on the their neanderthalish husband with someone close to the human race. Hence Rick Santorium’s abidsing concern for man-dog sex.

    According to Raey Tannahill’s “A History of Sex,” women were passing along suggestions for birth control as far back as the ancient Egyptians. I’m pretty sure John McCain was back there, complaining about Family Values and how the government was broken.

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  12. Sue said on October 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Re yesterday’s weather discussion, this lady wins for worst wind-related experience:

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  13. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Oh, you know you want to watch it —

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  14. ROgirl said on October 27, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Jeff tmmo, I’m a long-time Monty Python fan, but somehow have never gotten around to seeing The Meaning of Life. That will have to change. Thanks.

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  15. Christy S. said on October 27, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve never understood how NFP is different from using birth control either, Nancy. If one believes that God is powerful beyond human understanding, why would a birth control method get in God’s way? I’ve known several women who have gotten pregnant while using the Pill. Wonder what the church would say about that?

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  16. Jolene said on October 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Wow! Nancy’s post prompted me to do a little googling re Kiryas Joel. I had no idea there was such a place. According to one article I read, it has the highest poverty rate in the U.S., and bilking the government appears to be the main industry–not only in aid to families through welfare payments and food stamps but also shady schemes to obtain support for segregated schools and other facilities.

    Can’t imagine living w/ that kind of orthodoxy, especially orthodoxy that seems to lack the integrity to sustain itself on its own terms. According to a spokesman who was interviewed by Ed Bradley for 60 Minutes in 1994, these families have on average twelve children. How far does the orthodoxy reach? Women are expected to wear stockings with discernible seams so that it will be clear their legs aren’t bare.

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  17. Jolene said on October 27, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Some good sweet potato recipes on the Atlantic web site today.

    Pssst, Nance: “their husbands’ drinking,” not their husband’s drinking.”

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  18. Dexter said on October 27, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    OH-Kayyy…the World Series starts tonight. The Giants have a closer named Brian Wilson. Wilson is being acclaimed as the weirdest player in baseball, but I can’t imagine why…watch this video (less than 2 minutes) and see if you can figure out the mystery…

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  19. nancy said on October 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks, Jolene.

    I first heard of Kiryas Joel when Mona Charen wrote a column advocating they be provided taxpayer-funding buses with curtains down the middle for the separation of the sexes, as is standard in orthodox quarters of Israel. Which goes to show you something about conservatives and government spending, but I didn’t need to tell you that.

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  20. brian stouder said on October 27, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Madam Speaker, I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks (splitting headache, plus behind today – but what a great thread!)

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  21. Peter said on October 27, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    RO Girl – it’s one of my favorite films, but be forewarned about Mr. Creosote – it’s been 20 years, but my lovely bride still gets sick just thinking about that scene.

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  22. John said on October 27, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    “Eeet’s wafer thin!”

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  23. Julie Robinson said on October 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Ladies, I don’t know about you-all, but I am very glad to be living in the here and now, with birth control and antibiotics.

    And off-topic, our daughter just called to say she’s back in the country. She’ll be home on Monday. This makes me smile.

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  24. Jeff Borden said on October 27, 2010 at 3:36 pm


    They were talking about The Machine today on WSCR-AM, one of the sports talk stations in Chicago. It’s a reference to a movie called 8mm, starring Nicholas Cage, which was a film about a guy investigating snuff movies. To me, the guy looks like “the gimp” in “Pulp Fiction,” though the gimp was dressed head to toe in zippered leather.

    There is no doubt Wilson loves being one of the weirdest guys in baseball.

    I’m hoping for a great series. It doesn’t get much better than Cliff Lee vs. Tim Lincecum in Game One. I wish I didn’t have so much homework plus a freelance story hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles because I’m probably going to have to listen to it on the radio.

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  25. John g. Wallace said on October 27, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I used to work for a newspaper in rural NW New Jersey where we would gleefully look foward to the days preceding passover when villages like Kiryas Joel and parts of New Town, NY would be set ablaze during a vigorous cleaning out of leavened bread products. I suppose taking a blowtorch to your pantry makes sense, or lighting piles of baked goods on fire on your stoop makes sense.

    I think the newspaper your friend worked for (Middletown, NY?) was our go to source for flaming Orthodox news briefs.

    I also worked for a hotel in NJ not far from that area and we were frequented by vans and station wagons of Orthodox men on their way home from NYC, where they would pile 10-12 per room, then send someone down to rent a porn VHS tape from the front desk. Our head housekeeper reported the rooms were always spotless, didn’t even look like anyone sat on the beds or used the toilet. We never did figure out what happened in the hotel rooms, and as far as I was concerned it was like Vegas…. what happens in a room full of Hasidics stays in the room.

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  26. coozledad said on October 27, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    John g. Wallace: You’ve given me an entirely new perspective on my worst dates. I’ve led a charmed life.

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  27. adrianne said on October 27, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Kiryas Joel keeps my newspaper solvent, as every story about the Satmars attracts tons of comments, letters to the editor and general outrage from the non-Hasidic citizenry.

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  28. LAMary said on October 27, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I’ve always liked this song from The Meaning of Life.

    I used to live near New Town. It was a very different world.

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  29. Jeff Borden said on October 27, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    I caught “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” on a cable channel a couple of days ago and wondered if such a hilarious but blasphemous movie would be made in these uber-sensitive days. The depiction of mindless religious hordes imitating everything poor Brian does –taking off one sandal when one of Brian’s falls off as he runs, for example– is pretty harsh. It was released in 1979. Does that pre-date Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority? I don’t recall a huge hue and cry over the film, but then, I wasn’t paying much attention to those fundamentalist folks even then.

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  30. coozledad said on October 27, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    There was a huge Falwell-orchestrated backlash against the film. Michael Palin appeared on the Letterman show to plug it, and during the discussion of the movie, he turned to the camera and thanked the fundies for driving people to see the film and making him rich.

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  31. beb said on October 27, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    A) It was Monty Python and
    B) financed by George Harrison.
    so, No. It couldn’t be made today, and it wouldn’t have been made in 1979 if they had had to go through a regular studio.

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  32. Jeff Borden said on October 27, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    I should’ve known ol’ Jerry would have been using something like this to milk the rubes, even back then. My memory must be going. I thought the whole right-wing Christian thing started rockin’ during the Reagan administration, but clearly it started much earlier.

    Harrison had great taste in films. He also produced “The Long Good Friday,” the gangster film that made Bob Hoskins a star and still contains the most incredible wordless acting sequence ever committed to film.

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  33. coozledad said on October 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    My memory’s shot. Palin must have been on the Carson show, or he was talking about it in retrospect on Letterman. Dave wasn’t on national television until ’82.

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  34. Jolene said on October 27, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Another excellent review of the Keith Richards memoir, this one in today’s WaPo. I’ll probably wait for the paperback, but this promises to be a great read.

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  35. Catherine said on October 27, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Jolene, did you hear him on Fresh Air? It was a great interview and a good reminder that he is first and foremost a musician, not a caricature.

    Although, my 10 YO asked if he was drunk.

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  36. Jolene said on October 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Yes, I heard most of the Fresh Air interview and liked it very much. There was also a good piece on last weekend’s CBS Sunday Morning show. Both available online.

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  37. CTJohn said on October 27, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    It wasn’t only the Falwell-fundies who were up in arms over Life of Brian. One of my memories of Sunday Mass was listening to the priest lecture all of us that locally there was a movie “we must not attend”. Since I was eleven when it was released, I didn’t have a choice in the matter – but my older brother thought it was hilarious. So did my parents.

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  38. Deborah said on October 27, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    I am definitely going to order the Keith Richards memoir, I’ll order through the nnc kickback lounge of course.

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  39. Little Bird said on October 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Deborah and her husband gave me and my then boyfriend tickets to the Bridges to Babylon concert (the Stones) some ten or so years ago. The boyfriend and I met my folks there and we all sat together. The song Brown Sugar started up and Deborah leaned over and whisper-shouted in my ear “Keith Richards is so hot!” My skin tried to crawl away.
    Ummm… sorry Mom. Can I read the book when you’re done?

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  40. Linda said on October 27, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Nancy, it’s weird that you mention Lysol douches in today’s column. I am in the process of reviewing old books to weed in the collection, when I ran across a passage describing this very thing. It also describes cases of women who died using it, either for “hygiene” or to induce abortion.

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  41. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 27, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Always look on the bright side of life.

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  42. maryinIN said on October 27, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    I believe Margaret Sanger took her views farther and became a proponent and leader of the eugenics movement, eugenics being the involuntary sterilization of those deemed mentally or physically or morally deficient in order to eliminate “their kind” from society. Of course the deemers were using their own deficient criteria to make these judgements. This was a sad time in history, and I also believe the state where I reside, Indiana, was a leader in the eugenics movement, and legislation was involved in an attempt to normalize the practice.

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  43. Connie said on October 28, 2010 at 7:06 am

    True about Indiana. The State Historical Society magazine (Traces?) recently did an article on that shameful chapter in the state’s history. And Parke County oddly enough was where most of those considered unfit were living.

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  44. Deborah said on October 28, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Nancy, I’m trying to order Laura Lippman’s latest and the Keith Richard’s memoir, Life, through your lounge but it seems that if you don’t have the book listed I can’t figure out how to do it?? I can get the Lippman book since you have it on your list. But would you consider adding the Keith Richard’s book so I can order them both together and save on shipping?

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  45. nancy said on October 28, 2010 at 9:21 am


    Once you’re in the Lounge, click on the tiny “powered by Amazon” logo in the upper right, under “browse by category.” That will take you into the site at large. You’ll know you’re still connected to me if you can see “” in the URL window of your browser.

    No, they don’t make it easy. But I appreciate it just the same.

    (I’ll add Keith, too.)

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  46. prospero said on October 28, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    amercN ThereMW are something like 70million Catholics in the US. Maybe imill buy into the whaccatholics think none of tha’a NY C Ck-jobs like the Reagan-idolators and the Latin Mass wierdos. Moat American Catholics think none of that’s anybody’s business. No Catholic in the USA gives a shit about whaat Ratzeberg says about American political matters. It is incredibly offensive. Yup, I;m Catholic, Mostly by way of reading Teillhard. Tad more difficult than that dumbass tvshit on your nightstand.

    I’ve gotten the treatment,

    Now let me get this straight. Some W-approved TV minister has decided Catholics are a demomic sect. Where exactly does this shitheel think his religion comes from?

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