The Malthusian League, founded in London, England, in 1877 promoted the use of contraception to limit family size. Activists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant established the Malthusian League after they were arrested and exonerated for publishing a pamphlet describing techniques to prevent pregnancy. Founders based the league on the principles of Thomas Malthus, a British nineteenth century economist, who wrote on the perils of a population growing beyond the resources available to support it. The Malthusian League advocated for limiting family size voluntarily through contraception to avoid the overpopulation and poverty cautioned in Malthus’ work. After fifty years, the Malthusian League closed due to the increasing disapproval for Malthus’s economic theories of population and poverty. However, the Malthusian League’s activism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to more tolerant views of contraception and family planning in Great Britain in the twentieth century.

Annie Wood Besant was a social activist who advocated for women’s access to birth control as well as marriage reform, labor reform, and Indian Nationalism in the nineteenth century in England and India. In her early career, Besant was involved in various social and political advocacy organizations including the National Secular Society, the Malthusian League, and the Fabian Society. Besant gave many public lectures and authored various articles in support of secularism, workers’ rights and unionization, and women’s rights. In 1877, Besant and her colleague Charles Bradlaugh republished the pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy, by Charles Knowlton, on reproduction and contraception. Besant and Bradlaugh were tried for violating the obscenity law that prohibited the publication of obscene material, including sex and contraception. Later in her life, she converted to theosophy and moved to India where she joined the Theosophical Society. In India, Besant campaigned for Indian self-rule and became the president of the Indian National Congress. Besant, through republication of The Fruits of Philosophy and many public lectures and writings on women’s rights, expanded public knowledge of birth control.

Charles Bradlaugh was as a political and social activist in the seventeenth century in England. He held leadership positions in various organizations focused on social and political activism including the Reform League, the London Secular Society, the newspaper National Reformer, and the National Secular Society. Throughout his career, Bradlaugh advocated for better conditions for the working poor, and for the separation of government and religion. The British government prosecuted him numerous times for violating laws prohibiting the publication, sale, and transmission of antireligious, antigovernment, and obscene materials. In 1877, Bradlaugh and another secularist, Annie Besant, republished The Fruits of Philosophy, a pamphlet about contraceptive techniques originally whose author was physician Charles Knowlton. In the nineteenth century, individuals did not have access to information on sex, reproduction, and contraception, as much of society argued such information encouraged immoral behavior. Bradlaugh and Besant were tried for publishing information on sexual anatomy, conception, and methods to control reproduction. Bradlaugh expanded public knowledge of reproduction and contraception, and initiated the process of dismantling the obscenity laws.

Norman Haire was a physician who advocated for eugenics, which is the betterment of human population by promoting positive traits, and birth control rights in the twentieth century in both Australia and the UK. In the UK, Haire joined the Malthusian League, a contraception advocacy organization, and helped the League open the first physician-supervised birth control clinic, called Walworth Women’s Welfare Centre in London, England. Throughout his life, Haire worked closely with other well-known contraception and women’s rights advocates in the early 1900s including Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, and Havelock Ellis. Haire was also known for his work on sexual rejuvenation, an early twentieth century theory that the male sexual appetite could be restored through vasectomies and hormonal injections. Haire advocated for birth control rights through his practice, conference lectures, radio debates, and published work. His activism in the fields of eugenics, contraception, and sexual reform promoted the emergence of more liberal attitudes towards sex and controlled reproduction and in the twentieth century.

Emma Goldman was a traveling public speaker and writer known for her anarchist political views as well as her opinions on contraception and birth limiting in the late nineteenth century in the United States. Goldman identified as an anarchist, which she explained as being part of an ideology in which people use violence to provoke or demand social and political change. Goldman was involved in many anarchist social groups and published the anarchist magazine Mother Earth. She spent the majority of her life traveling the US and Europe giving lectures and presentations to spread her views on the political events during her lifetime. Goldman also worked to spread awareness about birth control and contraceptive options in response to the lack of birth control options she witnessed while working as a nurse. By advocating for birth control in her travels, Goldman brought international attention to topics like birth control and women’s rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.