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.

In 1832, Charles Knowlton published The Fruits of Philosophy, a pamphlet advocating for controlling reproduction and detailing methods for preventing pregnancy. Originally published anonymously in Massachusetts, The Fruits of Philosophy was an illegal book because United States law prohibited the publishing of immoral and obscene material, which included information about contraception. In The Fruits of Philosophy, Knowlton detailed recipes for contraceptives and advocated for controlling reproduction. In 1877 in Europe, social activists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished the pamphlet in London, England. At that time, many governments, including the United Kingdom, still considered the book illegal material due to its discussion of contraception. The Fruits of Philosophy was one of the first publications detailing contraceptive methods for controlling reproduction and activists used it in some of the first attempts at repealing obscenity laws in the United States and Great Britain. Through their efforts, Knowlton and those who later republished the pamphlet increased knowledge of reproduction and awareness of methods of contraception. By challenging anti-obscenity laws, the author and activists also helped with the eventual weakening and dissolution of such law.