Katharine Dexter McCormick is a name that every woman today should know, because your life would probably be very different today if it wasn’t for her. Katharine funded what The New York Times called the “most sweeping sociomedical revolution in history. . . [whose] impact on the United States and other nations [is] almost too vast to analyze.” She was responsible for funding the reseach that discovered the birth control pill.
Before the feminist movement, arguments about birth control centered around family planning for married couples, population control and eugenics, not an individual woman’s control over her own body. Beginning in 1914, activist Margaret Sanger was the first to popularize the term “birth control”, which placed emphasis on a woman’s right to choose. At that time, suppositories and douches were the main methods of birth control in the US, with diaphragms being used in Europe.
Margaret Sanger, an American nurse and sex educator, believed that women needed to be able to decide when to have children in order for them to lead healthier lives and have more equal footing in society. Birth control was a hotly contested issue even then, making Margaret’s work very difficult. She was prosecuted for teaching about birth control in her clinics, and later for illegally smuggling diaphragms into the United States from Europe. Given this atmosphere it was impossible to get funding for research into safer and more effective means of birth control.
Katharine McCormick met Margaret through her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. Katharine was vice president and treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage, and became vice president of the League of Women Voters after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
In the early 20th century, Katharine’s attention and family fortune were largely focused on her husband, Stanley, who was suffering from schizophrenia (which was poorly understood at the time). Katharine, a biologist and the second woman to graduate from MIT, was convinced that a hormonal imbalance—a defective adrenal gland—had caused Stanley’s illness, but she had little say in his care. (A few years after his death, her theory was proven correct—research psychiatrists conclusively linked schizophrenia to a chemical imbalance.)
Stanley died in 1947, leaving the family’s vast fortune to Katharine. Even after paying more than 85% on inheritance taxes, she was now a millionaire with free reign over her wealth.Katharine immediately wrote a letter to her friend Margaret Sanger asking for advice on how she could best put her new wealth to use. Margaret introduced her to Gregory Pincus and his pioneering research on fertilization and hormones. The drug company that had supported him had ended their funding when he had yet to turn a profit. Katharine donated more than $2 million ($23 million today) to his research into the development of the contraceptive pill, first licensed in 1960.
Even after the pill was approved, Katharine continued to provide funding to Pincus’s lab and research into improving the pill.
Today, the pill is the leading form of contraception, used by millions of women around the world.
Katharine is also responsible for funding women’s housing at her alma mater, MIT. At the time, the school had limited funding to provide housing for women, and there was even talk of turning it into an all-male school. Katharine single-handedly solved the problem by funding the building of Stanley McCormick Hall, an all-female dormitory named for her late husband.
Her generous donation had an inestimable impact on women’s education in the sciences: William Hecht, executive vice president of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT said that “the visible presence of women at MIT helped open up the science and engineering professions to a large part of the population that before had been excluded. It demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that at MIT men and women are equal.”
Though the name of Katharine McCormick is little-known today, she had a profound impact on our society and women’s rights. The world would be a very different place for women today without her passion and generosity.
Featured image of Katharine McCormick courtesy the MIT Museum.