Katharine Dexter McCormick: A Forgotten Trailblazer in the Birth Control Movement

The loads of money Katharine McCormick contributed to contraceptive research certainly helped "the pill" come to fruition, but her contributions to the women's rights movement extended beyond her philanthropy. Bettmann/Getty Images

When it comes to the development of female contraception, you'd be hard-pressed to name more influential people than Margaret Sanger and Dr. Gregory Pincus. Sanger founded the organization that would become the reproductive health care provider Planned Parenthood, and Pincus and his team were the first scientists to develop and test a hormonal oral contraceptive for women. Both were clear leaders in the movement for women's reproductive health.

But in an episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey remind us that it takes more than activism and science to create a medical breakthrough; it takes a whole lot of money. And biologist and philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick provided the deep pockets behind the invention of the birth control pill.

However, boiling McCormick's accomplishments down to the thickness of her pocketbook is a bad idea. Although her financial contributions to contraception research were large, she also played important roles as an activist and leader in the movement for women's suffrage and equal access to education.

Katharine McCormick's (L) role as a suffragette was one of many ways she participated in the movement for women's rights throughout her life.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Katharine Dexter was born in 1875 to a wealthy Midwestern family. Her father's death prompted her mother to relocate to Boston, taking the young Katharine with her. In 1904, Dexter became the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a bachelor's degree in biology. The same year, she married Stanley McCormick, a Chicagoan with an enormous family fortune. But within a couple of years, it became apparent that he had a serious mental illness. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived at a private psychiatric institution in California for the rest of his life. Despite serious conflicts with his family, she refused to divorce him.

McCormick became an active suffragette, moving into leadership positions at the National American Woman Suffrage Association, until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. She then turned her focus to contraception, and although she believed women had a right to choose their own family planning, Stanley's illness — and the belief that it was an inherited disease — bolstered her fight to allow couples to control procreation.

After meeting and teaming up with Sanger, McCormick became a diaphragm mule, smuggling the then-illegal contraceptive devices into the United States after trips to Europe. When McCormick received Stanley's entire multimillion-dollar family estate after he died, she had the money she needed to make a difference in the reproductive rights movement, and she poured it into birth control pill research and development.

Holly and Tracy give the details of the meeting between Sanger, Pincus and McCormick that allowed for the eventual development and approval of the first female oral contraceptive. Join them to learn more about this largely forgotten leader of the women's rights movement in this episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class.