She smuggled sexual devices in puffy dresses

She smuggled sexual devices in puffy dresses
She didn’t look like a criminal.

Katharine Dexter McCormick graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904, earning a degree in biology. But she also did something practical for women who wanted access to birth control, which was illegal in the United States. She started smuggling diaphragms.

Katharine plunged into social issues, beginning with women’s suffrage. She spoke at a Massachusetts rally for that cause in 1909, and by the time the 19th amendment was ratified, in 1920, she had been both treasurer and vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1917, at a Boston trial for a young man charged with distributing pamphlets on female contraception, Katharine met Margaret Sanger, the feminist leader who had been jailed for opening America’s first birth control clinic. When she heard Sanger speak, she knew they had to join forces.

To be free, she believed, women needed some measure of control over their reproductive lives. So she got creative, devising a plan that was elegantly deceptive and grand in scope. In Europe, diaphragms were legal. So Katharine, fluent in French and German, traveled to Europe and posed as a scientist to meet with diaphragm manufacturers. She purchased hundreds of the devices and hired local seamstresses to sew them into dresses, evening gowns, and coats. Then she had the garments wrapped and packed neatly into trunks for shipment. When French customs agents commented on the sheer quantity of clothing, Katherine gushed about how much American women adored French fashion. And if the New York customs service ever rifled through the trunks, agents would have found nothing but slightly puffy dresses in the possession of a bossy socialite, a woman oozing such self-importance and tipping her porters so grandly that no one suspected a thing. Home in the States, she ultimately distributed more than 1,000 diaphragms to Sanger’s clinics.

A Mind of Her Own. As an early crusader for social change, Katharine Dexter McCormick, Class of 1904, opened new opportunities for women at MIT and beyond. MIT Technology Review>>

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