Katharine Dexter McCormick was born into a life of wealth and privilege — and progressive politics. The family home in which she was born in 1875 had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents encouraged her education, and she was among the first women to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, in 1904, one of its first female graduates, having earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Katharine McCormick harnessed stereotypes about wealthy women to hide subversive acts of civil disobedience in plain sight.
Katharine wanted to be a doctor, but in 1904 she married Stanley McCormick, a Princeton-educated man and heir to a vast fortune. Her oath to stay by his side in sickness and in health, until death did them part, was tested just two years into their marriage, when Stanley’s mental health had deteriorated to the point that he was institutionalized. He was diagnosed with what today is called schizophrenia, and his family sent him to their mansion outside Santa Barbara, a “gilded cage” run by an all-male staff of doctors and nurses who provided round-the-clock care.
The all-male staff was necessary, as Stanley had developed violent tendencies that seemed to be directed primarily toward women. Katharine went nearly two decades without any physical contact with her husband — though she could write letters, talk to him on the phone, or crouch in the bushes and watch him through binoculars. Katharine stayed married to him until his death in 1947. The entire time, she was heavily involved in directing his care — despite constant clashes with his family — and remained optimistic for a cure.
But outside of her marriage, Katharine cultivated a rich life, devoting herself to women’s rights and becoming a high-ranking leader in the fight for the right to vote. After women’s suffrage was won, she was eager to turn her attention to the next fight — and was invigorated by the energy of the birth control movement, which, like the suffrage movement before it, drew ire and outrage from both church and state.
At the time, birth control was illegal in the United States. Women whose bodies were pushed to the limits by the unending cycle of pregnancy and childbirth might be told by doctors to prevent pregnancy by instructing their husbands to sleep on the roof — but that didn’t turn out to be a very effective strategy. Anyone at risk for unwanted pregnancy needed a form of contraception that was under their full control, and the diaphragm was the most modern and effective option available. Too bad they were illegal. They could be smuggled into the country by pirates or Prohibition-era bootleggers, but the black market was unable to meet the sky-high demand for the devices.
In the early 1920s, thanks to a recently opened loophole in New York state law, the country’s first permanent birth control clinic was open for business in New York City. It was officially classified as a research institution, and its patients were legally considered research subjects. But for the first time, some U.S. women could gain legal access to diaphragms — if only there were a way for the clinic to stocks its shelves with these still-illegal devices!
In 1922, Katharine prepared for her annual summer trip to her family chateau outside Geneva — preparations that included laying the groundwork for a major felony. She visited cities like Rome and Paris, where a wealthy woman could go on shopping sprees without raising any eyebrows, but that also happened to be headquarters to the continent’s largest diaphragm manufacturers. She scheduled meetings with each of them, using her multilingualism and MIT degree to pose as a French or German scientist and place orders for hundreds of diaphragms at a time. Her Swiss chateau was overrun with her purchases — boxes and boxes of diaphragms, and beautiful coats and other garments from the most fashionable cities in Europe.
Katharine hired seamstresses to carefully remove the linings from all those coats and sew diaphragms inside. With the linings neatly sewn back into place, the garments were packed into a total of eight steamer trunks, which were loaded onto a wagon. Along the journey to the coast of France, not a single border guard questioned this aristocratic American about her copious luggage. But, as she boarded her ship for America, French customs officials asked her, “How could you possibly use all of that clothing?” Katharine responded with flattery, gushing about how American women so loved French fashions. Their national pride inflated, the officers let her through without further questions.
Katharine’s contraband was sailed across the Atlantic. Once in U.S. customs, Katharine was welcomed as a familiar figure: a member of the cultural elite, carrying herself with the entitlement and haughtiness expected of a woman of her station. She watched her trunks like a hawk, tipping heavily every step of the way, her luggage never searched. Under their noses, she whisked her illegal diaphragms — more than a thousand in all — right past customs officials and out the door. Once outside, the goods were loaded onto a truck and taken directly to the birth control clinic. Her first mission was a resounding success.
The next summer, in 1923, Katharine built on this success. She purchased more European diaphragms than she could fit into her luggage. As before, diaphragms were smuggled inside the linings of coats, and were also disguised as beautifully wrapped Christmas presents. Once again, customs officials didn’t bat an eye as she paraded her steamer trunks and other ample luggage right past them. And that wasn’t all — additional boxes of diaphragms had been disguised as cosmetics cases. Katharine arranged for the ship’s captain to drop them off at a port in Canada, where liquor smugglers picked them up and slipped them across the U.S. border.
Unfortunately, the next summer Katharine’s success was limited. Bedridden for many weeks with strep throat, she returned to the United States in October with less than half of what she had smuggled the previous year. The next year, too, was beset by obstacles when an earthquake struck Santa Barbara in June 1925, forcing Katharine to cut her summer in Europe short. In September, she whisked diaphragms into the country, and under customs officials’ noses, for the last time. Her husband’s care was demanding more of her attention, and the work involved in overseeing the reconstruction of their earthquake-damaged mansion was more complicated than expected. Her four-year career as a birth control smuggler was over, buried in the rubble of her mansion, derailed by her husband’s illness.
Katharine’s story has an exciting coda, however. In the 1950s, widowed and wielding full control over her fortune, Katharine jumped back into the fight for contraception. Birth control advocates were pining for a “magic pill,” and now that science was learning more about hormones, they hoped that magic pill could be made into a reality. It’s a story that’s been told in full in plenty of other sources, but the long and short of it is that Katharine provided the lion’s share of funding for the development of the birth control pill. Not the government, not Big Pharma — it was Katharine Dexter McCormick. In total, she provided $2 million in funding — around $20 million in today’s dollars, give or take.
One hundred years ago, wealthy women like Katharine McCormick were seen as frivolous creatures, summering in Europe and flitting from glamorous city to glamorous city to stock up on the latest fashions. The impeccably dressed Katharine liked supporting women, too, so she harnessed those stereotypes to hide subversive acts of civil disobedience in plain sight. She took those preconceived notions about a woman of her class, and stuffed them to the brim with diaphragms.
Most of the information in this post comes from Armond Field’s 2003 biography of Katharine Dexter McCormick.