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Laureate Seminar: Nicole Bourbonnais, “The Gospel of Family Planning”

March 2 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Online, via Zoom. Register to attend by clicking here

“The Gospel of Family Planning: Conversion, Missionary Work, and Spirituality in the Mid-20th Century Planned Parenthood Movement”

In the early twentieth century, rising population growth rates in the decolonizing world became a subject of international concern and intervention for a variety of actors, from feminists to eugenicists to neo-Malthusians. Recent studies have explored the consolidation of a “population establishment” in the post-WWII period: a cohort of demographers and other experts (primarily men) tasked with advising dwindling colonial empires and emerging nationalist governments on how best to reign in their populations in the name of economic development and global security. But the mid-century planned parenthood movement also pulled in a more eclectic group of doctors, nurses, social workers, charity ladies and wives of colonial officials and international bureaucrats who portrayed their work as part of a humanitarian – even spiritual – mission to save the lives of women and children. These actors joined together in local, regional and international voluntary associations and sent out fieldworkers of their own (primarily women) to spread “the gospel of family planning” at home and abroad.

This seminar will use the internal reports and correspondence of several fieldworkers from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Pathfinder Fund from the 1950s and 1960s to explore this element of the family planning movement. It will focus on fieldworkers’ use of emotive language and religious metaphors to describe their “conversion” to the cause and their birth control “missions” abroad, as well as their attempts to portray the movement as apolitical, transcendental, and religiously sanctioned. Exploring their trajectories allows us to situate the history of the movement more firmly at the intersection of colonial missionary traditions and modern humanitarian activism, with all the contradictions this location entails.

Dr. Nicole Bourbonnais is an Associate Professor of International History and Politics and Co-Director of the Gender Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. Her work explores the history of reproductive politics, decolonization, feminism, and maternal health. She is author of Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean: Reproductive Politics and Practice on Four Islands (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and is currently working on a history of the twentieth-century global family planning movement.


March 2
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Event Category:


Laureate Centre for History and Population