Today in Feminist History: Baird Barred for Birth Control (May 19, 1969)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


May 19, 1969: In what seemed like a courtroom scene from a half century ago, Bill Baird was sentenced to three months in prison today for distributing a contraceptive device to an unmarried woman in violation of a Massachusetts law banning “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order.”

The maximum penalty for violation of that law is five years in prison.

The case began on April 6, 1967, when in response to a request by some students, Baird came to Boston University and gave a well-attended lecture on birth control. At the conclusion of his remarks, he gave a package of Emko contraceptive foam to a 19-year-old female student. He was promptly arrested by members of Boston’s Vice Squad, and charged with two separate felonies: exhibiting “obscene” objects (birth control devices) and giving away one of them.

Baird was found guilty on October 17, 1967, though his sentencing was stayed until he could appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He won a partial victory there 18 days ago when the Court ruled in Commonwealth v. William R. Baird (355 Mass. 746) that it was not illegal to give a lecture on birth control—even if it involves exhibiting contraceptive devices. But the justices voted four-to-three to uphold his conviction for distributing any such device to an unmarried individual. 

Reluctantly obliged to be in minimal conformity with a Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479), handed down on June 7, 1965, the state’s total ban on birth control, on the books since 1879, was replaced by the legislature in 1966 with a new statute which allowed physicians and pharmacists to dispense contraceptives—but only to those who were married and over 21.

Though many in the courtroom today had expected nothing more than a symbolic $100 fine to be imposed, the judge declared that Baird was a “menace to society” and sentenced him to three months in the infamous Charles Street Jail. Baird is angry, but prepared to serve his time while appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the court ruled in Griswold that married couples have a right to birth control, it has not yet ruled on whether single individuals have that same right, so this will be a test case.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.