In 1926, 46 years before the right to contraception would be federally recognized for all (both married and unmarried) and 90 years before Maryland would pass the most comprehensive contraception coverage expansion in the country, Dr. Bessie Moses — the Baltimore Jewish doctor who would become a birth control pioneer — was quietly incorporating Baltimore’s first birth control clinic, which would open its doors the following year.
Margaret Sanger, who in New York started the first birth control clinic in 1916, may have been the face of the birth control movement, but she was also known for being brash and more than a bit of a media hog, according to Rowan University history professor (and Goucher College grad) Melissa Klapper, who wrote a book about American Jewish women and activism called “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace.” So, perhaps it is no surprise that the contributions of Moses, both in Baltimore and to the birth control movement at large, are not more well-known.
With the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood’s national organization taking place this year, the 90th for Planned Parenthood of Maryland right around the corner and this month’s sweeping contraception legislation that passed in the state, Moses’ story and legacy run parallel to the conversations still current today about reproductive rights.
Jewish women doctors were discriminated against on two fronts. It’s one of the reasons so many of them went into the birth control movement.”— Melissa Klapper, author and Rowan University history professor
“That’s why Dr. Moses’ work was so incredible — and forward thinking,” said Joanna Diamond, vice president of external relations for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. “We’re still having those conversations and still having that fight. There is still a need to expand access to birth control.”
A Baltimore native born in 1893, Moses attended Western High School and Goucher College and did graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in biology. Despite an interest in medicine, she was convinced by her parents to become a teacher instead. She lasted two years teaching at women’s colleges before finally convincing her parents of the value of a medical career and enrolling in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Though she was dedicated to her chosen field of study, the early 1900s was not a time known for its liberal views of women and their abilities. The percentage of women doctors was in the mere single digits, Klapper said. In fact, a Baltimore Home News article in 1939 placed the number of Baltimore women doctors at just 25.
“Jewish women doctors were discriminated against on two fronts,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons so many of them went into the birth control movement.”
And yet, Moses persevered.
According to the Maryland State Archives, she was the first woman obstetrical intern at Johns Hopkins and later studied at the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She opened her own private practice in 1924, and she continued to practice until just before her death in 1965, more than 40 years.
“Few physicians were as loved by patients as much as Bess; she gave of herself unstintingly,” said Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a friend, former Planned Parenthood president and namesake of the Guttmacher Institute, in a memorial written in a Planned Parenthood newsletter after Moses’ death.
But it was her journey into contraception where she became celebrated as a pioneer. Opening the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice in 1927 wasn’t just radical by the social mores of the time, it was essentially illegal — the federal Comstock Law prohibited moving contraceptives (and other “articles of immoral use”) across state lines.
Moses skirted around this obstacle by setting up the Bureau as a research facility. Even still, none of the local hospitals would house the program, and she instead set up shop in a row house north of Johns Hopkins Hospital at 1028 North Broadway. She would later publish her research as an influential book called “Contraception as a Therapeutic Measure.”
In 1932, the Bureau would become the Baltimore Birth Control Clinic and then, 10 years later, Planned Parenthood of Maryland. Moses would stay on as its first medical director until 1956. Her work was so important to the birth control movement that she was honored in 1950 alongside Sanger with the Lasker Foundation Award from Planned Parenthood — the first women to win this award.
It is easy to account for her various accomplishments — they are impressive and always outlined in local biographies, articles from that time and Planned Parenthood of Maryland’s official history. It is harder, now more than 50 years after her death, to know much about the woman herself.