„I Want to Establish the History of Family Planning and Birth Control Clinics as a Transnational History“ – 5in10 with Claudia Roesch

Claudia Roesch (Picture: private)

Claudia Roesch is a historian of 20th century American history, specializing in the history of family. Her fields of interest include the history of transatlantic exchanges, Gender and Migration Studies.

Trained as both a historian and Americanist, she has written her PhD dissertation on Mexican immigrant families and social work programs in the United States at the University of Münster. After that she held a postdoctoral research position within the Collaborative Research Center 1150 „Cultures of Decision-Making“ at the University of Münster to research reproductive decision-making in Germany and the USA. Since January 2018, she is a research fellow at the GHI Washington working on a project on a transnational history of family planning.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I work on a transnational history of family planning in Germany and the United States. This means that I look at interconnections between the German family planning association Pro Familia and the US American Planned Parenthood Federation. I examine how they exchanged ideas and information about the concept of family planning, about contraceptives and abortion reform. I trace how the American Planned Parenthood Federation helped establish the idea that family is something to plan for in postwar West Germany and supported founding a German family planning association. German family planners then very closely followed the introduction of the pill in Puerto Rico and the US. By tracing these connections, I want to establish the history of family planning and birth control clinics as a transnational history. It was not independent national initiatives but a constant exchange of ideas that introduced new concepts of family and new forms of family structure in the second half of the twentieth century.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

During my research for my PhD dissertation on Mexican immigrant families, I came across a quote from a sociologist from the 1950s, who basically said that Americans planned their families, while Mexicans believed that children were a gift by God. So, I started asking myself when the idea that family is something to plan for emerged. When my PhD advisor, Isabel Heinemann, told me that colleagues in Münster were collecting ideas for a collaborative research centre on “Cultures of Decision-Making”, I remembered that quote and suggested researching how having children became an act of decision-making in the 20th century. Then I decided to focus on family planning associations since they promoted the concept of family as an act of planning and debated who should decide about contraceptives or abortions. As their campaigns served as advertisement for the product of family planning, they needed to refer to social norms and instances of social change. Looking at their campaigns in a long-term perspective thus helps trace instances of social change, for instances when it was made clear that women should choose by themselves which contraceptive fits best.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…)?

I use archival material. I went through the collection of Planned Parenthood at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the Pro Familia archives in Frankfurt. I also looked at the papers of Pro Familia co-founder Hans Harmsen at the federal archive in Koblenz, and those of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger here at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Mainly I refer to correspondences between different activists, but I found comics on family planning to be a really great source material. For instance, they show in very simple drawings how a nicely planned small family will have a nice house, nice clothes and toys, whereas an unplanned large family will be poor and will have no food on their plates. One of those comics was drafted by Planned Parenthood, originally to reach out to Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US, and then got shipped to the family planning association in Colombia. One of the German Pro Familia activists found it there when he visited a birth control clinic in Bogotá as part of a research trip and brought it back to use it in Germany – those are the exciting archive finds that help you trace global connections of family planning.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

A couple of weeks ago I was at the GSA (German Studies Association) annualconference in Pittsburgh and that was really inspiring. There were so many young scholars – PhD students and young postdocs – who presented really exciting projects on a cultural history of Germany, for instance on migration or on the history of sexuality in postwar Germany. There was one panel that looked at the Berlin Wall in a transnational perspective, how refugees from countries like Afghanistan in the 1980s tried to cross that border. Lots of projects that placed German history into a Global History or transnational perspective, that looked at return migration to Turkey in the 1980s or at how dog breeding associations had to reposition themselves after 1945. So, there is lots of exciting PhD and postdoc projects coming out in the next couple of years, that’s really fascinating to see.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I think it helps you to broaden your perspective, since it is much easier to get in touch with people that come from different academic traditions. Especially when you work on projects that address questions of migration history, your own experience of living abroad helps you shape your project and connect your own experience with research questions. Of course, on a practical side, it is easier to see which source material is available at the place where you are located. But most importantly, it’s the exchange with people who know the scientific landscape in the US, with senior scholars over here and with people who come to our conferences and lectures that helps me the most. At the GHI, we can attract people from many different places in the US to come to our institute, to learn about their interesting projects and to present our research. That is a very exciting opportunity.


Citation: „I Want to Establish the History of Family Planning and Birth Control Clinics as a Transnational History“ – 5in10 with Claudia Roesch, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.11.18, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/15101.


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