A recent New Yorker comic managed to convey some political truth. In “Nineteenth-Century Novels, with Better Birth Control,” Glynnis Fawkes reimagines Victorian plots with modern advances in reproductive medicine. “How could I be dead from childbirth,” Cathy Earnshaw cries in the updated Wuthering Heights, “when I was never pregnant?”

The contemporary assault on reproductive rights in America is anything but a laughing matter. Some states are down to just one abortion clinic. But the comic does get something unmistakably right: up through the mid-nineteenth century, birth control was such a taboo that even the wildest imaginations of the brightest authors could not conceive of its widespread use. It was left to those dreamers who, while struggling for the emancipation of humanity writ large, struggled for women’s self-determination and bodily autonomy — namely, socialists.

Taking up an issue that was far outside the mainstream, socialist pioneers in countries like Britain, the United States, and Germany argued that access to birth control had to be understood in class terms and that women’s emancipation was at the heart of the fight for a better world. Those who broke ground were sent to jail and traduced in the press, disparaged as vulgarians and treated to withering misogyny. But they all stand as testaments to the radical origins of the birth control movement.  […]