Dissertation Blog #3: The “Ordinary” People Behind the US Population Movement

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The “Ordinary” People Behind the US Population Movement

Caitlin Fendley


My dissertation project began in a graduate writing seminar, where I was finally making concrete plans for what my research topic would be. I was interested in the history of reproductive health, eugenics, and sterilization in the United States, and – at least for the purposes of the seminar – needed a topic which was accessible source-wise, provided enough material for a chapter-length paper, and helped create a solid foundation for my later dissertation research. In my preliminary search, I came across primary sources discussing Zero Population Growth (ZPG), which I soon learned was the largest grassroots organization in the United States devoted to population issues.


Formed in 1968 by biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, Charles Remington, and Richard Bowers, the group focused on curbing population growth by promoting smaller families, abortion rights, access to birth control and sterilization, comprehensive sex education, and pregnancy prevention.  I remember sorting through newspaper articles and other sources which documented local efforts of concerned Americans to convince others to “stop at two” children when planning their families. Some of my favorites included a pair of newspaper articles discussing a local ZPG chapter hosting a contest drawing for a free vasectomy in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “The winner of a drawing at a Cedar Falls shopping center will get a free operation to make a man sterile” began The Des Moines Register column. After the drawing, the local ZPG coordinator, Dr. Darrel Hoff, stated that “The winner [a 34-year-old father of three from Cedar Falls] was really pleased to get it. He said it was something he and his wife wanted, but couldn’t afford.” [1]


Through such articles, I found that many members of ZPG expressed misunderstandings about themselves personally, as members of said organization, and of ZPG itself. One ZPG member, and mother of three, experienced teasing after joining because she had not “stopped at two,” and expressed that people simply did not understand what ZPG was about. However many children people have should be a choice, and yet there persisted a stigma about two, one, and no child families. Central to the population movement was challenging cultural pronatalist norms which pressured Americans, especially women, to have children. Members of ZPG were citizens concerned about overpopulation, but what exactly did that mean then? Did they think Americans should be forced to “stop at two”? Should couples with more children than the desired replacement rate be taxed, deterred, or even shamed? Should they be sterilized? The answers to these questions varied greatly, though more frequently discussed was the desire to achieve population stabilization through promoting education and awareness.


The secondary literature I found generally did not devote much time to ZPG, and when it did, it often referred to them as a radical and coercive group. Although I soon learned about the unfortunately dark aspects of ZPG and the population movement, such as Richard Bowers’ call to forcibly sterilize parents with five children, through much of the primary sources I examined I had the impression that many ZPG members were just concerned Americans who advocated for curbing the population and educating others about the benefits of having smaller families while supporting family planning initiatives. Their emphasis on local efforts, and “doing their part,” was part of a wider movement to encourage personal responsibility; normally, “declensionist” (decline) narratives within environmentalism de-emphasized the importance of individual action. [2]


While eugenic and racist attitudes and behaviors absolutely exist and persist within the population movement, as the largest grassroots population organization it feels unjust to categorize ZPG as a whole – and its members – as such. Thus, while my project is more eugenics “adjacent,” it requires pulling apart the population movement and separating the truly voluntary methods from the coercive and eugenically-motivated ones. In doing so, I hope to bring greater nuance to the subject, and provide evidence for how the efforts of such groups made positive contributions to environmentalism and reproductive health rights. This forms one part of my dissertation which looks at voluntary grassroots initiatives to “defuse the population bomb,” and provides the historical context to theories and plans for a more sustainable, less crowded, and environmentally friendly Earth and future. This has included researching ZPG but also the grassroots, pro-space group the L-5 Society, as well as the counterculture environmental work and publications of Stewart Brand.


Central to my investigation is conducting oral history interviews with former members of ZPG. My intention is not to determine the merit of population stabilization, but to better understand how population activists – and by extension, Americans – understood population issues, what motivated them to advocate for curbing the population, and how this activism influenced their personal lives. Afterall, concerns about the population crisis were not fringe ideas, but quite popular at the time. These narratives of “ordinary Americans” (to distinguish from the founders and leaders of groups like ZPG which receive the majority of attention and discussion in scholarship) are largely absent from the histories of population activism, but are crucial to determining how these actors felt about their advocacy roles, their support or disdain for different approaches to population issues, what led them to activism, and finally, if and how they continued to promote population stabilization after their involvement in ZPG.


Though oral history interviews cannot provide us with historical truths or “facts,” they are nonetheless the memories, experiences, and stories of the individuals who make up larger histories. As I continue to speak with such people, I feel as though I have a much better sense of what population activism looked like “on the ground,” as opposed to the population work which took place on top-down levels, such as through national and foreign population policy, and global family planning funding and efforts. This will be essential to providing population activists with a greater “voice” in the historical record, as well as helping to better situate US-focused grassroots activism into the expansive historical literature on population growth.


[1] Jack Hovelson, “Offer Vasectomy Prize at Drawing in Cedar Falls,” The Des Moines Register, April 20, 1972; “Vasectomy Drawing Won,” The Des Moines Register, May 6, 1972.


[2] Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007).



Caitlin Fendley is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Purdue University, interested in the history of medicine, science, and the environment.