Birth Control Providers and Limitations in 1930s Wisconsin

Posted by Anita on February 21, 2023

(written & researched by Kayla Price, UWL Capstone Project; edited by Jenny DeRocher, Archives Staff)

At the beginning of the Great Depression and throughout the 1930s, birth control, and contraception was still a relatively new concept for most, and the broader movement was beginning to spread throughout the United States. It was only in the late 1910s that activist Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control” and begin the first birth control clinic in the U.S. The Depression and the financial hardships many were facing during this time propelled the movement forward as families were looking to limit the number of children they would be able to afford.

This was no different in Wisconsin. Throughout the state, three individuals were known to have operated during the 1930s, providing contraceptives to their respective communities: Dr. Lillian B. Tracey Welda (La Crosse/Onalaska), Adele Gordon (Milwaukee), and Ewart Arnold (Milwaukee). Of the three, two owned birth control clinics providing both educational and contraceptive services, and one operated a contraceptive vending machine. Though they were allowed to operate, there were laws, both state and federal, that restricted advertising and forms of sale which made operating such businesses difficult. 

Dr. Lillian B. Tracey Welda operated a clinic first in La Crosse and later in Onalaska in the 1930s. She opened an osteopathic clinic in February 1930 in partnership with Dr. Frederick R. Thornton at 127 N. 4th St.


La Crosse Tribune, February 22, 1930

Shortly afterwards, Dr. Lillian B. Tracey Welda decided to join the movement to provide birth control. In October of 1931, Dr. Tracey Welda informed her landlord of her intention to open her birth control clinic in his building. However, after consulting two Roman Catholic priests, Dr. Tracey Welda’s landlord informed her that she could not open her practice in his building.


The Linker Building, located at 324-330 Main Street in downtown La Crosse. Dr. Tracey Welda's clinic was likely located on the 3rd floor.


Dr. Tracey Welda relocated and opened her practice at 324 Main Street on November 20, 1932. Though the 1932 City Directory printed this address, the physical 1932 Directory held at UWL Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center had a handwritten note with the clinic’s Main St. address crossed out and replaced with 1539 Cass Street. Letters held at the UWL Murphy Library SC/ARC also mention the 1932 move to the Cass St. address. It should be stated that though birth control was highly controversial and birth control clinics were still a new practice, Dr. Lillian B. Tracey Welda publicly advertised her clinic. Her clinic was one of the first to publicly provide birth control in Wisconsin. 

Dr. Lillian B. Tracey Welda’s story can be contextualized by looking at other Wisconsin providers at the same time. While Dr. Tracey Welda was not impacted by it, other Wisconsin providers faced legal hardships in the wake of the O’Malley Law. Passed in 1933 by the Wisconsin State Assembly, the law criminalized the sale of “indecent articles,” (i.e. contraceptives), by any individual other than a licensed physician or pharmacist. Furthermore, the law barred any sale of contraceptives to unmarried individuals, reserving the rights to this service to married couples. The earlier 1873 Comstock law made it even harder to operate as a provider and educator as it barred the mailing and display of “indecent articles.”


Sheboygan Press, February 5, 1935

In 1932, Nurse Adele Gordon and her husband John Gordon, a pharmacist, opened a birth control clinic in Milwaukee. Both highly educated, the two were interested in aiding married couples by providing contraceptives, educating them on the various methods, and providing services such as fitting women for diaphragms. The clinic only provided its services to married individuals and never once performed an abortion. Furthermore, when the O’Malley Law was passed, the Gordons consulted the Milwaukee District Attorney to ensure their practice was within the boundaries of the law.

However, in March of 1933, the Gordons were placed under arrest for violating the O’Malley Law following an undercover operation conducted by the State Board of Medical Examiners. During this investigation, two women were sent to the clinic, only one claiming to be married. After refusing service to the unmarried individual, Mrs. Adele Gordon continued in providing contraceptive services to the married individual. Following the service and receiving the contraceptive, the married individual was asked for payment at the end of her visit at the clinic.

After her arrest, Mrs. Gordon faced trial for violating the law. During the trial, the prosecution claimed that Mrs. Gordon was in violation of the law as she was selling contraceptives, providing indecent articles and immoral materials to patients, and operating the clinic as a nurse. Mrs. Gordon's defense argued passionately against the prosecution's claims. For instance, in response to the claims of Mrs. Gordon charging for the contraceptives, the defense stated that the customer was only charged for the services Mrs. Gordon had provided. On top of all this, Mrs. Gordon had violated the law as she was providing services as a nurse, not a pharmacist or physician. However, Mrs. Gordon’s defense provided evidence of her experience and expertise that made her competent to perform the work. In the end, Mrs. Adele Gordon won her trial and resumed her practice.


La Crosse Tribune, April 5, 1935

Filling station owner and operator of two contraceptive vending machines, Ewart Arnold, also faced hardship in the face of the law. On December 19, 1933, Mr. Arnold was placed under arrest for violating the O’Malley law after Milwaukee police discovered his vending machines in the restrooms of his station. After his arrest, Mr. Arnold faced three separate trials, the last of which was at the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. Throughout the trial, Mr. Arnold claimed the O’Malley law was vague and that the contraceptives within the machines were purely sold for preventative purposes. However, the court stated that Mr. Arnold was not a physician or pharmacist, was selling contraceptives, that could be purchased by unwed individuals, and that Mr. Arnold was collecting commission from their sale. Unlike Mrs. Gordon, Mr. Arnold lost his trial.

However, both Mrs. Gordon and Mr. Arnold proceeded to operate and provide contraceptives to their communities despite the laws put in place to prevent them from doing so. Though the contraceptives sold by Mr. Arnold were sold for the purpose of disease prevention, the contraceptives sold could also be used for pregnancy prevention. While Mr. Arnold may not have considered himself a part of the border birth control movement taking place nationally, his fight to continue providing contraceptives proves otherwise.

Despite the obstacles they faced, the individuals, activists, and providers discussed operated and provided contraceptives to their communities nonetheless. These individuals put themselves and their reputations on the line to aid individuals in obtaining the contraceptives necessary to sustain their well-being. These providers realized the need for contraceptives, whether it be for health, financial, or other reasons, and fought for this right for those within their communities.