Lois Weber’s 1916 silent film, Where Are My Children?, is considered a classic example of a social problem film, one which in this instance “dealt with the taboo subjects of contraceptives (for) and abortion (against).” [1] The narrative content of Weber’s film is a particularly tangled web of conflicted morality, unclear rhetoric, and misleading medical anecdotes, with “contradictory discourses arising from the context of the film’s production, cultural preoccupations of the period, and Weber’s idiosyncratic concerns.” [2] It is difficult—if not highly impractical—to judge a film that is over 100 years old through a modern feminist lens when its very topic of discussion (reproductive rights) is still a matter of heated, complex debate in the 21st century. As such, the contemporary cultural context of Weber’s film is key to breaking down and understanding Weber’s well-meaning but tangled message as it was (most likely) intended.

In modern feminist politics, the issues of birth control and abortion are often grouped together under the umbrella of reproductive rights, and those that are for one are typically (though not always) for the other. However, in 1916—the year Where Are My Children? was released—this was not the case. The movement for birth control was not widely supported, and “distributing information and counseling patients about contraception and contraceptive devices was illegal under federal and state laws.” [3] Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood,[4] was gaining public attention for “[challenging] the laws that suppressed the distribution of birth control information” by opening up a family planning clinic, which she went to jail for. [5] (Sanger’s was the very court case which would come to inspire a later, significantly less tangled film by Weber exclusively about birth control, entitled The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. [6] ) Abortion was a very separate practice from contraceptive use, with most progressive activists focusing on the latter due to the dangers involved in contemporary abortion procedures.

In a time when even the most prominent advocates for women’s rights weren’t openly supporting abortion, the significantly more conservative Weber certainly wasn’t going to do so. Her entire image within the film industry was founded on her respectability and domesticity. This image was very connected to the fact that her filmmaking work was done in partnership with her husband, Edward Smalley, and “their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.” [7] Weber herself was raised with conservative Victorian values, which played a large role in her work despite her other more progressive goals, such as “opposing censorship and the death penalty and championing birth control.” [8] However, even though her works tended to emphasize traditional gender roles for women and the “need for a strong, loving, and nurturing home,” [9] Weber still wanted to use films “as a means of achieving political change, aspiring to produce work ‘that [would] have an influence for good on the public mind.’” [10] Thus, from the brain of a woman on a mission during this very specific moment in time in regards to reproductive rights, a film with very good intentions and very odd execution emerged.

The main storyline in Where Are My Children? (Story A, considered the conservative “male-identified” story [11] ) is centered around an upper-class couple: a district attorney (the husband, naturally) who wants a family, and his wife, who for some mysterious reason has not yet provided him with a child. The mysterious reason is quickly revealed to the audience, being that the wife has been secretly getting abortions from a Doctor Malfit. Not only has she been procuring these abortions herself, but she is shown recommending the very same doctor to multiple upper-class friends, all of whom don’t want to stop their life of parties and fun in order to deal with the inconvenience of raising a baby. At least, that is how these women’s motivations are framed by Weber. “The film condemns these women for this attitude, and even more for going so far as to have illegal abortions. Here Weber echoes the discourses of medical experts of her time, who also condemned wives who did not immediately rush to bear children.” [12] The husband finds all this information out (while prosecuting various doctors for crimes related to spreading birth control information and performing abortions), and he is framed as tragically being denied a family by his cold-hearted wife who shirked her domestic duties.

The secondary storyline (Story B; considered the radical “female-identified” story [13] ) is about a working-class girl (the daughter of the maid of the couple from Story A) who is seduced by an upper-class deviant (the brother of the wife in the couple from Story A). The girl becomes pregnant, the wife from Story A helps her get an abortion, but Doctor Malfit botches the abortion, and the girl dies. Her death is obviously tragic, though Weber does not make a clear statement about what might have been a better way of handling the situation – meaning she does not clarify whether the girl should have had access to better birth control information, or safer abortion practices. All of this comes together to create a fascinating film that leaves the viewer unsure of just what exactly Weber was trying to convey.

In the 21st century, Story A would not be read by modern feminists as a feminist storyline, but Story B might be viewed as a feminist argument as for why abortion should be legalized—so as to encourage women to have safer procedures, instead of dangerous illegal ones. Similarly, in modern eyes, talking about birth control and the safety of abortions could be seen as progressive, especially during a time period where even distributing family planning information was illegal, but Weber’s emphasis on the duty and obligation of motherhood could be read as quite conservative. Further complicating matters is Weber’s “problematic advocacy of eugenics and preventing proliferation of the lower classes” as her reasoning for access to “birth control or perhaps even for legalized, and safe, abortion.” [14]

But again, this was 1916. The lens through which to better understand the social relevance of Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? is the perspectives of her contemporaries. Eugenics, for example, was a fairly popular concept, and “a large number of even the most famous social workers and other Progressive era reformers either supported or were at least open to forms of negative eugenics.” [15] So the critique that most stands out to modern viewers—Weber’s advocacy for birth control as part of eugenics—is less relevant. Instead, contemporary viewers focused on trying to interpret Weber’s unclear politics around the actual use of birth control in general and the practice of abortion.

The reactions varied wildly and in unexpected ways. Modern audiences might expect black-and-white conservative backlash and progressive support for a film about birth control. And those feelings did exist—but in many cases, the opposite reactions occurred. Though some conservative viewers described the film as going against traditional family values, many others praised its anti-abortion stance, including several well-known New York clergymen. According to Motion Picture News, “Superior Paul-ist Father John T. Hughes said: ‘Eminently proper – a powerful indictment against a fearful and increasing crime,’” and “The Rev. Thos. A. Daly said: ‘A powerful indictment of a vice that threatens society.’” [16] The same article noted that “[thousands] of citizens have given written opinions pronouncing this picture ‘Humanity’s greatest weapon against insidious Crime.’” [17]

Similarly, though some progressive viewers praised the film’s pro-birth-control politics, many criticized its lack of clarity. “‘It starts off seemingly as an argument in favor of birth control and suddenly switches to an argument against abortions,’ ‘Variety’ complained.” [18] This resulted (in critics’ eyes) in a film that didn’t differentiate between the two practices and thus said both birth control and abortion were bad. The film also never explains what birth control actually is and never provides specific details on contraceptives, instead only mentioning birth control in passing when a doctor says it’s important and then pivoting to focus entirely on the immorality and dangers of abortion. “[Several] reviewers pointed out at the time” that the film’s portrayal of rich women’s frivolous abortions actually “inverted family planning practices of the day, for it was impoverished women, less likely to have access to adequate contraception, who were often forced to rely on unsafe abortions, while their wealthier counterparts practiced safe and effective family planning with tacit help from the medical establishment.” [19]

Due to its controversial nature, the National Board of Review “turned down” the film “at the first censorship showing.” [20] But the film’s production company (the Universal Film Manufacturing Company) asked for it to be shown to a board of 500 laymen (“including prominent New York educators and social workers”), and the resulting vote “favored showing [it] to audiences not consisting of children, by 52 to 25.” [21] Weber herself made an effort to publicly fight any bans or censorship of the film. But if anything, all the controversy around her film helped push it into the spotlight and capture the public’s attention even more. Motion Picture News said, “To State Rights buyers who understand the game and to Exhibitors who are in the business to get the money—‘Where Are My Children?’ is the hugest financial opportunity offered in years.” [22] The Moving Picture Weekly called it “the most imitated title in the business.” [23] Ultimately, Weber’s film proved to be “Universal’s top money-maker that year.” [24]

Though her methods were flawed, the general consensus from modern critics is that Weber was trying to make a film that argued for women’s right to birth control. In Story B, “the identification is obviously with the mother and the daughter, in contrast to the heavily male identification in the main plot, revealing, perhaps, Weber’s complex, contradictory positioning as a woman, shaped by nineteenth-century ideas, but living in a transitional moment, and as a woman working within Hollywood’s patriarchal constraints.” [25] Despite its problems, Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? remains an interesting and relevant piece of art that contributes to the ever-ongoing debate around female reproductive rights.



[1] Steven Doles, “Social Problem Films,” Oxford Bibliographies, last reviewed May 5, 2017.

[2] E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2013), 132.

[3] “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Family Planning,” CDC December 3, 1999, accessed December 6, 2019.

[4] Gerald V. O’Brien, “Margaret Sanger and the Nazis: How Many Degrees of Separation?,” Social Work, Volume 58, Issue 3, July 2013, 285–287.

[5] “Achievements in Public Health.”

[6] Shelley Stamp, “Lois Weber and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”,” Starts Thursday, August 6, 2010.

[7] Shelley Stamp, “Lois Weber,” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project, New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

[8] Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (University of California Press, 1998), 39.

[9] Beauchamp, Without Lying Down, 39.

[10] Stamp, “Lois Weber.”

[11] Kaplan, 132.

[12] Kaplan, 132.

[13] Kaplan, 132.

[14] Kaplan, 133.

[15] O’Brien, “Margaret Sanger and the Nazis.”

[16] “Where Are My Children?,” Motion Picture News Vol. 13, No. 20 (May – July 1916), 3072.

[17] “Where Are My Children?,” Motion Picture News, 3072.

[18] Shelley Stamp, “Where Are My Children?,” Library of Congress, National Film Registry, accessed December 7, 2019.

[19] Shelley Stamp, “Where Are My Children?”

[20] ““Where Are My Children?” Is Approved,” Motion Picture News, Vol. 13, No. 19 (May – July 1916), 2908.

[21] ““Where Are My Children?” Is Approved,” 2908.

[22] “Where Are My Children? Blocks Broadway Traffic,” Motion Picture News Vol. 13, No. 21 (May – July 1916), 3252.

[23] “Come Through,” The Moving Picture Weekly (1916 – 1917), 123.

[24] Shelley Stamp, “Lois Weber and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.””

[25] Kaplan, 133.