Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MC 325

Papers of Edna Rankin McKinnon, 1893-1978


Correspondence, financial papers, travel diaries, etc., of Edna Rankin McKinnon, birth control advocate.


  • 1893-1978

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research with the exception of #33, which is closed until January 1, 2025.. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Edna Rankin McKinnon is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


2.5 linear feet ((6 file boxes) plus 1 oversize folder, 2 folio+ folders, 1 folio folder, 22 photograph folders, 1 cassette tape, 1 motion picture film)

The Edna Rankin McKinnon Papers are divided into three series, Personal and Family Papers, Professional Papers, and Clippings and Photographs. With the exception of correspondence subseries, the papers are arranged chronologically. Two portions of the collection are particularly strong: McKinnon's later career with the Pathfinder Fund (1959-1977) is well documented, more so than her earlier work. The correspondence between McKinnon and her daughter Dorothy McKinnon Brown gives a very clear picture of the latter's life as a Montana housewife and writer between 1941 and 1978, as well as the development of their relationship over the same period.

I. Personal and Family Papers, 1893-1978, n.d. This series contains biographical materials (see also #69, 76, MP-4, and T-108,) travel diaries, family and personal correspondence, financial papers, correspondence, clippings and promotional materials concerning her biography and subject files on personal travel and other interests. The rather sparse Rankin family correspondence contains some letters from Jeannette Rankin. The personal correspondence includes letters from Mike Mansfield and other public figures. #63 includes letters between McKinnon and Erwin D. Canham of the Christian Science Monitor about Christian Science ethics and various methods of birth control. The most extensive correspondence is between McKinnon and her daughter Dorothy (McKinnon) "Mackey" Brown. While there are few letters from McKinnon, the letters from Dorothy McKinnon Brown give an excellent account of the mother-daughter relationship and of Dorothy McKinnon Brown's own family life, mainly in Missoula, Montana, between 1940 and 1978.

II. Professional Papers, 1937-1977, n.d. This series consists mainly of correspondence and field reports of McKinnon while a field worker for the Pathfinder Fund, 1960-1966. Her correspondence with Clarence and Sarah Gamble of the Pathfinder Fund (found throughout the Pathfinder Fund material) concerns both her own work and the Pathfinder Fund's internal organization. The field reports, through not a complete set, give a good idea of McKinnon's role in international family planning and her recommendations, opinions and actions at each site. There are scant records from Edna Rankin McKinnon's earlier work for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its predecessors, and for the Planned Parenthood Association, Chicago Area. The interviews and speech listed above and the speeches in #118 contain reminiscences about her career. In addition, #113 contains an autobiographical sketch of Margaret Roots, another Pathfinder Fund field worker and birth control pioneer.

The Clarence J. Gamble Papers at Countway Library, Harvard Medical School, contain a more complete record of McKinnon's activities for the Pathfinder Fund, and McKinnon's reports as a field worker for Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Clinic Research Bureau, the Birth Control Federation of America (which in 1939 became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Planned Parenthood Association, Chicago Area. These reports are scattered between the years 1937 and 1966.

III. Photographs, 1890s - 1978, n.d., are mainly of Rankin and Brown family members, 1890s to 1970s. The remainder are from McKinnon's work for the Pathfinder Fund from 1960 to 1964.


Edna Bertha Rankin, birth control advocate, was born in Missoula, Montana, on October 21, 1893, the youngest of the seven children of John and Olive (Pickering) Rankin. For biographical data concerning the Rankin children, see the Inventory for the Jeannette Rankin Papers, Schlesinger Library. Her oldest sister, Jeannette Rankin, was in 1916 the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Both Jeannette and their brother Wellington, a major Montana landowner and Republican politician, were influential in shaping Edna's educational and career choices. She entered Wellesley College in 1912, left for the University of Wisconsin in 1914, and two years later left again to work on her sister's Congressional campaign in Montana. In 1916 she received her B.A. from the University of Montana and her LL.B. in 1918. She practiced law briefly in Helena, Montana, before her marriage to John Wallace McKinnon, Jr., in 1919.

The McKinnons had two children, Dorothy Pickering, born in 1920 (later Dorothy McKinnon "Mackey" Brown) and John Wallace McKinnon III, 1923-1930. The marriage lasted eleven years; McKinnnon frequently told others that she had "lost her husband during the Depression."

In 1929, McKinnon travelled in Europe and upon returning found that the stock market crash necessitated her returning to work. She became a sales representative and then manager for Best and Company in New York City. In the mid-1930s, Jeannette found McKinnon a position in the Legal Division of the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. McKinnon attended a birth control lecture in 1936 and, having expressed an interest in the movement for legalization, was asked to accept the position of Executive Director of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, a division of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau. Her interview with Margaret Sanger began a close professional association that spanned thirty years.

The target of McKinnon's legislative campaign was the Comstock law, which outlawed birth control, classing it with pornography. She was unaware that a test case, "United States v. One Package of Pessaries," was pending before the Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A Federal decision against the Comstock law was reached several months later -- and McKinnon immediately lost her job. However, Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, an heir to the Procter and Gamble fortune and a strong birth control advocate, convinced Sanger to retain McKinnon at her Research Bureau as a field worker. Initially paid by Dr. Gamble and then by the Research Bureau, she established local birth control clinics across the country between 1937 and 1946.

During these eleven years, McKinnon visited thirty-two states. She attempted to set up clinics in Montana, but Wellington Rankin's objections put an end to this and she moved on to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she successfully established the first hospital birth control clinic. On a consultation visit to Chicago, she became convinced that she herself could best establish the major clinic needed there; from 1947 to 1957 she was Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood Association, Chicago Area, where she coordinated many local family planning organizations.

In 1952 McKinnon accompanied Margaret Sanger to the founding conference of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Bombay. She left Planned Parenthood Federation, CA in 1957, in part because of a deepening belief in Christian Science, which she felt conflicted with her medically oriented work. In 1957 Dr. Gamble began the Pathfinder Fund, a private organization for international family planning, and asked McKinnon to be a field worker. She accepted Dr. Gamble's offer and in 1960 left with her daughter, Dorothy, for a tour of Asia.

Between 1960 and 1966 McKinnon traveled in India, Africa, and the Middle East, promoting birth control as a family planning and maternal health measure. She was instrumental in the formation of many family planning organizations and clinics throughout these areas. In each country, she met with local leaders, who then established their own organizations with financial assistance from the Pathfinder Fund. After retiring in 1966, McKinnon made one last follow-up tour in 1968 to Indonesia, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

On a trip to Russia in 1970 she renewed a friendship with Martha Ragland, who persuaded McKinnon that author Wilma Dykeman (Stokely) should write a biography concentrating on McKinnon's Pathfinder Fund experience. The book, Too Many People, Too Little Love, was published in 1974. Following a promotional tour for the book, McKinnon received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Montana in 1975. After a brief residence in Missoula in 1966, she settled in Carmel, California, where she died in 1978.


The collection is arranged in three series:

  1. Series I. Personal and Family Papers, 1893-1978, n.d.
  2. Series II. Professional Papers, 1937-1977, n.d.
  3. Series III. Photographs, 1890s - 1978, n.d.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number: 76-194, 77-M21, 77-M207, 78-M173, 79-M201, 83-M215

The papers of Edna Bertha (Rankin) McKinnon were given to the Schlesinger Library from 1976 to 1983 by Edna Rankin McKinnon and her daughter, Dorothy McKinnon Brown.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see Audiotape collection of Edna Rankin McKinnon, ca.1970 (T-83).


The following items have been removed from the collection and deposited in the Library, Christian Science Center, Boston, 22 September 1980:

  1. 7 pamphlets and 2 annual reports re: First Church of Christ, Scientist

The following items have been removed from the collection and added to the Schlesinger Library vertical files, July 1981:

  1. Printed materials from birth control organizations

The following items have been removed from the collection and deposited in the Tozzer Library, Peabody Library, Harvard University, August 1981:

  1. "The Spade" (an anthropology news-letter for children), Volume I (December 1930): Number 2.


  1. Box 1: 1-26
  2. Box 2: 27-49
  3. Box 3: 50-63
  4. Box 4: 64-79
  5. Box 5: 80-104
  6. Box 6: 105-123

Processing Information

Processed: July 1981

By: Kathleen Marquis

McKinnon, Edna Rankin, 1893-1978. Papers of Edna Rankin McKinnon, 1893-1978: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
The collection was processed under a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

3 James St.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA