The Work of Margaret Sanger:Birth Control in America
F W Stella Browne
Beauty and Health Jan 1917
At last a voice that knew not how to lie;
A call, articulate, above the throng
Of those who whispered of a secret wrong
And longed for liberty, and passed it by,
The voice of one, with rebel head held high,
Whose strength was not the fury of the strong,
But whose clear message was more keen than song,
A bugle to the dawn, a battle cry.
There is a new rebellion on the earth
Because of your voice militant, that broke
The silence which the Puritans had made;
Because you hailed the sacredness of birth,
The dignity of love emancipate, and spoke.
A woman unto woman, unafraid
Sonnet by Walker A. Roberts in "The Masses," May, 1916
On October 27th of this year, Margaret Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne, and her assistant Fanny Kindell were arrested in Brooklyn, New York State, at the Birth Control Clinic they had opened in the Brownsville section of that city. They were arrested for openly and cleanly giving to the overburdened and underpaid women of the proletariat, information which is necessary to a civilised and happy life.
The clinic was open from 10 to 4, every day of the week. The mothers of the neighbourhood - a very poor district, inhabited mainly by Italians and Jews - had been circularised with handbills printed in English, Yiddish and Italian as follows:
"46 Amboy Street
"Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children! If not, why do you have them! - Safe, harmless information can be obtained of trained nurses. Tell your friends and neighbours. All mothers welcome. A registration fee of 10 cents entitles any mother to this information."
Only married women were circularised and no abortifacient drugs were supplied. Mrs Sanger
and her sister both have a thorough and valuable experience as trained nurses. Miss Kindell was
interpreter for the women whose knowledge of English was still imperfect. Very careful and
complete records of all cases dealt with, were kept. During the few days of the Clinic's existence,
the rooms were thronged, and the poor women were touching in their gratitude.
But the law, as made by the dominant class and the dominant sex, was on the track of these audacious criminals! A woman detective, a Mrs Whitehouse, found the Clinic, and then this creature led the police, armed with warrants, to the spot. The names and addresses of the patients were taken - an infamous impertinence, but these women were ignorant and poor! Mrs Sanger annihilated the female spy with her scorn, but was simply dragged into the patrol wagon.
All three women refused to give bail and went to prison till their examination, on Monday 30th October. The case is now to come before the supreme Court of Appeal, and whatever the result , the fight for birth control, for the liberation of the poor from this grinding misery of undesired children for the health and happiness of the unborn, and the most sacred rights of women, will go on until it has been won. For the founding of the Brownsville Clinic is not a mere isolated spasm of revolt against vile conditions, and the laws which seek to stereotype such conditions; it is a move in an ably organised and fearlessly led campaign, which has been in progress since the beginning of 1914, and whose initiator and leading figure has been Margaret Sanger.
This vivacious, intuitive, delicately feminine woman has shown throughout a fearless courage, and (perhaps an ever rarer quality) an absolute intellectual honesty. She had worked for years, after her nurse's training, among the poorest women of New York, on the so-called "East Side," the equivalent of London's East End. She had seen the hideous waste of the most precious energy, the agony, the demoralisation, and the appalling infant mortality which was the direct result of the ban which the U.S.A. Federal Law laid upon any contraceptive information, even if given in the most reverent, decent and responsible manner. She was herself a happy wife, and the mother of beautiful children; her husband, Mr William Sanger, was a well know New York artist, an architect and mural painter and a man of strong personality and original talent. Unlike many women, Margaret Sanger could not take refuge in her own personal happiness, from the pain and misery of the world. The thought of the East Side women, and countless other women, all over the States, especially in the "Cotton-belt" of the South, haunted her. She had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the famous I.W.W. which aims at uniting, enlightening and liberating the underpaid unskilled labourers of America) - but she realised that economic changes were not enough: they must be helped by the unconscious and voluntary control of human fertility, if the poor were not to perish of their own increase.
She had already published some splendidly clear and frank articles on the sex hygiene of women and girls, and on the teaching of the origin and basis of life, to the young. These have appeared in book form, under the titles "What Every Mother Should Know" and "What Every Girl Should Know." She now - in the beginning of 1914 - founded a paper, entitled "The Woman Rebel"; it supplied no detailed practical instructions about contraceptives, but simply drew attention to the backward state of the United States laws on this question, to the resultant misery and the absolute right of women to this knowledge. The paper was suppressed, and Mrs Sanger was indicted for "Misusing the Mails"; for the United States Post Office was at that time controlled by Anthony Comstock, an elderly wealthy and ostentatiously pious man, who is one of the most pronounced cases in history of a certain form of mental disease: a sexual mania, which led him to search ceaselessly for sexual suggestiveness in the purest and noblest works of science or art and the private correspondence of American citizens. For this worthy purpose, an army of spies were maintained out of the public funds, and blackmail was organised and consecrated.
Mrs Sanger was refused time to prepare any adequate defence: she realised that the case would be as far as possible "hushed up," by the authorities and the press. She resolved on "direct action". She composed a short pamphlet, explaining very simply and clearly, the most reliable and harmless contraceptive methods, which have been used with the desired results in France, England, Holland, and other countries, for several decades. This pamphlet was secretly set up in type, and 100,000 (a hundred thousand) copies were despatched to various local branch offices of the I.W.W., from whence they were all safely sent to the private addresses of enquirers. Every one of them reached their destinations safely, and they were duplicated and reprinted by private printing presses, copied and retyped in every American city, from Ocean to Ocean. Then, eluding the police, Mrs Sanger left the United States, under an assumed name and came to England, in the autumn of 1914, to make her case known and prepare for a big birth control campaign. The British Malthusian League gave her the warmest welcome and support, opened a Defence Fund, and stated her case in an admirable manifesto. Dr. Havelock Ellis, the greatest scientific authority on sex questions in Great Britain, and one of the greatest in the world, also approved and supported her work. One of the leading Socialist papers published a series of letters on her case, and the most touching messages of admiration and sympathy poured in from British men and women workers. Dr Marie Stopes, the very distinguished Suffragist and Scientist, a Fellow and Tutor of London University, addressed a letter to President Wilson on this case, and the terrible suffering and racial deterioration caused by the Comstock Laws. Dr Stopes also drew up and signed a petition to the President, which was signed also by Edward Carpenter, Arnold Bennett, Gilbert Murray, H.G. Wells, and other leaders of though in this country. Meanwhile, Mrs Sanger drew up, had printed, and sent to America no less than three different pamphlets dealing respectively with birth control in England, in Holland, and by "Magnetation" or volitional methods. Several thousands of each of these were printed, and they reached their addresses safely, in the teeth of the Comstock machine, with the exception of some which were sunk on the "Hesperian" and the "Arabic."
Mr William Sanger was entirely in sympathy with his wife's action, but had taken no active part in helping the campaign. In January, 1915, he was entrapped into giving a birth control pamphlet to a Comstock spy, who then reappeared with his paymaster, Comstock, who arrested Sanger in person - but offered him a "greatly reduced sentence" if he would betray his wife's whereabouts!
Mr Sanger's trial, which took place on September 10th 1915, after he had fought in two courts for the right of trial by jury, was a tremendous individual and ethical triumph for him and his cause. He made a magnificently eloquent and incisive statement of the whole case for birth control which was published in full by the "New York Call", and refused absolutely to pay the fine inflicted - 150 dollars, preferring the alternative of one month's imprisonment. The statutory penalties were 1,000 dollars and five years' imprisonment for each piece of printed information - which shows how much the plucky fight of the Sangers', and the sympathy they roused, had undermined the callous assurance of the judges.
This was shown even more startlingly when Margaret Sanger returned to her native land in October 1915, and demanded to be tried. Anthony Comstock had died of sheer rage, at Sanger's defiance and exposure of his methods. All American progressive and radical opinion was deeply stirred, and the manifesto of the British intellectuals had made a strong impression on the Government of the U.S.A. So, by a really farcical anomaly, though the Comstock law was still unrepealed, Mrs Sanger's case was dismissed when it finally came up for trial, in February, and she was at liberty once more.
After a much needed rest in a nursing home, she started a lecture tour in the Middle West and the Pacific Coast States, which led to the formation of several local Clinics and Leagues; one, specially vigorous , in Cleveland, Ohio. In some towns (St Louis, for instance) - the powerful Roman Catholic Church nearly succeeded in depriving her of a hearing, but every day brought new adherents. It is interesting to note that two very distinguished and learned sociologists, Professor Edward Alsworth Ross and Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons supported her from the beginning. She gave birth control information to thousands of poor women, and returned to New York, more resolved than ever, to "see it through."
The result of her trial is uncertain; many very powerful vested interests are opposed to any education, or alleviation of conditions for the ignorant and unorganised American proletariat: many of them foreigners from Asia and East Europe. But at least Margaret Sanger has put the most vital of all knowledge into the brains and the hands of thousands who, but for her, would have perished in ignorant squalor; she has fought the fight that Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh won for English folk in 1877; and she leaves to those who had the happiness of knowing her, the memory of a personality of incomparable and inspiring charm.