Margaret Sanger, "Early Years of Margaret Sanger's Work in the Birth Control Movement," Aug 1952.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm 28:349."
No published version has been found. For an earlier version see Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:653 and 664 (1939). For a carbon copy see S72:675.
It was in 1913 that I, with my husband and three children, embarked from Boston on a slow steamer for Scotland, en route to Paris. In Glasgow I investigated the Municipal Housing Reform Movement, and found that the houses and apartments were by law limited to not more than a certain number of persons each dwelling: four (4) children was the limit allowed; no apartment in the municipality was built to have more than the equipment for father, mother, and four children. From Scotland we went to Paris to pick up, wherever possible, the customs and means which had given the French peasants the knowledge to control their birth rate and to limit their families. This desire had come to me because of my years of nursing experience in New York City where our maternal death rate was disgracefully high: abortions were estimated to run into the millions, and the infant mortality rate was a disgrace to such a prosperous nation. Nowhere could I find in the printed medical literature any information relative to contraception. Everywhere in the slums and working districts women were begging nurses, social workers, and physicians for the “secret” to help them space their pregnancies, and save them from abortions which oftentimes brought inevitable death. Nowhere was this information given in hospitals, public clinics, or even by private doctors. Women had been clamoring for the Vote, Legal Rights, Labor Legislation -- but not one voice had been raised in behalf of these millions of forgotten women who, from puberty to the grave, spent their lives as human incubators.
I was determined that something must be done about this and so it was that I went on to France, to see what I could find. A great contrast existed between the women of Scotland, especially in Glasgow, and the women and mothers of France. I was able to go into the villages in France and get a great many formulas for suppositories, where some ingredients were considered better spermicidal agents that others. I learned all I possibly could in France, and later published this information in a pamphlet called “Family Limitation” which was later translated into 45 languages.
I returned to New York after a short time in France, quite determined to do something to arouse the public to change the Federal law, Section 211, which was known as the Comstock Law, and which made it a crime for anyone to send any matter through the U.S. Mails or by common carriers that was intended to prevent conception. In this law there was no exemption made for scientific literature, for medical cards or charts, or for the medical profession. I determined that this law must be challenged.
Gathering a few interested friends together in my apartment, I coined the term “Birth Control” and defined it as “conscious control of the birth rate by means that prevent conception.” This was the definition for the Birth Control Movement, emphasizing the words control, not limitation, and prevention rather than interruption. The educational campaign in the United States and elsewhere was centered on this definition of the meaning of “birth control.”
In order to awaken a larger group of women, we then emerged from our domestic corners into the arena of education, and I decided to publish a paper called “The Woman Rebel”. This paper had, seemingly, a great attraction for people all over the country, and while the issue each month was never more than 2000, there were sometimes as many as 5000 willing subscribers clamoring for this unique, bold, and fearless paper. However, since the reason for publishing the paper was to call attention to the federal law, and to what birth control meant in the making of a happy family, and the cruelty and wickedness of legislation that would deny people knowledge by which the could attain health and happiness, each issue ran into conflict with the post office authorities. Nearly every issue was challenged and intercepted, and finally an arrest was ordered by the Post Office authorities. I was accused of sending “obscene literature” through the United States mails. The fight was on! There had been no contraceptive information given on the pages of “The Woman Rebel”, for I had kept strictly within the law, discussing the question only on its educational level.
I was determined that this case would have to be fought and taken to the higher courts. I could feel, when I appeared before the Judge, that I was going to be “railroaded”. I asked for ten days’ time to prepare my case--it was refused. I then requested one week’s time--this was also refused. I was sternly ordered to return to the Court the following morning: just twenty hours’ time in which to prepare to defend myself!
After consulting lawyers and friends and a good many splendid advisers, I left New York that evening for Canada. From there I sailed for England to prepare my case for my return. I had sent word to the Judge and the District Attorney informing them of what I planned to do, and told them that this was owning to their refusal to give me time to prepare for my defense. This case was making the Birth Control Movement known not only in America but in Europe as well.
At the time I arrived in England, Europe was already involved in World War One. The overpopulation of many of the European countries had forced them to seek more elbow room. A great deal of educational work had been done throughout the British Isles as a result of the Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaw trial in 1878. The Malthusian Doctrine was widely discussed, pro and con, in conjunction with the Darwinian Theory, so the English people were theoretically informed of the importance of population control. But the name “Malthusian” struck terror in their hearts; it had no meaning outside of theory. When the term “Birth Control” came to them in my lectures, talks, and in pamphlets that we distributed, they at once recognized it as one of their needs. “Birth Control” was the term used then, and still is used today, in the greatest part of the world.
I spent 3 months in Holland in 1915, and while there I took a course of contraceptive technique under Dr. Johannes Rutgers at the Hague. The result of that visit to Holland was to change the course of the Birth Control Movement in the United States from a fight for “free speech” to a well-organized clinical set-up with doctors and nurses in charge. The United States is the only country where clinics have been under medical auspices from the very beginning of the movement.
Upon my return to London from Holland, I was invited to speak in Fabian Hall, where about 500 men and women came to learn about the work I was trying to do in the United States, and of the splendid organization of clinics I had found in Holland. It was here that I met Marie Stopes, whose book “Married Love” was to make a sensation. Later she included birth control in its pages. I spent months studying in the British Museum and writing several pamphlets.
In the autumn of 1915 I returned to my home and my children. It was time to take up the federal fight and the Post Office challenge in the Federal Courts. The case against me was postponed several times, and finally dismissed -- for no particular reason, and with no explanation to me except that the Government did not wish to pursue the case. Owing to the great and widespread publicity, thousands and thousands of letters were sent to the Judge and the District Attorney in my behalf. An amazing awakening among the people throughout the country occurred, especially among those who had received “Family Limitation” and had been, or wanted to be, subscribers to the monthly publication “The Woman Rebel.” These letters came from working men and women in all walks of life. It was their fight I was waging, and they knew it!
After the Federal case against me was dismissed early in 1916 I started a lecture tour across the continent. There were public forums and public addresses. I visited more than 19 cities and addressed thousands of people: over 250 groups were organized into Birth Control Educational Centers or Leagues. Pittsburg, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit--all responded by forming these leagues. In many cities there were arrests and challenges; meetings sometimes could not be held, and many said that a subject of this kind could not be discussed. Outside the doors of the Victoria Theatre in St. Louis, 2000 people clamored for admittance to the auditorium where a lecture on Birth Control was scheduled. The contract for the rent of the auditorium for that evening had been signed, but pressure from “higher-ups” had intimidated the manager of the theatre and he had gone away for the week-end. However, the Women’s City Club and the Men’s City Club of St. Louis promptly invited me to speak at their luncheons, under their auspices, which I did. I received over a thousand letters within a week, protesting the action and the arrogant behavior of the manager of the Victoria Theatre.
During my tour across the country more than 100,000 leaflets were distributed, telling in plain English what Birth Control was all about, and calling on the public to join the movement and to help change the Federal law. In 1919 there were over 25 Birth Control Educational Leagues organized in the United States to help me repeal the Comstock Law.
In my addresses throughout the country I described the clinics in Holland, and told what the organization of these clinics had meant to that little country in reducing the maternal death rate and raising the standard of education by limiting the number of children in each family. the description of, and interest in, these clinics as I had described them, spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted to know how to set up such clinics. This first American campaign was considered as educational success. I had created a public opinion of national scope, had won the press to discuss the subject, and to defend my right to speak. I had inspired the organization of Leagues to carry on the educational campaign. I had set up standards of what Birth Control Clinics should be, and insisted that they must be conducted by members of the medical profession. While the policy was that all adults, married or about to be married, should have the right to this birth control knowledge, it should be given only by those who had knowledge of anatomy and physiology, which was, of course, the medical profession.
Upon my return form my speaking tour in the west, I announced my intention of opening the first Birth Control Clinic under medical auspices, as a demonstration of how this subject should be handled. this was also a challenge to the New York State Law, Section 1142. On October 16, 1916, this first clinic was opened at 46 Amboy Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn. Leaflets were distributed in three languages -- English, Italian, and Yiddish--and were given out at meetings addressed to mothers. Our leaflets were identified as 1) “Can you afford to have a large family?” 2) “Do you want any more children?” 3) “If not, why do you have them?” 4) “Don’t kill, don’t take life, but prevent. Safe and harmless information can be obtained from trained nurses at 46 Amboy Street”. The date was given, the doors were opened, and women came in droves. They came with babies in their arms or pushing baby carriages; they swarmed into the little waiting room!
I had previously announced to the District Attorney in Brooklyn that the Clinic was a challenge to the state law, and that I was willing to take it to the highest courts. After a period of 5 days the clinic was raided by the police; my two attendants (one, my sister who was a trained nurse, the other an interpreter) and I were arrested. The records of 488 women were confiscated. These records contained the history of the women, and were proof of the need of the information, where poverty and disease were rampant, and birth uncontrolled.
My sister, Ethel Byrne, was convicted by the Court of Special Sessions and sentenced for 30 days at the “Work House”. She promptly went on a hunger strike for 103 hours, and was finally release by Governor Whitman of February 1, 1917. My trial followed on January 29th, and I was sentenced to 30 days in a more desirable and cleaner place than the work home the Queens County Penitentiary. I was favored to that extent because the authorities dreaded the spotlight of publicity which must inevitably ensue. Because of the bad and primitive conditions at the work house, the publicity did have some good effects in bettering conditions.
My case was carried to the New York State Court of Appeals on Section 1142. In 1918 Judge Crane issued a decision that, inasmuch as I was not a physician I was therefore, guilty. The interpretation of that Court was that Section 1145 allowed a physician, lawfully practising, to give information to prevent conception to anyone “for the cure or prevention of disease.” This was a considerable triumph, because the decision was based on Webster’s dictionary for the definition of “disease”, and it was found to be broad enough for a doctor to give proper information to any woman who needed it! This decision of the Court of Appeals of New York State settled the confusion regarding opening Birth Control Clinics in other states where it was not illegal to give birth control information. By 1940 there were nearly 600 such Birth control Clinics in the United States, affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation.
But while this cleared the state law, in a rather limited way, that was not enough. I mapped out plans for a National Education Campaign, to attack the Comstock Law. My plan was: 1) Agitation, to arouse interest. 2) Education and Organization. 3)Legislation. These were the steps by means of which we hoped to amend the federal law.
In February of 1917 I became the editor and publisher of “Birth Control Review”. This monthly magazine continued to be published by me until 1928, at which time I turned it over to the American Birth Control League.
In 1920 I again was abroad, and while spending several months in England and Scotland, I gave 35 lectures to groups of the Women’s Guild in London and the surrounding communities. On July 4th of that year, more than 2000 working men stood on the Glasgow Green, listening, and nodding their heads in agreement, for they knew what Birth Control could mean to them. I traveled throughout Scotland, sharing the hardships in many of the homes of the working class, for it was to these men and women that the Movement was dedicated. I also spent several months in Germany that year, where I want to seek the chemist who had devised the formula for the contraceptive jelly. This was the formula which I brought back to the United States, and which has been the basis for the contraceptive jelly, used in conjunction with the diaphragm, up to this time.
The American Birth Control League was formed November 10, 1921, incorporated under the Membership Law of New York State. The First National Birth Control Conference was held at the Hotel Plaza November 11th to 13th. One of the meetings, which was held at Town Hall on November 13th, was ordered closed by Cardinal Hayes. This was the first mistake of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in attempting to go over the heads of the police authorities and taking upon themselves (or upon himself, the Cardinal) the right of arrest and censorship. Here the challenge of free speech, and the arrogant action in closing Town Hall, swept across the country in headlines. Thousands of letters and telegrams of protest poured in from all parts of the country, and there came a great arousing of public indignation across the continent. Three arrests were made at Town Hall because we refused to obey the Cardinal’s order. We stood our ground but were hauled off to the police station. Hundreds of people followed to the Night Court, where the case was postponed until the following morning -- and then dismissed, as usual. Nevertheless, the meeting had been disrupted, and none of us was able to carry on a dignified discussion. However, ten days later we held the meeting at the Park Theatre, and its large auditorium was packed to the doors. Men and women from many civic and religious agencies came to speak in our behalf.
In 1921 I was the Founder and President of the American Birth Control League, and continued until 1928 when I resigned in order to do legislative work with the Federal Legislative Committee, of which I was director, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Thomas Hepburn was my legislative Chairman. We sent workers into the field to get the endorsement of all civic and religious organizations; we had Congressional hearings every year of great educational value; we received the endorsement of over 1000 organizations : the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, and a long list of others. In the Encyclical of the Pope in 1930, he states that the “natural method” of birth control, the so-called “rhythm method”, could now be practised in Catholic families. The New York Academy of Medicine came into the fold; and finally, in 1937, we ceased our legislative activities owing to the legal decision of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals that supplies and literature coming into the country could be sent to doctors and members of the medical profession. This was a test case: we asked one of the hospitals in Japan to send, under a doctor’s name, a box of diaphragms especially made in Japan, to our medical director, Dr. Hannah M. Stone. these were intercepted and confiscated by the customs authorities, so we took the case to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and thereby got a decision that settled the rights of the medical profession of the United States to import as well as to send through the mails and by common carriers, contraceptive literature and supplies.
In February of 1922 I sailed for Japan, where I had been invited to give a series of eight lectures. I gave an address in Honolulu, en route, then went on to Yokahama, arriving there March 10th. While there was some difficulty in obtaining a visa from the Imperial Military authorities, so much noise and discussion arose on the part of the Japanese people that I was allowed to enter and to fulfill my engagements. The largest meeting was in Tokyo, at the Y.M.C.A., where I spoke on “War and Population.” Thirteen public meetings were held throughout Japan, and also hundreds of small group meetings, including a very interesting one with the Chief of Police. The Imperial Medical College at their 29th Annual Meeting passed a Resolution that the medical point of view on Birth Control must be taught in their college.
After Japan, I went to Korea and had meetings at Seoul with physicians and missionaries; and from there I went on to China. At Peiping National University, Dr. Hu Shih was Chairman and interpreter for my meetings. The pamphlet “Family Limitation” was translated into Chinese, and 5000 copies were off the press and ready for distribution the next day to the members of the “Association for Family Reform”. Meetings were held in Shanghai with the National Association of Education; then Malaya, Singapore, Penyang, and Cairo, en route to London. From the day of my arrival at Yokohama to the day of my leaving for England, my diaries showed that I had held over 500 interviews in Japan alone. At some of these interviews several reporters, representing various newspapers and magazines, were present; and as the Japanese are 98% literate people, there was a great awakening among the masses as to the meaning of the control of the birth rate and population in relation to peace and war.
Then I went on to London to attend the 5th International Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, which was held July 11, 1922.
In 1925 the 6th International Birth Control Conference, which I organized, was held in New York City.
In September of 1927 the World Population Conference, which had taken me 20 months to organize was held in Geneva, with 300 scientists from 30 countries attending.
My diaries estimate that I had 255 meetings from November 1916 to April 1918; and over 2000 meetings in the United States alone up to 1928, including Conferences in various cities:- Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland. This seems an unbelievable record, but it was accomplished though the strain was terrific.
In 1930 I organized a Contraceptive Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. In the same year I was made President of the Birth Control Information Center in London.
In 1931 I was given the American Women’s Award for “integrity, vision and valor”.
In 1934 I went to Russia, to investigate the research on teh so-called “Spermatozin”. A report had been given to me that 20,000 women had been immune from pregnancy for two years with less than 2% failures. I interviewed two of the scientists, and was able to get the components of the formula, which I later gave to the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Dr. Stuart Mudd. I was also able to obtain $25,000 for that institution to do research on this formula. I regret to say that nothing tangible emerged from this study.
In 1935-36 I was invited by the All-India Women's Conference to come to India, and I made a tour throughout India, covering thousands of miles, setting up over 50 Birth Control Clinics under medical auspices; addressed the medical and civic organizations in India and Burma. I had a beautiful three-day visit with Mahatma Ghandi at his ashram in Wardha. I was also a guest for several days of the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore. I then went to Hong Kong upon the invitation of the Chinese Medical Association, but unfortunately, I was there but a short time when I was taken ill and had to return home.
In 1936 I was given the Town Hall Award of Honor for “conspicuous contribution to the enlargement and enrichment of life!
In 1939 there was a merger of the American Birth Control League and Federal Education Committee. The name was changed from American Birth Control League to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and I was appointed honorary chairman.
In 1946 the International Conference in Stockholm was organized by Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen of that city. There, Mrs. Dorothy (Charles F.) Brush, now editor of the New Bulletin, and I set the stage for the Conference to be held in Cheltenham, England, in 1948.
In 1948 I helped to organize the conference at Cheltenham, England, on World Population and World Resources in relation to the Family.
In 1949 Smith College conferred upon me an Honorary degree (LLD).
In 1950 I was given the Lasker Award for the work done in Planned Parenthood.
I was returned to England in 1950 to attend the meeting of the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, and there we initiated the next Conference, to be held in Bombay, India, in November of 1952. In April, 1952, the American Committee requested me to be Director of the American Division for the Conference. Lady Rama Rau, of Bombay, is President of the Family Planning Association of India, and is the Director for the Conference in India; Dr. C. P. Blacker is Director of the English Division. Our plans now are to formulate a permanent World Organization to emerge from the Bombay Conference November 24 to December 1, 1952.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project