Margaret Sanger, "Condemnation is Misunderstanding," Apr-July 1916.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Library of Congress Microfilm, 129:32."

This draft was used by Sanger in her U.S. national speaking tour in 1916. Handwritten emendations to the text made by by Margaret Sanger. Entire paragraphs struck out, most likely for shortening the speech, have been deleted from this version. For a similar speeches see Birth Control, 1916, and Birth Control (Chicago Address to Women), Apr.-May 1916.A handwritten note added by MS at the bottom of document reads: "Notes of first lecture tattered & torn but delivered to many thousands."


↑Condemnation is misunderstanding↓

There have always been two dominant weapons which the powers of authority have used to beat back progress and civilization-–blasphemy, obscenity.

Nearly every great discovery which is to day benefiting mankind was at the time of its discovery considered either blasphemous or ↑&↓ obscene.

It is only three hundred years ago that ↑Take for instance↓ Harveys treatise on the circulation of the blood was considered blasphemous and wicked. One hundred years later Jenners vaccination theory which has to day practically wiped out small pox was held to be a violation of the laws of God and nature. While only within the last half century Pasteurs germ theory was repudiated with the most bitter animosity by both Church and State.

These and numerous other new ideas which are being advanced to day for the good of the many, have had and still do have to fight for their very existence against a blind and unintelligent prejudice.

Nor has it been only scientific pioneering which has won the enmity of authority. The champions of political and religious liberty have endured persecutions that we look back upon with shame and horror. Yet we have learned very little from the experience of the past. For we stand to day in the midst of a fight for moral freedom–-the pivot of which is Birth control and find that we have left in the hands of our rulers and censors the same power of persecution, which is being exercised as mercilessly as at any time in the past.

↑The fight for free discussion good for [other?] freedoms.↓ The political and religious fights are over in America, but THE MORAL Fight HAS JUST BEGUN. ↑The fight for free discussion goes on

The early revolutionists settled the first point with England and won for us the right to discuss the political question without danger of imprisonment. This did not give us the right to either religious or moral discussion, and not until Ingersoll challenged the blasphemy laws of this country, and UNDERMINED their power by coming in direct contact with the people where the blasphemy laws made a dead letter and later set aside from the statute books of this country.

↑This great need has come because↓

And now today with women out in the industrial field working side by side with their brothers in the worlds work, a new demand has come forth to revise the old moral standards and to discuss the moral question. Freedom to discuss the moral question is fully as important to day, as the political and religious questions were in their time–the three issues are EPOCH MAKING IN THE PROGRESS OF EVERY CIVILIZED COUNTRY.

↑ Woman had nothing to say Politics or religion↓

The moral issue is the greatest concern to woman. For centuries she has gone forth with man to till the fields to feed and clothe the nations. She has sacrificed her life to populate the earth SHE HAS OVERDONE HER LABORS-– She now steps forth and demands that women shall cease producing in ignorance. To do this she must have knowledge to control birth. This is the first immediate step she must take toward the goal of her freedoms. It is also the first immediate step the working class must take ↑this country↓ toward the goal of its emancipation. ↑preserve nation↓ .

Those who are opposed to this are simply those who do not know. Any one who like myself, has worked among the people, and found on the one hand an ever increasing population, with its ever increasing misery poverty and ignorance, and on the other hand a stationary or decreasing population with its INCREASING wealth higher standards of living, greater freedom, joy and happiness, can not doubt that BIRTH CONTROL ↑v.m (Voluntary motherhood) ↓ is the livest issue of the day upon which depends the future welfare of the race.

Before I attempt to refute the arguments against Birth Control, I should like to tell you something of the conditions I met with as a trained nurse which convinced me of its necessity, and led me to jeopardize my liberty in order to place this information into the hands of the women who need it.

↑Challenge Federal laws↓ .

Far back in my early childhood days, my first impression of life was that large families and poverty went hand in hand. I was born and brought up in a glass factory town in the western part of New York State. I was one of 11 children, so that I had some personal knowledge of the struggle and hardships a large family endured.

When I was seventeen years old my mother died from overwork and the strain of too frequent child bearing, which left me with several younger children to share the burdens with a lovely poetic Irish father. A few years later I entered a hospital to take up the profession of nursing.

There I found that 75% of the diseases of men and women were the results of ignorance of their sex functions. I found that every department of life was open to investigation and discussion, except that shaded valley of sex The explorer, scientist, inventor can go forth in their various fields for investigation and return to lay the fruits of their discoveries at the feet of society. But woe to him who dares explore that forbidden realm of sex. No matter how pure the motive, or what miseries he sought to remove, slanders, persecutions and jails awaits him who dares bare the light of knowledge into that cave of darkness.

Have you ever stopped to think that all modern life in nearly all its departments has been greatly advanced or modified by electricity telegraph, telephone, but that nothing has been done to advance that most important of all departments, birth, sex of which we are as densely ignorant as were our primitive ancestors?

So great was the ignorance among girls and women concerning their own bodies that I decided to specialized in woman diseases and took up gynecological and obstetrical nursing.

A few years of this work gave me a shocking discovery-- ↑There I found↓ that knowledge to control birth was obtained and practiced among the women of wealth while the working women were deliberately kept in ignorance of this knowledge.

I found that the women of wealth were able to have abortions performed on them if it became necessary, while such care and attention was given them that seldom did a death occur among them.

I found that the women of the working class were as anxious to obtain this knowledge as their sisters of wealth, but were told that there are laws upon the statute books against imparting it to them, and the medical profession was most religious in obeying these laws when the patient was a poor woman.

I found that the women of the working class had emphatic views on the Crime of bringing children into the world to die of hunger. They would rather risk their lives through abortion than give birth they could feed clothe and care for.

It is not an uncommon thing to see a group of women forming in line out side a doctors office any evening after working hours between six - eight on the lower East Side of New York City. When I asked a patient what they were going there for, she replied simply " TO GET RELIEF." To see these pale faced mothers, with their shawls drawn closely about their heads, their faces pinched and wan from overwork and worry, crowding FORWARD EAGER to face the tortures of abortion, rather than condemn an unborn child to poverty, to see this makes was enough to make ones blood boil with rage and indignation at the hypocritical silence of the medical profession who cater to the whims of the rich but ignore the TRAGEDY of the poor.

A few simple words of advice to these women would have enabled them to avoid the horrible slaughter of abortion going on in this country to day.

For the laws ↑stand today↓ against imparting this knowledge force these women into the hands of the filthiest midwives and cheapest quack abortionists (unless they bear unwanted children). With the consequences that the deaths from abortions are almost wholly among the women of the working class.

NO OTHER country in the world has so large a number of abortions nor so large a number of deaths resulting there from as the UNITED STATES of AMERICA. The quacks and abortionists roll in wealth--while our law makers close their VIRTUOUS EYES. ↑Discuss↓ among [friends?]

A most conservative estimate is that there are 125000 ↑250000--1 million↓ abortions performed in US each year, with a death rate of ↑ [25000?] ↓ , or one out of every five cases.

Again I found from records concerning the women of the underworld that 85% of them come from parents who average nine living children. And that 50% of these are found to be mentally defective.

Many of them at the age of 22 or 23 years have a mentality of a child not over nine or ten years. CAN WE NOT SEE AT ONCE how difficult it is for this girl with an adult body and a childs intelligence to compete in the battle of life against the more intelligent and better born. ↑10000 feeble minded girls Institution↓

We know too that the fertility of the mentally defective parent if our times as great as that of the normal parent. IS THIS NOT CAUSE FOR ALARM? IS it not time for our Physicians, Social workers and Scientists to face this array of facts, and stop quibbling over womans morality?

I say this because it is these people who raise objections to BIRTH CONTROL advancing the argument that it MAY cause women to be come immoral.

Solicitude for womans morals has ever been the cloak Authority has worn in its age long CONSPIRACY to keep her in bondage.

When I was in Spain a year ago, I found that the Spanish woman was far behind her European sisters in readiness or even desire for modern freedom. Upon investigation as to the cause of this I was told that there are over 5000 villages and towns in Spain, with no means of transportation except donkeys over bridle paths. I was further told that all attempts to build roads or railroads into Spain had been met with the strongest opposition of the Clergy and the Government on the grounds that roads and railroads would make communication easy, thereby bringing the women of the country into the Cities WHERE THEY WOULD BECOME IMMORAL.

Do we who have roads and railroads think that our women are less moral than the SPANISH woman? Certainly not. But we in this country are after all only just emerging from the fight for the higher education for ↑of↓ women, which met with the same objection a few years ago.

↑Razors & matches knowledge can be abused↓

We know now that education has not done all the dreadful things to women that its opponents predicted were certain to result. And so shall we find that knowledge to control birth, which has been in the hands of the wealthy women of this country for the past 25 years, WILL NOT tend to lower their standards of morality. If the women of the upper class has withstood this test, is there any reason to suggest that the working woman will use it less wisely?

Statistics show us that the birth rate of any quarter is in ratio to its wealth. And further give us figures to prove that in the large Cities the rich districts yield a birth rate a third of that of the poor districts. In Paris for every 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 50 the poor districts yields 116 births and the rich districts 34 births. In Berlin conditions are approximately the same, for every 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 50 the poor district yields 157 births while the rich yield 47 births. This applies also to Vienna, London, New York and all the large cities the world over.

It can be inferred from these figures that the women of wealth use means to control birth which is condemned when taught to the poor. BUT the MENACE to our Civilization the problem of the day is NOT the stationary birth rate among the upper classes SO much as the tremendous increase among the poor and diseased population of this country.

Many of my friends will object to this statement, because it seems to clash with their economic theories. But there are always objections from some quarter. For every ideal born there is a Herod born to kill it

It is difficult for me to understand how our advanced thinkers in the Labor organizations have attached so little importance to the question of birth control. To me it is by far the most important question they can touch upon. This propaganda should have gone hand in hand with labor organization for the past generation.

↑Child labor & unemployed army--today↓

Workers are really nothing but a kind of merchandise at the mercy of the law of supply and demand. The man who offers himself, must be content with any wage. The man who wants workers must pay their price.

In multiplying themselves workers become their own rivals. All work has a tendency to get overcrowded. Enforced idleness is the result. An army of STARVING workers present themselves at a reduced wage at the doors of the factories. A prolonged strike requires a reserve fund which the worker lacks. The strikers FIGHT AN UNEQUAL fight not only against their unfortunate brothers who are out of work and willing and anxious to take their abandoned jobs, but ALSO AGAINST their well nourished and well armed brothers--the soldiers--and police.

↑Because workers will never [advance>?] [two words illegible] until BC↓

In SOCIAL conflicts the workers are beaten in ADVANCE by their numbers and fertility. They are beaten by their own children who are thrown on the labor marker thru their number. INNOCENT AND FRAGILE infants earn their own bread by starving their parents out of work, competing with them in the labor market.

Factory and mill work by children is fast producing a generation of mental defectives among the working class, which fordooms future generations to a continued WAGE SLAVERY. The GREAT mass of men to day who cannot be organized or grasp the significance of organization are found to have a mentality NOT beyond that of a boy TWELVE years of age.

Misery and Ignorance are not the least bit of use in the revolutionary ↑race↓ world. LET US STOP PRODUCING THEM.

Aside from the economic question which has chiefly concerned the man. What about the woman? Is her health not to be considered? Is she to remain a producing machine? Is she to have no time to think to study and care for herself? Man CANNOT travel to his goal alone. And until woman has the knowledge to control birth, she cannot get the time to think and develop. Until she has the time to think, neither the Suffrage question nor the Social question nor the labor question will interest her, and she will remain the drudge that she is and her husband the slave that he is just so long as they continue to supply the market with cheap labor [no free?] man can be born of a slave mother

It has ben my experience that a woman living on a wage of 10 dollars a week does not desire a large family. I have worked among thousands of them and have found them with five, six, eight and nine children and have never yet found one of them desire ANOTHER MOUTH TO FEED.

ON THE CONTRARY I have found them in constant TERROR of another baby, and submitting to the agony of unwanted childbirth only because of ignorance.

Let ME ASK YOU has the STATE any more right to ravish a woman against her will by keeping her in ignorance than a man has thru brute force? Has the State a better right to decide when she shall bear offspring?

Picture a woman with five or six little ones living on the average working mans wage of ten dollars a week. ANOTHER baby is coming as fast as Nature can manage it. She is already old, broken in health and spirit a worn out shadow of the woman she once was. Where is the man or woman who would reproach me for trying to put into this womans hands knowledge to prevent giving birth to any more?

Is this action on my part to be called immoral? Am I to be persecuted and classed as immoral because I advocate small families for the working class while Mr Roosevelt can go up and down the length of the land shouting and urging this woman to have large families and is neither arrested nor molested, but considered by all society as highly moral.

But I ask you which IS the More moral? To urge this class of women to have only those children she desires and can care for or to delude her into breeding cannon fodder for the munition makers and professional Jingoes? Which is America's definition of morality? ↑Last administration New Zealand women of France↓ .

You will agree with me that a woman should be free. Yet no adult woman who is ignorant of the means to prevent conception, can call herself FREE.

No woman can call herself FREE who cannot choose the time to be a mother or not as she sees fit. This should be woman's first demand. And though this may scandalize some of the old-fashioned minds of the day, it should not be more shocking than the modern electrical devices in our homes, which certainly would have scandalized any of our great-grandmothers in their day.

The facts are that WOMAN'S LIBERTY is shackled by the tyranny of the State, legal obstacles, ignorance and maternity. She may think that she can defy conventions and live free in her relations, all of which are purely a question of character and audacity in the individual woman. But the fact remains that she must have the knowledge to prevent conception if she is to remain free.

I found that ↑For as↓ our present laws ↑are today↓ force woman into one of two ways, celibacy with its nervous results, or abortion. All modern physicians testify that both these conditions are harmful; that celibacy is the cause of many nervous complaints, while abortion is a disgrace to a civilized community. Physicians claim that early marriage with knowledge to control birth would do away with both. For this would enable two young people to live and work together until such time as they could care for a family. I found that young people desire early marriage, were it not for the dread of a large family to support.

↑Why will not Society countenance & advance this idea. Because it is afraid of the untried & unknown. It would rather spend.↓

I found these things and more--countless more. And what did I find that SOCIETY was doing to alter these conditions?

Again I found ↑saw↓ that fortunes were being spent in establishing Baby Nurseries, where new babies are brought and cared for while the mothers toil in sweatshops during the day. I found ↑saw↓ Charities establishing Better Baby Leagues--(not Fewer Baby Leagues.)

I found ↑saw↓ that Society and women alike with all their ↑its↓ well intentioned palliatives, are ↑was↓ in this respect like the QUACK, who cures a cancer by burning off the top, while the deadly disease continues to spread underneath. I never felt this more strongly than I did three years ago, after the death of the patient in my last nursing case.

This patient of mine was the wife of a struggling workingman--the mother of three children--who was suffering from the results of an attempted abortion performed upon her by herself. She lived on Grand Street, the Main Thoroughfare of New York's Downtown Ghetto. I found her in a very serious condition, and for three weeks both the attending physician and myself labored night and day to bring her OUT of The VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH. We finally succeeded in restoring her to her family circle.

I remember well the day I was leaving. The physician, too, was making his last call. As the doctor put out his hand to say Good-bye, I saw the patient had something to say to him, but was timid and shy about saying it. I started to leave the room, but she called me back and said:

"Please don't go. How can both of you leave me without telling me what I can do to avoid another illness such as I have just passed through." I was interested to hear what the answer of the physician would be and I went and sat down beside her in expectation of hearing a sympathetic reply. To my amazement, he answered her lightly ↑& jokingly put aside her question↓ .

Three months later, I was aroused from my sleep at midnight. A telephone call from the husband of the same woman requested me to come immediately, as she was dangerously ill. I arrived to find her beyond relief. Another conception had forced her in to the hands of a cheap abortionist, and she died at four o'clock the same morning, leaving behind her three small children and a frantic, helpless husband.

I returned home as the sun was coming up over the roofs of the Human Bee-Hive, and I realized how futile my efforts and my work had been. I, too, like the philanthropists and Social Workers, had been dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease. I threw my nursing bag into the corner and announced to my family that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for working women in AMERICA to have the KNOWLEDGE OF BIRTH CONTROL.

I asked several prominent women--Suffragists, Feminists, etc. if they would not help me in doing this work, which would strike at the very root of the evil. I wanted to get 50 women to go on record with me and make a TEST CASE through the COURTS. Could I get them? I was told to "Wait until we get the Vote!" When I asked Radical Woman Speaker and Writer if she would assist her reply was: "WAIT UNTIL YOU BECOME BETTER KNOWN!

But the cries of thousands of suffering women would not let me wait.

I found, however, to my utter surprise, that there was very little scientific information on this question available in America. Although nearly every country in Europe had this knowledge, we were the only civilized people in the world whose postal laws would not allow of its delivery.

The TYRANNY of the CENSORSHIP in the POST OFFICE IS THE GREATEST MENACE TO LIBERTY IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY. The Post Office was never intended to be a moral or ethical institution. It was intended to be mechanically efficient; certainly not to pass upon the opinions in the matter it conveys. If we concede this power to this institution, which is a Public Servant, we might just as well give to the Street Car Companies and Railroads the right to refuse to carry passengers whose ideas they do not like.

I discovered ↑was warned↓ that the penalty for violating the Post Office Laws was the most severe of any country in the world ↑others attempted it↓ . I need give only one illustration to show how they have been enforced up to the present time. This was the case of a physician, who resided in the Middle West. (He requests me not to use his name.) He received a letter from a woman a few miles out of the city where he lived. She stated that she was the mother of NINE CHILDREN, and that her husband was in the last stages of Tuberculosis. She begged and implored him on the grounds of Humanity to give her some information whereby she could prevent bringing any more children into the world. The Doctor being a liberal minded and sympathetic man, with a conscious responsibility toward the future of the race, did not hesitate for a moment. He sent her a few simple directions to prevent conception. Two weeks later, he received another letter from another woman, who claimed that she had SEVEN living children and had had TEN abortions, and that her husband was suffering from syphilis. She, also, implored him to send her by return mail some information that would save her from a further conception. Again, the Doctor did not hesitate. He complied with her request and sent her simple instructions to avoid further pregnancies.

One month later, he was ordered into Court and confronted by a woman, a COMSTOCK SPY, who was the writer of both letters. He pled guilty to the charge and was sentenced to TEN YEARS in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, and $10,000 fine. In other words, he received the maximum sentence of $5,000 and FIVE years' imprisonment for each letter. His home was broken up, his professional standing gone, and not one word of protest from the medical profession against this outrage. After spending SIX years in prison, last year he was released. He is now an old man, broken in health, and requests friends not to use his name, or to give his case any publicity.

This is only one illustration of the methods of censorship, and although Mr. Comstock has passed away, the same methods are being employed as viciously under his successor as ever before.

You all know of Mr. Sanger's case, which occurred last year, when the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, not being able to lay its hands on me and prosecute me, set a trap for William Sanger through a Comstock SPY. You have all heard how this man came into the privacy of his studio several times, imploring him for a pamphlet on "FAMILY LIMITATION." ↑ (100,000) had been distributed↓

The same story was told of a sick wife, a large family and many abortions; that he was a worker in the Socialistic Movement, a friend of mind and interested in furthering the cause of Birth Control. As Mr. Sanger had only one copy in his possession, he gave it to the Spy, who turned around and arrested him for doing it. He was tried before three prejudiced, clerical judges, convicted and sentenced to 30 days' Imprisonment.

These are merely TWO EXAMPLES that have been brought close to me; but I know there are thousands of cases fully as outrageous, where innocent men and women are victims of the Censors.

↑ Emma Goldman's case up for trial↓

I am not going to take up your time to tell you about "THE WOMAN REBEL." You all know of its brief existence. You know of its suppression and confiscation by the Post Office authorities. You know of the indictments handed down by the Grand Jury against me. You know of the many postponements of my trial and the final dismissal of the case by the Government. I am reluctant to call it a VICTORY, for What has Victory meant to me in this case? It meant months and months of persecution by spies and detectives, prying into every phase of my activity, coming into my home in the guise of comrades and friends. It meant the exertion of the meanest and most despicable methods in trying to suppress the message of Birth Control. It meant the opening of all my private letters, the Invasion of every Constitutional Right we are supposed to enjoy in this country. It would be impossible for me to enumerate all the hindrances and all the tricks the benevolent Government put in my way during the months I was publishing the paper. The indictments were the last weapons in the strenuous campaign to stamp out THE IDEA OF BIRTH CONTROL.

↑went to Europe--Family limitation↓

I am glad to say that the very reverse of what was intended has occurred. The same authorities who two years ago adjudged me lewd and lascivious now pay me the pretty compliment of informing me that I am not a "Disorderly Person." But why did the authorities change their minds? Because of the thousands of letters of protest which came to them from all parts of this country and convinced them that BIRTH CONTROL was too vital a demand in the United States today to be suppressed through the persecution of an individual, which proves to us again that the Courts, no matter how powerful, cannot combat a strong and intelligent opinion.

My fight with the Government has been to arouse interest in the subject of Birth Control in America, and in this, at least, I feel that I have been victorious. The work now before us is to crystallize and to organize this interest into action, not only for the repeal of the laws but for the establishment of FREE CLINICS in the industrial centers throughout this country.

In HOLLAND there are 52 Clinics with nurses in charge, and the Medical Profession has practically handed the work over to nurses. In these clinics, which are mainly in the industrial and agricultural districts, any woman who is married or old enough to be married, can come for information, and be instructed in the care and Hygiene of her body. The Dutch woman looks upon a new baby in the house much as we look upon an automobile or any other luxury, which we would not buy unless we could afford it. These clinics have been established for 30 years in Holland, and the result has been that the general death rate of Holland has fallen to be the lowest of any country in Europe. Also, the infant mortality of Amsterdam and the Hague is found to be the lowest of any cities in the world. Holland proves that the practice of Birth Control leads to race improvement, for the increase of population has accelerated as the death rate has fallen. ↑"Public Utility"↓

In England, France, Scandinavia, and Germany information regarding Birth Control is also freely disseminated, but the establishment of clinics in these countries is not so well organized as it is in Holland, with the consequence that the upper and middle classes, as in this country, have ready access to these methods, while the poor continue to multiply because of their imperfect knowledge. This leads, especially in France, to a high infantile mortality, which, rather than a low birth rate, is the real cause of the decreasing population.

We in America should learn a lesson from this, and I would urge IMMEDIATE GROUP ACTION to form clinics here at once. We have in this country a splendid foundation in our hospital system and settlement work. The American Trained Nurse is the best equipped and most capable in the worlds which enables us, if we begin at once, to accomplish as much in 10 years' time as the European Countries have done in 30 years.

Can we not form here to-night ↑this City↓ the NUCLEUS FOR A BIRTH CONTROL LEAGUE? ↑better [one word illegible] ↓

There are already 10 such leagues, which have been formed during the past year in the large cities of this country. Such a League would be the rallying point for progressive thought in your City, and focus interest on the local necessity for opening a clinic.

↑My work & object now tour west & N.Y. Clinic↓

↑Birth Control is keynote new social awakening social [principle?] interlocked spiritual progress↓

This will enable the working woman to help herself, and to do away with Charity, which at its best can only give temporary relief. Woman must be protected from incessant child-bearing before she can actively participate in social life. She must triumph over Nature's and Man's laws, which have kept her in bondage. Just as man has triumphed over Nature by the use of electricity, shipbuilding, bridges, etc., so must she triumph over the laws which have made her a child-bearing machine.

In her triumph over these laws ↑she will free the child & emancipate herself↓ . She will develop her Personality and Individuality, and prepare with man for the EMANCIPATION OF THE RACE.

↑ Thomas Paine ↓

↑Telegram to E.G. bringing a child into the world the greatest responsibility.↓

↑We must make this function a sacred gift bodies beautiful instrument possible for the Soul we [one word illegible] to play its part↓


Subject Terms:

Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project


valid