Margaret Sanger, "California Conference of Social Workers Address," 17 May 1939.
Source: "Florence Rose Papers, Sophia Smith Collection Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:126."
For a handwritten draft see Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:91. No final version was found.
As I have sat here listening to the speakers who have proceeded me my mind drifts back to the days over twenty years ago when a meeting of sort would have been impossible; when the birth control movement was associated, in the minds of most people, with arrests, imprisonment, refusals of authorities in various cities to allow public meetings for presentation even of arguments in favor of the question; when there was spectacular publicity and furious opposition.
We have come far since then. By making people understand what birth control really is we have reversed the trend of public opinion until today all polls taken on the subject; whether among lay or medical groups, show a large majority in favor of the principles we advocate--every child well born and a wanted child; parenthood planned, not haphazard and irresponsible.
We have come far and have built up this solid wall of public opinion behind us in the face of tremendous odds, for we were combating a taboo; we were trying to overcome an age-old prejudice; we had little or no financial support and we had against us a powerful, resourceful and well-financed opposition. We have won because, no matter what the opposition, an eternally right principle always wins in the long run.
But having come so far we must look forward to the next steps. What is the present status of birth control? We are on the threshold of public acceptance of birth control as a part of preventive medicine. Our plan must be to convert those who still cling to the belief that nature’s way is the best way; that it is woman’s duty to bear children; that the greater the population the stronger the nation and that instead of birth control we should exercise self-control.
In all the pressure that has been exerted to make it difficult or impossible for woman to control her own fertility two basic human rights have been forgotten or ignored; the right of the woman to say when and at what intervals she shall bear children and the right of the child to be well born and welcome.
All through the ages women have fought for the right to own their own bodies. The normal woman wants children. She has always wanted them but she has fought for the right to have them only when she wanted. them. The church has beaten her down, with threats of hell fire and charges of mortal sin. The state has beaten her down with demands for greater population; more man power for its armies; with charges that she was unpatriotic and not fulfilling her duty to the nation if she refused to provide it with this needed strength.
Not only was the right of decision denied her, but laws of all kinds have been enacted to make it impossible for her to obtain information on the prevention of conception, and to punish her if when caught in the trap of unwanted pregnancy, she revolted ↑rebelled↓ and tried to free her body from the unwelcome burden it carried. History records few things more revolting than the tortures devised to punish women who dared, in spite of the penalties, to defy these laws. But they did defy them, because they were fighting for their own freedom and for more than that--for the freedom of their children; for the right of the child to be well born and welcome.
In the vast majority of many thousands of letters that have come to me from mothers asking for information on birth control, one cry is reiterated, “Help me not to have any more babies, so that I may be able to take care of those I have.”
We realize now, more than has any previous generation that this struggle of woman for her freedom is part of an urge toward a better way of life for herself and her children, and more and more, men have come to a realization of what ↑she↓ was fighting for and have turned to help her.
Not only have the scientists, scholars and lay men of all types lent their aid, but physicians--who best realize what child birth, even when it is normal, entails, have given their support increasingly to the movement to make motherhood voluntary--not conscripted.
Almost ten years ago, a group of Chicago doctors, all noted men in their profession, presented a statement at the meeting of the Woman’s Aid in that city, which was remarkable in its understanding of and sympathy with the things for which women have fought so long. It opened by saying that the 18 doctors who signed the statement wished to record their belief “in the wisdom and justice of making legally available to any woman of legally marriageable age the knowledge of how to prevent conception.” It ended by stating: “Finally we, as men, believe that if we had to undergo sickness, disfigurement, limitation of activities, discomfort, pain, danger, and sometimes death for the birth of a child, we would insist that it was our absolute right to choose our own time for the process. Therefore, we believe this an essential and absolute right of woman, and encourage them to claim this right.”
This point of view is being accepted increasingly by many of the thinkers of this country. The task ahead of us is to translate belief into action and to do this we must understand the problem we face, the people who most need help, and the best way to provide that help for them.
Opposition to birth control is now being reinforced with a new argument. The spectres of the falling birth rate and a stationary population are the great dreads of today. The population experts are gloomy over “replacement” ratios. It was long the custom in some Oriental countries to drown or otherwise dispose of girl babies. They were not desired nor welcome. Now we find, in England, the European countries and here, that a larger number of girl babies is most desirable, because--and this is no surprise to women--they are to be the mothers of the future! On them depends the whole “replacement” ratio of our populations and they must be taught that an increase in the birth rate is essential; a yearly increase of population is not enough.
We have not yet reached the point where we are offering inducements to married couples to have large families, but we know that the totalitarian states are doing so, with rather in different success. Before we adopt any measures to stimulate a higher birth rate in this country let us see where we stand today, for the children now being born are those who shall inherit the earth.
From what sources is the bulk of our new population being drawn? What strata are the most fertile? Where are the birth rates highest? For until we know these things we cannot plan to give help where it is most needed or where, in the long run, it will best serve the interests of the country as a whole.
Our population in 1930 was almost 123 million, of which 88.4% was native born. Over 28 million of our people at that time were 45 years of age and over, and the estimate of April 1st, 1935 was that this age group had increased to over 31 million, forming nearly a quarter of our total population. As it is probably, according to the ratio of males to females in the United States, that more than half of these 31 million are women (for the span of life is longer for women) at least 16 million of our female population are past childbearing age.
Immigration under our quota system, has been at a low ebb but is now increasing slightly. In 1935 about 35000 immigrants entered the country legally; no one can estimate how many came in illegally. The number of legal entries has increased each year since 1935 and in 1938 almost 68,000 aliens arrived here. During the same period emigration has dropped steadily, from over 38,000 in 1935 to 25,210 in 1938. This country is fast becoming the most desirable in the world in which to live--and that in spite of the fact that we are alleged to be ruled by sixty families and still have millions unemployed and on relief.
Our early immigrants had high birth rates but today the people coming in are not so fertile. Our most fertile stock, according to the figures of the survey of the National Resources Committee, is native born largely, resident in some of the rural areas of the South and living on a very low subsistence level.
This same report shows of the over 2 million children born in 1936 more than a million were born to families on relief or with incomes, including farm produce, of less than $1000 a year. Can any one picture what this means in terms of misery to these mothers and to their children--for these million babies came to homes already overstocked with children in most cases. It is bad enough when these children are born in homes; but thousands are being born in migratory camps--those centers which have come into being during the depression, where are existing today, in many states, the drifters, the feckless, or the incurably optimistic who always believe that if they move on somewhere the next town may provide them with a job and a home.
Living conditions in these migratory camps beggar description. I have seen some of them and I know. (Description here?).
It is always the mothers who suffer most when living conditions are bad and there is little money or food. If the man is lucky enough to be working he must be fed. He is the breadwinner; his strength must be conserved and he must have clothing and shoes, for God help the family if he loses his job. The children have the next lien on food and clothing. Last of all comes the mother. If there is any food left she eats. If not, she goes without.
Can ↑any↓ one in this room conceive what it must be like to send one’s children off to school hungry, hoping (if it is in an urban area, for such luxuries are not provided in the poorest rural districts) that there will be some free milk given out at lunchtime; to have cramped and unsanitary living quarters; to yearn to give one’s children ample food, warm clothing and a decent home, but not be able to provide any of these things for them and then to fill the bitter cup, have the dumb misery of knowing that in a few months there will be another baby--another mouth to feed.
There are too many thousand such mothers in this land of plenty today. They are the victims of their own fertility; worn down, tired out, they continue to reproduce, often rebelliously and unwillingly, children who are doomed before birth to struggle, handicapped physically and sometimes mentally, in a world into which they should never have been born.
Yet in all the plans made and being made to give the underprivileged in this country relief; with millions being spent to feed, clothe and provide them with work, not one cent of Federal funds is to be allocated to provide contraceptive service to the people who need it most and who are reproducing, proportionately, the largest number of children.
It is this situation which must be changed if we are to eventually take birth control down to those in the lowest economic strata of society. Such work is being done under the Ministry of Health of Great Britain, in many of the Maternal and Child Welfare stations there. Why cannot it be done here?
Those of us who are familiar with birth control clinics know that if they are to be used effectively they must not be too far away from the homes of the women who come to them for advice.
The New York City Committee has wisely utilized already existing centers to which women were accustomed to coming--settlements and social service centers. In cities women are accustomed to going to hospital clinics and baby welfare centers for medical aid and advice. In the rural areas there are sometimes other focal points which women are in the habit of using. At all such clinics and centers, no matter where they are situated, birth control information should be readily available. It should be a matter of course, and no woman should be made to feel guilty in asking for it.
For the sake of the women and their children this knowledge should be free. And more than that, it should be free as a matter of social insurance, for society is carrying about as heavy a load as it can bear, in the shape of multiplication of the unfit.
While the percentage of illiterates in this country is gradually declining there were over 4 ½ million of them here in 1930. The law prevents an illiterate from voting, in a few states, but he can marry and have children--no law prohibits that. The same is true of the feeble-minded. The chronically indigent may be so because they are physically or mentally underpar. No one thinks that they make ideal parents, but no law prevents their marriage.
Mental instability is on the increase. Patients with nervous or mental disease occupy half the hospital beds in the United States. Often they go home on parole or supposedly cured. They marry and have children, also. There are about half a million epileptics in the United States. The defects and disabilities of many of all these classes of citizens should make us all anxious to see that the number of children born from such stock is materially reduced.
People say that such people will not use birth control, that they are too lazy, too inert, too stupid. That may be true of some of them, but what concerted effort has ever been made to help them use birth control? We hedge the knowledge about with restrictions. We make it just as hard as possible for people to get it. Learned doctors write articles warning that no method is as yet 100% effective. And then ↑we↓ find people wondering whether the populace at large, and particularly those with low intelligence, would use birth control if it were made readily available. The drop in the birth rate, about which there is so much lamentation, is not confined to one class, and there is general suspicion that knowledge of contraception has something to do with it!
It has been my dream and hope always that the day would come when birth control would be taken over by public health. No one could have received for many years the thousands of appeals that I have from all parts of this country and not come to the realization that this is a national problem, and that in a country so large as this every existing agency should be utilized to solve it. The appeals of these women were so sad, so poignant, that years ago, many of them were published in my book “Motherhood in Bondage”. I thought that no one could read those letters and not be moved to try to do something to alleviate such distress.
Whether the picture was too somber, or the iteration of the cry too distressing I do not know, but it failed to impel people to action. And that same sort of thing is going on today.
The situation is particularly acute in the rural areas. Here it is no use, in many places, to say ↑to a woman↓ ”go to your doctor”. She may not have a doctor. She may even never have been delivered by a doctor or have been inside a hospital in all her life. The midwife, who still attends many women in the rural areas, knows nothing of birth control. The rural woman is often shy about asking her friends or neighbors about birth control. Often if she has the money she writes a mail order house (and the catalogues of the mail order houses are diligently read in the country districts) and gets some advertised product, only to have it fail. She is often overworked, usually overtired, worried financially and worn down looking after an ever-increasing family.
Let those who oppose this program attempt to justify their opposition. The old arguments based on the religious tenets of the middle ages will not hold today. ↑See next page↓
The argument is often used that poverty and hard work strengthen and toughen people: that some of our finest citizens have risen from such environments to be leaders of the nation. That is true only in a small minority of cases. Where one rises from such a background, ten thousand fall. In some of the areas of our country with the most fertile stock, poverty, hard work and lack of education have so ground down what might have been the native ability of the population that no leaders emerge. These people should be given a chance to develop leadership and one practical way is to make it possible for them to control their teeming numbers.
A national public health program which included birth control would be the sane rational way to help these submerged people help themselves.
We cannot continue to perpetuate the human misery existing in these areas without ultimate disaster which will react on all of us. The majority of the nation believes that birth control is the answer to the problem. Only a minority opposes it, and this minority should no longer be allowed to block progress.
The old arguments based on the religious tenets of the middle ages will not hold today. Those who oppose our program must do more to justify their opposition than talk about hell fire and mortal sin. For generations their way has been tried and it has failed. It is time that another way was tried, and with your help, and that of thousands not present here tonight, but who believe as we do, this nation can set its feet on a new path, leading to a new goal: the health, happiness and strength of the generations yet to be born in America.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project