Margaret Sanger, "Do They Want Birth Control?," Nov 1936.
Source: " Woman's Digest, Nov. 1936, pp. 171-174 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S71:861."
For an unpublished draft see Library of Congress Microfilm 128:0340. For the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control's pamphlet version of this article, see Library of Congress Microfilm 128:679. This article was first published in the Independent Woman, but the article has not been found.
She was a tiny woman, less than five feet tall. Her face had the innocent simplicity of a child as she stood there in the doorway of my railroad carriage, her big, dark eyes pinned expectantly on my face, her little hands twisting the edge of her sari.
When I got on the train in Trivandrum, after the four days of sessions of the All India Women’s Conference, to leave for another series of meetings in Madras, I noticed this woman and her baby in the next compartment. I had noticed her particularly because it is seldom one sees a sari-clad woman in a first class compartment. And now, five minutes after the train had started, she had knocked at my door.
I asked her to sit down. Then, with the directness of a little girl and the gentleness that seems an innate part of Indian womanhood, she told me her story and begged me for the advice that to her was as important as life itself.
She had traveled for three days, from her home in the north to Trivandrum at the southernmost tip of India, just to see me. She was twenty-seven years old and had four children living and three dead. The youngest, a baby of six months, she had brought with her because she was still nursing him.
She had been ill for months after the birth of her last child and finally she had decided that she must do something, anything, so that she would have no more children. Then she read in the paper that I was in India. She went to her husband, and he, glad to clutch at any straw that would give back health and joy to his wife, promised some way to get the money that would take her the 1,500 miles to see me.
Vainly she had tried for four days at the Conference to gather up enough courage to push her way past her more forward sisters and ask me the questions she had come so far to have answered. Day after day passed and still she had not seen me. The last morning she heard it announced from the platform that I was leaving that night for Madras. She was sick with fear that her journey had been in vain. She did not dare go back to her husband after having spent so much money without gaining the information she wanted, and that he wanted her to have.
She hurried to the railroad station and learning that only one first class reservation had been made for the night train to Madras, decided that was mine. So she engaged the one next to it.
“I thought I’d get a chance to talk to you. I’m going to get off at the next station and get into the third class carriage but I had to talk to you. I had to. It means everything to my husband and me and to our children,” she said.
The determination in the face of that small, gentle creature, who looked not more than twenty years old, was amazing! To understand the bravery it required for her to travel from the north to the south of India, one must realize that she had been out of purdah only a few years and that this was the first trip she had ever made alone. I shall never forget the gratitude and happiness in her face when, saying goodby, she folded the palms of her hands before her face and bowed her head in the simple and dignified salute that in India takes the place of a hand shake.
This brave woman was just one of the hundreds of Indian mothers who have come knocking at my door in every city I have visited in this vast country. I have talked to hundreds more a public meetings. I have visited still more in their homes--women of the crowded dark slum quarters and women whose homes are of palatial beauty. And with few exceptions they have pleaded for knowledge of how they can limit their families and space their children so that the experience of motherhood can become a joyous and beautiful experience instead of a crushing burden.
This was not what I had been led to expect in India. Men and women, claiming to be familiar with the people of this land, with whom I had talked before I landed in Bombay, were pessimistic.
“Their religion makes it an Indian woman’s highest duty to have children. The more she has the better she likes it. Every son she bears lifts her higher in the esteem of her family and friends,” I was told. Others pointed out to me that children are the only consolation in an Indian woman’s life, her only reason for existing.
One highly educated Indian man said to me: “Why, Mrs. Sanger, you can do nothing. We all admit that birth control is the only answer to India’s population problem, but the women themselves don’t want it. There is nothing in a woman’s life except her children, nothing. And this is especially true in the life of the poor woman. She’s married. Then as soon as the thrill and excitement of her wedding is over she begins to think about her baby. When the child is born she has various ceremonies in her life and the baby’s life to think about. When that’s over, she has another baby and it begins all over again. No, you can’t do anything as long as the women themselves aren’t with you.”
I was sure they were wrong. I have always been sure that women in all lands and all ages have instinctively desired family spacing. This desire has manifested itself in such horrors as infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion. It is the rebellion of woman when she finds her life hampered, caught, and twisted by the bearing and care of too many children. I was sure that in a land like India, where one every side you find women stirring themselves as though from a long sleep to go into the world and seek a new freedom, economic and social, there would be thousands of minds reaching out to find the knowledge which would mean freedom from their own bodies.
So I said nothing to those who painted the picture of India womanhood resigned hopelessly to enforced and continuous motherhood. I wanted to wait and learn for myself whether the women of India were so different from the women of any other country in the world that they wanted and would cling to endless childbearing if the way to voluntary motherhood were opened to them
And I saw and learned.
Just two days after I arrived in Bombay I went with a young American-trained Indian social worker to the chawls, the long rows of tenement houses where the city’s mill workers are crowded together in small dark rooms. There are nineteen chawls, eighty small rooms in each building with one hundred families divided up among the eighty rooms! Often as many as fifteen people, old and young, spread out on mats at night on the concrete floors of the small, cell-like rooms.
Children, their naked little bodies bone-thing, played in the streets or sat listlessly in the shadow of the buildings. Mothers stared at the streets with inert eyes. Others in their dark rooms were slowly going about their simple household tasks. But almost every one had a baby or small child on her hip. I was told that many other mothers were at work in the mills, leaving their young children to the care of still other children.
I knew the government census figures for 1930 state that of every 1,000 children born in Bombay, 298 die. I knew that it has been estimated that 100 of every 1,000 mothers in India die in childbirth. I looked at these poor, worn out women, at their undernourished, undersized children. I wondered: “Could they really want to go on producing more and more children to live in this poverty? Are they not like other mothers in the western countries who because of their mother-love dread bringing other children into the world to rob those they already have of food and clothing and care?”
I turned to the social worker, “Ask this mother how many children she has,” and I pointed to a woman in a ragged sari squatting on the street and holding a baby in her arms.
“Six,” was the answer.
“And how many dead?” I asked through the interpreter.
“Five,” she answered.
“And how many more do you want,” I pursued the questioning.
She threw out her hands in a pathetic gesture. A look of fear came into her tired, lined face.
“Please God, no more!” Her words were a prayer.
We went on through the chawls into rooms so dark that I could not see until my eyes became accustomed to the gloom. We talked to a score of mothers some old, some young, and although their replies differed in form, in substance they all echoed the words, “Please God, no more.”
No Bombay man can again tell me that the women of his city slums do not want the information I came to India to bring to them.
In one of the native states, north of Bombay, where an intelligent and progressive Maharaja has for years been doing his best to help the mothers of his state, I again met the same objection: “The women don’t want it.”
“Why I would not dare suggest to our poor women, or to any of our women in fact, that they stop having so many children,” said that competent doctor in charge of the work this state’s maternity and child welfare league is doing. “It would be against their religious principles. To them the very thought of birth control would be a sin!”
But when we reached the welfare center in the heart of the poorest district, I persuaded him to ask one of the women if she would like to know how she could space her children. She was young, a Mohammedan woman, her eyes bright and intelligent beneath the yellow veil that covered her head and fell to her shoulders. The baby in her arms was thin and listless. Her other two babies had died before they were two years old. She listened to the doctor’s words as he explained what the “American lady” wanted to know. Then she began nodding her head and talking quickly.
“I never would have believed this if I hadn’t heard it myself,” the doctor said as he turned to me. He looked amazed. “These women want to know and know quickly what you can do for them!
“No, I would never have believed this,” he said, “But to tell you the truth, I never before tried to find out for myself. I’ve always just taken the common belief that Indian women want all the children possible as a fact instead of a myth.”
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project