Margaret Sanger, "Survey of the Birth Control Movement," 24 Aug 1948.

Source: " Proceedings of the International Congress on Population and World Resources in Relation to Family, August 24, 1948 (London: 1948), pp.85-95 MSMS72:0569."

Sanger's address to the International Congress on Population and World Resources in Relation to Family was introduced by Lady Gertrude Denman who said in part It was entirely owing to Mrs. Margaret Sanger's enthusiasm and generosity that the present Congress had been called together. (Applause) She could perhaps best sum up what they all felt and thought about Mrs. Margaret Sanger by quoting from an American official document, which said that the America Women's Association Medal was given to Mrs. Sanger "for her vision, integrity and valour." No one could have a better tribute than that..Sanger used this same address at the Pioneers Luncheon given by the Planned Parenthood Association at the Palmer House in Chicago. This luncheon was the Opening Event of the 1950 Nationwide Planned Parenthood Campaign.For an slightly edited version, "Survey of the Birth Control Movement," published in 1948, see Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:590.


I am really quite moved tonight to have this reception, and terribly pleased. I thought that the one reception last night was quite sufficient, but I am flattered by having a special affair of this kind, and I thank the Committee very much for this honour. Although I was told that I must not do much thanking, nevertheless I must say a word of thanks to a few friends who helped in the beginning to get me going for this Congress--Dr. Blacker, Dr. Griffith, Mr. Chance (who I regret is not here) and, of course, always the Guys, and Mrs. Helena Wright.

Always in England there have been these various splendid friends. It seems to me that it has been like a great tapestry of human endeavour, the birth control work between England and the United States, and I think it will continue as it began, some 25 or 30 years ago.

The Committee has asked me to give you briefly a summary of the birth control movement. If I were to do that, I should keep you here until the morning, and so when this letter came to me I had an idea for doing it in a different way, and I got out a pamphlet on 150 years of birth control, from Malthus to Cheltenham. I want to give the first copy to Lord Horder, and the next to Lady Denman, and copies to all the speakers here; and all the delegates will also have a special copy later. (Applause).

Having said that, and having given a summary of the movement in this pamphlet, I can now ramble on.

There are just a few things for which I take credit in this great humanitarian movement, and the first, which I consider much more important than most people do, is that I coined a term to call the movement by. A few of us got together, and we knew that there were such terms as “Malthusianism,” “Neo-Malthusianism,” and “Conscious generation,” but you know that the Americans just could not even spell them, let alone pronounce them, and I know that they would not do. We tried one term after another, including “Family Control,” and then “Birth Control” came, as it were, out of the air, and “Birth Control” it was.

It needed a little describing, and so for years some of us went throughout the country, from east to west and north to south, defining it as “The conscious control of the birth-rate by means that prevent conception.” We emphasised the word “prevent”--prevent, not destroy; not to interfere with life, but to prevent when there was no life to destroy. We said “This is no more destruction of life than you remaining single or living in celibacy.”

We said “control,” and we did not mean “limit.” We did not mean one child or two children; we said “control,” and we emphasised that you control traffic and appetite and temper. We thought that those were two excellent words to pin to this idea. I consider that that was probably one of the best educational factors in the whole movement. While the name has since been changed, and I think very well, to “Family Planning,” that simply means that the movement has gone on and got beyond where it needed to be explained, and we are getting into another realm. I especially like the term “Planned Parenthood.”

Another thing which was interesting and quite delightful was challenging the Comstock laws. It is impossible for those of you who live in England and other countries to conceive what an atmosphere there was in the United States in 1912-14. A man named Anthony Comstock, more than thirty years before, conceived the idea, and influenced Congressmen and churchmen and others to accept it, that the only way to keep the people pure was to make laws to keep them pure, and so he went to Congress and was able to get a law passed which covered abortion and contraception, and which made it a crime, punishable with five years’ imprisonment and a 5,000 dollar fine, for anyone to send through the post any book or letter or article or information concerning contraception or where it might be obtained; and that did not exclude the medical profession. In different States he also had laws passed which did not exclude the medical profession; and so for thirty years this man -- fanatical and well-meaning -- and his agents opened letters. They had more privileges than Congressmen. They opened parcels and packages from abroad, and especially from France, looking for contraceptives and for literature that might mention sex. The very words “gonorrhea” and “syphilis” were taboo, and whole papers were prevented from going through the U.S. mails if those words were included in any part of them.

It was a serious matter; it was not just a question of threats. He sent people to jail. An editor 70 years old was sent to the penitentiary and put to hard labour, breaking rocks; his crime was editing a magazine--I hope Dr. Blacker will take note of this--called the Eugenics Review. In the end the public indignation was aroused by the arrest of a dealer who had in his window a beautiful picture of a little girl of about ten years of age, nude, with the sunlight in her hair, standing in a stream. It was so beautiful that crowds gathered round the window to look at it, and the Comstock agent arrested them and the bookseller. This aroused the wrath of some of the friends of freedom, and it was not so easy for him to arrest people after that.

This was the situation when, as someone said, “Margaret Sanger came upon the scene with three children in her arms and a wild look in her eye.” I had the children, and I had the wild look too, because I had been working among women--poor, depressed, forgotten women--whose whole lives were lives of misery, who were asking people what they could do so as not to have another baby, because they had more children than they could take care of, and perhaps their husbands were out of work, yet more and more children came. Some mothers who had had large families were asking what to do to save their daughters from the hardships and the life of drudgery that they had experienced. Everywhere I went I found people with this problem. I myself, with three children and with a long period of tuberculosis, knew that this was a very important matter, and the question was just what to tell them, what to say.

I was perfectly willing to tell them what to do, but what was I to tell them? There was nothing in the public libraries, and even in the medical libraries in New York all that I could find on the subject was a book by a German physician with pages and pages on how wonderful it was to have children. That was as much as I could get from any medical treatise at that period.

Going to France and to Scotland gave me a new idea of the importance of this question. I went to Glasgow to see what municipal ownership had done for women and children. They had had municipal ownership there for 25 years, and had beautiful parks and houses. I found, however, that none of the apartment houses were built for more than four children, and I asked what would happen if there were five children in the family. I was told “We have no facilities for anyone with more than four children, and as a matter of fact we do not encourage people with more than one or two children to live in these houses, because after they have four children the parents are unable to take care of the houses or the children, and so they have to go to other districts.” I found families with seven or eight children down in the dockyard slums.

That made me think that no matter what the political situation, no matter what the economic situation, unless something is done to help people to take care of themselves the best places in the world may be turned into slums.

Then I saw France, where there was real family limitation, where back to the days of Napoleon there had been some consideration given to children and to the responsibility of having children. That is important. French women thought not only of themselves but of their children, and far more care was given to the one or two children per family that I saw in France than to the children that I saw in Glasgow.

That, then, was one of the reasons for my having a wild look. I realised that this thing could do far more than protect the individual woman who had tuberculosis or kidney trouble and who would not live if she had children; it involved a very large social outlook as well.

I decided, therefore, that I had to challenge the Comstock law. As things stood, we could not get anywhere; we could not get information from any other part of the world; we could not even discuss the matter without having difficulties and without being threatened with jail sentences. I accordingly got out a little pamphlet called Family Limitation, a very simple one, with what formulas I had found in Paris and elsewhere, the folklore ideas of contraception; but it served its purpose of bringing the Comstock law to heel.

I had difficulty in getting it printed, because every printer whom we approached said “This means a jail sentence; this means Sing-Sing.” which is our famous prison up the river. Nevertheless, we found a courageous printer who printed the pamphlet at night, and it was all set. I could have been given about 45 years in prison. It was like Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh over here; they printed a pamphlet and challenged the law, and I think that from that time onwards your English law has been straightened out and you have had no difficulty on any question of contraception here. I thought that that was a good example and that I would do the same, and so I had this pamphlet written in plain terms for women to read, printed.

I printed 125,000 or more, and had them carefully wrapped in bundles, and then I took the boat for England. When I was in the middle of the ocean I gave the word, and these pamphlets went out to the miners and the cotton workers and throughout the country to people who needed them, and to a judge and a district attorney and one of these Comstock officials. I said that I had come away to prepare for a trial, and that I felt that this was an important matter and the only way to call attention to these laws and get them changed. There was such a thing as dramatisation of the situation.

There is a wonderful statement that Shaw made which I have used many times. He said that tragedies really do not amount to very much; if an aeroplane crashes a dozen or more people are killed, and if an engine goes off the track more people are killed, and that may also happen if a great theatre or other building catches fire; but then something is done to prevent the same sort of thing from happening again. The real tragedies of the world are the little, everyday, continuous miseries, day in and day out, year after year and sometimes century after century, which we took in our stride; we got used to them. I thought that that was very true of the women who were bearing children that they did not want to have to bear in ignorance; and so I brought out this little pamphlet.

I came over to England, and I had a wonderful reception here. I found that there were a great many people here who rather liked law-breakers. My memory goes back to the very splendid help that I had from Havelock Ellis, H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter, J. M. Keynes, and the wonderful Drysdales. Dr. Alice Vickery and the whole Drysdale family had carried on this movement from the times of Annie Besant and Bradlaugh, and were real Malthusians in their teachings. They helped and guided me in my work.

About the time, therefore, that I was prepared to appear in court and, I hoped, shake the foundations of the American continent, large numbers of people wrote to the judge telling their stories. Many wastepaper baskets were filled with their letters. He could not read them. He said to the attorney “Take those out. What are we doing to this Mrs. Sanger?” In no time at all, the case was dropped.

That was not much good; we did not get anywhere. A very distinguished attorney said “We don’t want to prosecute Mrs. Sanger, a little frail woman; she will never do this again. We know Mrs. Sanger.” I said “Oh, do you?” I would not promise not to do it; I said “As long as there is a woman in the world that needs this information, I am afraid that I shall have to give it to her.”

There was also an influential letter--and I would here pay tribute to Marie Stopes, who initiated it -- with distinguished names from England, signed by the Bishop of Birmingham and ten or twelve others, including H. G. Wells, whose name meant a great deal in America. That was sent to the president of the United States, and the case was dropped.

That, however, did not affect the Comstock law. It affected me; it freed me to go to the country and speak, but the law was still there. Comstock died, but the torch was handed onto others, and the law was still in operation, though not quite so viciously as before.

While I was over here, I went to Holland and took a course in the technique of contraception, and so I was able to do something more practical than the pamphlet. I decided to set up in New York State, challenging the law, a clinic, very much on the lines of those in Holland, to which women could come and be given information suitable for them as individuals. That seemed to me to be the ideal way, especially in the United States, to have the information about contraception given. That clinic was closed in about ten days and everybody was arrested, but they went on hunger-strike and caused a great deal of concern to those tender men that liked tender women, but we won a court decision. We took it to the highest court in New York State, and at last we had a victory. It was laid down that if I had a medical practitioner it would be all right, and that any physician lawfully practising could give contraceptive information for the cure or prevention of disease. With that we were satisfied; it was one step forward, and the only decision that we had. It interpreted the New York State law, and at once we opened another clinic, which has been in operation ever since.

We had Dr. Hannah Stone as the first woman physician. (Applause). She stood beside us, ready to take whatever came, as our medical director until her death. About 125,000 women have come to that clinic for instruction. We have another department, dealing with infertility, to help those who wish to have children, and under Dr. Levine we have marriage guidance, and so we have expanded our work to cover these other factors which belong to sex education.

Finally, we even got a court decision on the federal law. We connived to get a package of pessaries to come from a doctor in Japan to a doctor in New York, and we said “Doctor to doctor. How about it?” The court decided that they could be received, doctor to doctor. We therefore had two decisions, and felt that we were able to go ahead. No one did it alone; we could not do it alone. There were thousands and thousands of people concerned. Every time I presented a case to an audience I felt that it was really their story. It really reached the people. The hierarchy and the officials did not know what we were talking about, but the people knew; it was their cause. We became the articulate spokesmen for the women of America.

To my great delight, I was invited to go to Japan and to talk there at a sort of round table meeting with some very distinguished people. Einstein was to speak on relativity; Bertrand Russell was to speak on something or other that I have forgotten; I was to speak on population and peace, and H.G. Wells was to speak on reconstruction. When the time came, I was refused a visa by the Imperial Japanese Government and was stopped in California. On the boat which I was to have taken there were 125 very important Japanese coming from the Washington Disarmament Conference, including admirals and high officials in the Japanese Government. I felt that if only I could talk to them and convince them, Japan would not be going to war in a short time; because everyone knew that Japan would have to have war if she kept on increasing her population as she was increasing it, with a population half the size of that of the United States and an area not as large as California. All the doors of the world were closed against the Japanese, and they had no place to go except South America. Australia, Canada and the United States would not have them, and Europe was not taking very many of them; it did not have room.

There then, was this terrific problem, and to my surprise, Japan did not want to hear it talked about. Some bright newspaperman, however, gave me the idea of going to China on the boat, and that was what I did; I got a visa for China and spent a great deal of time talking to the Japanese. I had a meeting with them in one of the great saloons on the boat, and they asked questions. They tried to get me into Japan, but it was difficult. The American Consul--as usually happens on these occasions--was out of town and we could not reach him, and so Americans had to turn to the British Consul to get them into Japan. He pulled wires and arranged things, and I found that I was able to get into Japan after all.

I had a wonderful reception; the women waited all day, from eight in the morning until midnight, to receive me. It was very interesting and indeed symbolic to see the way in which these Japanese women tried to express in English what this idea was going to mean in Japan. One woman said to me “Mrs. Sanger, we have been hearing about suffrage, but we are not interested. We have been hearing about women having equality with men, but we do not care. But when we heard about birth control, like the lightning, the Japanese women were on to that,” I thought that that was very expressive--“like lightning,” That is what women all over the world want, all the women of the world, everywhere; they want something which will allow them to take care of their children and give them a decent upbringing.

In Japan, the officials took me to the police station and asked me what I was going to say. I found that my books had been translated without my permission, and I asked them how this had happened, but of course they never paid any attention to copyright rules; they just thought that knowledge must be good and must be free. I did not mind that particularly. Then we came to talk about birth control and what I was to say, and they went into a huddle and came back and said “You may talk as much as you wish on the intimate question of birth control and tell them all that they must do, but you must not mention population; that we do no believe in, and that is not part of the talk that you must give our women.” I said “I cannot talk about birth control among fishes; it means people. I have come to talk to women about birth control, and birth control means population.”

I had many private meetings. I think that the only public one which they would allow was in the Y.M.C.A. which was again almost private. I never met a more alive and enthusiastic audience anywhere in the world. They felt and they knew what was happening; they knew that the militarists were trying to clutch the people. This was in 1921, and even then there was this feeling. One editorial on the subject said “The doors of the world have been shut in our faces. We will open them when we have a hundred million people. Might will make Right, and we will pay back that insult.” That was in 1921. They were very bitter about the law that had been passed in the United States to bar Asiatics. The Japanese had found very fertile soil in California, and had hoped to send more and more of their surplus population there.

When in Japan I had a cable from China, from Mr. Hu-Shih, who later became Ambassador to the United States. Bertrand Russell had been there and had upset their family life considerably with new ideas, and I came along with this one about spacing children, and they were a little confused. Finally, they said “We will accept this whole idea of birth control, if you will tell us how to have boys; that is all we need.” I was not able to answer that one! China is, in a sense, not so well educated in this regard as we should like to have it. I have made three trips there since then. The medical profession has taken it up considerably, and the midwives also tried to do something to help, but in the midst of all this, while we were making headway, the war came, and the whole world has been disorganised since then.

Clinics were set up in various places. India was one of the most encouraging. when people say the religions of the Asiatics are against contraception, I beg to correct that error. I never met any religious opposition in India, except in Travancore, where there were thirty or forty Portuguese missionaries who walked out of the Congress of the All India Women's Conference. Of all the women of the world, I have never met finer and more intelligent women than I found in India, and there is no question about that. (Applause). I visited Gandhi, who did not believe in so-called “artificial” birth control; he believed in separation of husband and wife after they had had a number of children. He believed that India was over-populated, and he knew that this was one great cause of misery and poverty, but he would not concede that contraception was not a sin. To him it was a sin, and I found it difficult to talk with him; I can talk anatomy and physiology, but when it comes to sin I am lost. In spite of that, these magnificent women passed a resolution to have contraceptive information and technique taught in all the municipalities under the guidance of the health services. That was a very courageous thing for them to do. I am sure that now, as they become more established and settled, you will see the women of India taking a prominent place throughout the world.

I am talking too long (Cries of “No”), but I want to tell you of one other thing that happened. The Comstock laws led to the difficulty that in the United States we had no contraceptives at all. We began to talk about birth control, and people said to us “Well, what do we do?” There was nothing practical or scientific. As a result of the course which I took at the Hague I found out about the diaphragm, but it was impossible to get it back to the United States. Havelock Ellis told me that just before the first world war there had been in a medical journal the announcement of a contraceptive jelly that had come out in Germany, and it had been registered as such and sold. It seemed wonderful, and I could hardly wait for the war to be over to go to Germany and find out about it. When the war was over, I went to Germany to find out what it was, not knowing the name of it or who it was that had invented or discovered it.

I went to Berlin and Dresden and to many other places that are now shattered and gone, and finally I found out that there was a chemist at Friedrichshafen, near Switzerland, who had prepared this contraceptive jelly, but he would not give us the formula or tell us anything that was in it; he regarded it as something not to be disclosed. However, after a little persuasion--I did not leave the place for about three days, and finally I broke him down--he said he would send some to a relative of his in New York. It was specific for venereal disease, and so we could get it in. We straightened things out with the relative and found out all about it.

From that time until now--and this is what is so appalling--those two things, the jelly and the diaphragm, have been the only things known. It seems absurd to me that we have been able to discover and make the atomic bomb and yet we have not yet got a really simple, good and harmless contraceptive. (Applause).

I think that that is the end of this story. I have rambled on, but I should like to end by saying this. I think that one of the most important things for us is to realise the situation in the world to-day. We have all been practical idealists, but I do not think that we are optimists. The charming and delightful poet to whom we listened this morning, Sir John Boyd Orr, is an optimist, and I could not help thinking of the story of the man who went to the top of the highest building in New York, the Radio Centre, to look out over the beautiful scene to be seen from there. The building is about a hundred storeys high. In his enthusiasm for the view, he lent over too far and fell over the parapet. As in his fall he was passing the fifteenth storey, someone called out to him and he shouted “Everything is all right as far as I’ve gone.” As far as Sir John had gone it was all right, but where are we going? The optimist is out of place to-day, as we face reality and the hard facts. To be too optimistic is not healthy.


I feel that you are the people to carry on, to agitate and to educate the world. That is what needs doing; we must stir people up and make them think and feel and do, so that they do something that it is right to do for civilisation. In the United States we are spending billions on so-called welfare. If a fraction of that money were put into building laboratories and employing technicians to discover a form of contraception that could be taken into the jungles and the slums, the farms and the factories, we could place our civilisation on a firm road to survival. I have often repeated, and I repeat again, the words of Victor Hugo: “There is no force in the world so great as that of an idea whose hour has struck.” I believe that the hour of Malthus has struck. (Applause).

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