Margaret Sanger, "Woman and the Future," ca. 1928.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection Margaret Sanger Microfilm S71:622."
Perhaps the title of my lecture today should be “The Women of the Future.” Perhaps it should be “The Woman of Tomorrow.” More truthfully it should be “The Woman of Today”. At any rate it should be “Women.” None of us can be expected to be very much excited about women of future centuries we shall never know nor see. If we are interested in the woman of the future, it is because we realize, in some mysterious way, that the woman of to-morrow, of the next generation, is going to be the daughter of the present generation. We are the creators of the woman of the future.
We have fought for several generations to create the woman of today. The women of today must realize that the battle is not yet won. We must continue to struggle for the victory of tomorrow.
So the women of today must clear the way for the woman of tomorrow. First of all, like all good gardeners or planters or builders, we have got to clear the field of obstructions and the rocks are the prejudices, the misconceptions, the fallacies about women that exist even today. Let us get rid of them! Let us blast them out of the human consciousness - especially out of the minds of men!
You have all seen those large wooden painted watches that sometimes hand outside watchmakers shops. The other day a friend of mine said, as we were passing one. “That painted clock is right to the very second!” “Well,” I answered, “it can be right twice a day, if you happen to strike it.” And it struck me then that most men have created in their own minds a conception of women that is as wooden as those painted clocks. In their own minds they created the pretty wooden figure of the woman they love - and then they are disappointed because the real woman - the woman of flesh and blood - does not conform to the painted dummy they carry in their imaginations. The wooden image is always right--the living breathing woman is always wrong!
Strangely enough, women of past generations spent a good deal of their time, trying to make themselves like the strange unreal images carried in the hearts and imaginations of their sweethearts or husbands. They did not claim for themselves any real independent lives of their own. their lords and masters demanded modesty in dress--and so they assumed modesty. They demanded servility--and so the women became servile. They wanted to feel superior to their wives--so the wives gave them ignorance and servility. The men wanted to feel strong - so the women pretended to be weak creatures, given to fainting and that strange thing called he vapours. We should be grateful that fainting and the vapours have long gone out of style!
I am merely trying to point out the difference between the past and the present. In the past, the character of most women was determined by men, not by themselves. The woman was a slave, a dependent, a parasite. So she had to develop, for self protection the psychology of the slave and the parasite. She had to get her way by indirect actions, by stealth. She had to assume a part like an actress in a play. She could never be herself!
Her tragedy was that she was always in the secondary role. The husband was the star of the play in every family. The wife and the mother was only of the supporting company. But it was not only the husband who was the lord and master. At every stage of a woman’s life, from infancy to old age, her activity was always dominated by some male. First the father, then the sweetheart or fiancÚ, then the husband, and in the event of death of the husband, possibly her brothers; and finally in old age, by the son.
In the old days, men put all women into three- or possibly four--categories. Every woman was looked upon as a daughter, a wife or a mother. All the rest were prostitutes. You see that these categories were not determined by the real inner nature of women. They merely--all of them--expressed her relationship to the male world. Women were pretty, useless, childish creatures because men wanted them to be. There was a demand for that type, and women supplied the demand. But throughout history, there have always been women who refused to be pigeonholed into those categories. Women who became actresses, politicians, organizers, politicians, rulers of countries. There have been great women--more and more of them as we come down the ages - to demonstrate the fallacy of the masculine conception of womankind. There was Queen Elizabeth, Catherine the Great of Russia, the great saints, the great writers, the great mistresses, all the rest of them. Were they exceptions? No. They prove the innate power that might be--and must be--developed--in all women! They were women who dared to be themselves--not merely some man’s mistaken idea of what they ought to be!
Don’t forget that all the proverbs, all the catch words about the nature of women have been made by men. And each one of them is false. “Frailty! Thy name is woman. . . .” Shakespeare! Isn’t that ridiculous? If Shakespeare had given birth to ten or twelve children perhaps he would not have written that line about the frailty of women! The masculine point of view, you see. Then there was Lord Byron, who flitted from flower to flower, and said that women were “uncertain, coy and hard to please.” Maybe that was a confession of his own shortcomings. At any rate it is a notorious human tendency to discover in others your own faults. So men have traditionally blamed women for everything. You may say that I am too severe on the men--too unjust. On the contrary: I have the greatest admiration for the skill of the men of the past, who so cleverly and so completely domesticated woman as they domesticated animals. They devised customs, and laws, and religious regulations to keep women in a position of slavery and dependence. The individual woman who rebelled was confronted by all the solid power of laws, of customs, of religion. She had no economic independence, she had no sex independence. She had no freedom of any sort. She was like a hunted criminal.
Worst of all, even Nature was against her. Once caught in the trap of maternity, there was no escape. With the birth of each successive baby, she found her body and her soul ever more closely chained. Don't forget, moreover, that the majority of women, in centuries past, and in practically every country and every tribe of the world, have not been exempted from hard physical labor. There are many tribes in which the women still continue to do all the hard physical work. Their noble lords reserve their time for the superior pleasures of fighting and gambling. Recently we saw and example of this in the “Cossacks” the motion-picture made from Tolstoy’s early novel.
In view of the hopelessness and the complexity of woman’s traditional slavery the surprising thing is not that we have made so little progress, but that we have made any progress at all. Yet when we look back at the last twenty-five or thirty years, we find amazing progress in the emancipation of women. It is the more encouraging because it is a progress that seems to go faster and faster. The future--that glorious hopeful word!--will be upon us before we know it. That is why it is imperative for every one of us to join in the effort to prepare the way for the advent of the woman of the future--the completely emancipated, completely developed woman who will have the opportunity to BE HERSELF!
And being herself, she will demonstrate to men that she will give him the opportunity to Be Himself, in a far finer, complete manner that he ever could when she was a mere slave or parasite.
How is this to be brought about?
Let us trace briefly the various steps by which women have attempted to gain the road to freedom.
Women have sought to escape from the age-old slavery of the past by various means.
Some felt they could attain it by education. Surprising, isn't it, that in the past even the higher education was denied to women. They thought that if they could enter the learned professions, they would be freed. Well, many of them tried it. And still the old slavery persisted for most of them. It was hard to be a lawyer or a doctor, and the mother of a growing, ever-increasing family at the same time. But this was a step in advance, no matter how small it seems to the great majority of women.
Then there arose the cry for economic independence. Women claimed the right to earn their own living. This was after all, not so great a victory. Men had always been willing to grant women the right to relieve them of the drudgery of the world. the impulse theat led women to demand economic independence rather than to remain content with the doubtful rewards of domestic slavery was certainly a healthy and a praiseworthy one. But in its working, out, too often they have found themselves in positions which are underpaid and which consist, to a great extent, of uninteresting and mechanical drudgery.
Economic “Independence”--if you can call it that--has been at best an empty victory. I dont believe that it can legitimately be called a victory at all. Perhaps it has only been an automatic response to a demand for cheap labor.
It has had the advantage, however, of getting thousands of women out of the close confines of the home--which is too often, as Ibsen named it--a mere doll’s house. It has put women more on a basis of social equality with men. So far so good.
Then they has been the long struggle for the vote. Personally, I feel that the actual struggle for suffrage, which lasted through several generations, was of equal, if not indeed of greater value that the actual attainment of the vote. The struggle itself brought out courage, daring, all the innate qualities of self-sacrifice and bravery. It proved that women could work together, and could withstand the jeers and ridicule of the unthinking public. It proved that women were capable of political thinking and political action. Since the attainment of the work, there comes the inevitable temptation to sink back, and to assume that there is nothing more to do.
That is wrong. We would be untrue and disloyal to the memory of the great pioneers if we fail in our responsibility to use the vote as an instrument to the still great emancipation of womankind. Therefore American women need to educate themselves still further in politics and legislation, and to use their power toward the election of men who can assure them that their sympathies are with women. The vote is not an end in itself. It is of value to women only as it is used toward the more complete emancipation of women - and thus of the whole human race, particularly of the women and children of the future generations.
Another great struggle had been made and won. We are apt to forget it today--or to minimize its importance. I mean dress reform. We have forgotten the ridicule and the abuse heaped upon the early pioneers of this movement. When you stop to think of the upholstery and the harness that used to make up the dress of women in the nineteenth century--the hoops, the bustles, the stays, the underpinning, the trailing dust- and germ-catchers that were called trains--when you compare all that with the freedom in woman’s dress today, you feel like giving three cheers to all those who first protested against the fashions which did so much to enslave the bodies and the souls of women! There is no doubt in my mind that freedom in dress, which permits vigorous, unhampered physical action, is of enormous benefit in freeing the mind as well. No wonder that tightly-corseted women were rendered thoughtless. They couldn't even breathe. They couldn't even walk. We have freed the diaphragm from its stifling corset. We have liberated the legs, and in so doing have signed the death-warrant of prudery. We have cut off the hair, got rid of “tats”, pompadours, hair pins and hatpins, and thus have given the brains a chance to develop. We have given girls the opportunity to become athletes, to develop their bodies. All thanks to the one piece bathing suit which has helped women and men to get ride of all prudish, perverted notions of false modesty, and has permitted them to walk like young gods and goddesses along the sunlit sands unashamed and with a new dignity. All these changes have not meant the death of romance, but have put it on a new healthy basis. These innovations have removed the vicious secrecy, the hypocritical modesty, and have made the simpering, artificial woman of the past, with her dishonest arts of concealment, as out-of-date as the dinosaur.
Each of these steps toward freedom have been taken with a great struggle. Each has been significant. We have thus had; 1. the struggle for education. 2. the struggle for a place in the professions 3. the struggle for economic independence 4. the struggle for suffrage. 5. the struggle for the freedom of dress.
In addition, there has been a struggle for social freedom--for divorce and human justice in the courts. This is still going on.
Important as these steps are, it does not require much research to realize that none of them touches at the real heart of woman’s eternal problem. That problem is bound up with her biological structure. As Walt Whitman wrote of women: “You are the gates of the body and you are the gates of the soul.” Upon women falls a great more than half of the burden of bringing the next generation into the world. Because of this the great majority of women have been--and still are--condemned to practically incessant childbearing. You may tell me that all intelligent women, at this day and age, are emancipated from this harsh sentence imposed upon them by Church and State.
But the women who are thus liberated form only a very small percentage of the grand total. You who are interested in social work, who cooperate, perhaps, with the organized charitable associations of this city and state, need not be told of the misery of the poverty-stricken mothers of the indigent classes. You know that the lower we go in the social scale, the higher the birth-rate is discovered to be. You know that the lower the wages of the father, the more children there are in the family. You know that the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the delinquent classes have more children than the well-to-do, the intelligent, the responsible classes of society.
Yet perhaps it has not been called to your attention that every, in city and in country, the over-burdened mothers are crying desperately for relief from the torture of incessant pregnancies.
For fifteen years they have been appealing to me personally. Because for fifteen years I have been battling for everywoman’s right to birth control. I have received a quarter of a million letters from American mothers. Whenever any one tells me that Birth Control is of no importance, or that any intelligent woman knows what to do to prevent the conception of unwanted children, I begin to read some of these letters. They are letters from intelligent, self-sacrificing wives--young girls who fell in love, who looked upon marriage, as the first step to romance, and who--poor things!-- expected “to live happily ever afterwards.”
They were trapped. Trapped into slavery - from which they have been unable to extricate themselves. It is useless to talk to these poor things about the advantages of economic freedom, the higher education, or the great benefits to be derived from voting. What do they care about the new freedom in dress? They are interested only in getting clothes for their poor frail bodies, and their poor shivering children. Keep on breeding commands the Church and State. They have no choice in the matter. And so they keep adding to the surplus of the indigent, the defective, the delinquent. You pay for them. You, the intelligent, the responsible, the healthy element in American society are called upon to support the charity. You are taxed to maintain the reform schools, the homes for the feeble-minded and the defective, the prisons for the criminals. For the inmates of all these public institutions are recruited in the main from the over-large families. I have not the time to present statistics here. They are easily obtainable in any textbook of eugenics, or other analysis of vital statistics. Instead, I want to read to you a few of the letters from mothers who have appealed to me for Birth Control information.
I have gathered these letters into a book which I call “Motherhood in Bondage”. If anyone tries to tell you that the women of America have been spoiled by too much freedom and too many luxuries, please ask him to read this book. I offer these letters as Exhibit A in the case for Birth Control.
But just let me read you a few typical, representative cases:
(Read Letters chosen from “Motherhood in Bondage")
Now, I want to ask: If we are going to create our women of the future out of the human material described in these letters, do you think our future is going to be a thing to be proud of?
We cannot journey into the future by ignoring these cases. You may rest assured that they too, despite their high maternal mortality rate, their high infantile death rate, will keep us company. They will have to be looked after. they will fill our prisons, our poor houses, and our charitable institutes. they will drag down the level of intelligence of our public schools - these poor, underfed, underclothed, and defective children. They will be an increasing burden on you, the intelligent and the responsible.
What are we going to do about it?
We have, first of all, got to insure to each child who is brought into our American world, the birthright of health, the opportunity to develop, to be born with a sound mind in a sound body. We do not want to clutter up our public schools with defective children ↑constitutionally↓ unable by their [feeble?] heritage, to benefit by the instruction there offered. We do not want to increase our population of morons. We do not want to hold back our intelligent children by association with the sub-normal. We do not want to be taxed to support prisons instead of universities, We do not want to spend huge sums in a vain effort to control criminals and gangsters. We have other, and far nobler uses for our public funds.
What is the first step?
Before we can hope for the creation of the glorious woman of tomorrow, we must bend all our efforts toward effecting the biological emancipation of the enslaved woman of today. Toward the fulfillment of this task, we must use the instruments that are now at our command. The vote, for instance. The candidates ask for your support, in municipal, state and federal elections. Find out for yourself how they stand on these fundamental problems which involve the welfare of the children who are to become the citizens of tomorrow; how they stand on matters concerning the welfare of the mothers: how they stand on efforts to decrease the vast sums spent for the maintenance of prisons and public charitable institutions: how they stand on proposed legislation to decrease the population of defectives, delinquents and dependents. You will find, probably, that they have never given these problems a thought. Yet the whole future of our country and of the world at large is bound up with these racial questions.
No; we cannot lay the foundations for a great civilization of the future, until we have removed the disorder, the chaos, the obstructions. These mothers whose desperate cries are ↑voiced↓ in this book (hold up book) are crying for bread, and America is offering them a stone. All of our boasted advances in comforts and luxuries - all our skyscrapers, our radios, our triumphs in aviation, all of our poetry and music, all of our immense prosperity mean nothing to these slave mothers. They are drowning, and instead of helping them, we are playing a noisy jazz symphony. Our prosperity may dazzle the world, but our radios and our jazz cannot drown out the bitter cries of these women.
I seemed to have wandered far from the subject of my talk - Woman and the Future. But I wish to show you how closely bound up with the future is our immediate present. The future can be created only though the bodies of our living women. “You are the gateways of life - you are the the gates of the body and you are the gates of the soul.” The mothers are the environment of the child for nine months before its birth and for many years after.
How can she fulfill her duties in bringing up her child in the earliest and most critical stage of its development, if already she has been condemned immediately to a new pregnancy? The mind of the unwanted child is thus often marred and stunted in early infacy in a fashion which - according to the most competent modern psychologists it is impossible ever to remedy. We protest against this stunting. We protest against the dwarfing of the minds of future American men and women. We do not want their impulses and instincts stunted as a Japanese gardener dwarfs a tree.
Let all of us - and the women of today especially - summon the courage to confront the vital, pivotal problems of life at their heart. Let us all join together and declare war upon the false, hypocritical modesty which has impeded our progress and delayed the fruition of a truly American civilization.
Woman’s tragedy in the past - and with few exceptions it remains her tragedy today - is that she has been relegated to a secondary position. She must be restored to the central primary place to which she is entitled by nature and by her biological importance. The first step is to awaken her realization of her importance to the race and to civilization. We have seen that the steps thus far taken toward emancipation are important, but not of primary importance. Her biological freedom must be assured. Maternity may indeed the central function of the majority of women. But in order to fulfill this function intelligently and valuably, it must be self-directive, and free. Quality is more important than quantity.
To repeat; women must be awakened to her pivotal importance. She can fulfill her function as wife, as mother, and most important of all, as individual, when she attains a new center of interest. She must acquire a new selfishness. She must place on higher value on her life and her love. She must be interested in her own latent powers. She must learn never to stop growing, mentally and spiritually. She must
SELF-DEVELOPMENT SELF-EXPRESSION SELF-REALIZATION Every woman must learn to analyse her deepest desires. She must decide for herself what she wants out of life. And she must learn at all costs not to place too much hope on external things or persons. Neither riches, nor beauty, nor comfort, nor luxury, nor husbands. For there are two types of desire: the one for the external things; the other for internal things. The woman who says “I want to be loved” is placing her wish on an external thing.
The woman who says, “I love” is experiencing an internal joy. The latter is experiencing life, is on the road of self-development. The woman who loves cannot ever be deprived of that experience.
Therefore, I say, choose the road of growth, of self-development. Let me explain why:
Why is Self-Development important?
Fundamentally Self-Development means Growth. To grow! That is an absolute necessity for every living organism. The seed must be planted in a healthy nourishing soul if it is to spring into a strong, vigorous life. It must be tended, nourished, cherished, uncrowded, and given plenty of sunlight and care. It cannot be cramped, stunted, or forced, if it is to blossom and blossom into beauty.
It is the same with each individual human life. We exult as each of our latent, innate powers develops into reality. We become conscious of an increased sense of power. We are living through the miracle of Self-Development. We are happy in childhood and youth because this natural miracle keeps on repeating itself in ever changing and ever novel ways. We are unhappy, on the contrary, when that Self-Development is thwarted, either by external circumstances or people, or inner weakness, which brings with it a sense of futility or frustration. If it is our own fault, through laziness or weakness, we cannot escape a sense of guilt - and there is a strong temptation to blames others for our own secret faults. And on the other hand, when by our own efforts we confront and triumph over obstacles the victory is so much the greater, and the inner satisfaction a fine reward.
SELF-DEVELOPMENT presents a very difficult problem for all women. I am speaking of true Self-Development and not that conspicuous display of talent or acquired education. Freedom is its first essential. An enslaved or cooped animal cannot develop its innate potentialities. Its unused functions atrophy. And we can be as much enslaved by conventions, by a fear of what people will say, or a fear of disapproval, as by iron bars. Women have too long feared what men would think of them. Yet this has been a baseless fear. Men accept the changing styles and the new freedom. They no longer object to bobbed hair or short skirts. We know that they are proud of the new achievements of American women in athletics - in golf, tennis and swimming. Nowadays, women may be assured of the generous help of all right-thinking American men in her efforts toward emancipation.
The truth is, men are discovering that in enslaving women they actually enslaved themselves. The free woman is more attractive, more lovely, a better companion than the so-called old-fashioned girl. And she too finds that the surest road toward emancipations lies not in competing with men, not in alienating their affection, but in joining together in a communal effort toward the unrestricted development of each individuality for the common good of all.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project