Margaret Sanger, "Why I Went to Jail," Feb 1960.
Source: " Together, Feb. 1960 pp. 20-22 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Collected Documents Series C16:502."
A condensed version of this article entitled "My Fight for America's First Birth-Control Clinic" was published in the Reader's Digest, Feb. 1960. pp. 49-54.
It was a crisp, bright morning on October 16, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y., that I opened the doors of the first birth-control clinic in the United States. I believed then, and do today, that this was an event of social significance in the lives of American womanhood.
Three years before, as a professional nurse, I had gone with a doctor on a call in New York’s lower East Side. I had watched a frail mother die from a self-induced abortion. The doctor previously had refused to give her contraceptive information. The mother was one of a thousand such cases; in New York alone there were over 100,000 abortions a year.
That night I knew I could not go on merely nursing, allowing mothers to suffer and die. No matter what it might cost, I was resolved to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky. It was the beginning of my birth-control crusade.
Although the practical idea of giving contraceptive information in clinics set up for that purpose in Holland had met with governmental approval, the New York State Penal Code declared that only a physician could give birth-control information to anyone--and only then to prevent or cure disease. Always this had been held to mean venereal disease. I wanted the interpretation to be broadened to protect women from ill health as the result of excessive childbearing and to have the right to control their own destinies.
As I was not a physician, I would have no legal protection whatsoever if I gave birth-control information to anyone. But I believed that if a woman must break the law to establish a right to voluntary motherhood, then the law must be broken.
I had been a nurse and my birth-control studies in Holland, where clinics had been operated for 38 years, has qualified me to give contraceptive instruction. My sister, who was also a nurse, could assist me.
Dare I risk it?
Then, as long as I had to violate the law anyhow, I concluded I might as well violate it on a grand scale by including poverty as a reason for giving contraceptive information. The selection of a suitable locality was of the greatest importance.
The Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1916 was a hive of activity. Although dingy and squalid, it was crowded with hard-working men and women. An enthusiastic young worker in the cause came from Chicago to help me. Together we tramped the streets one dreary day in early fall, through a driving rainstorm, to find the best location at the cheapest terms. I stopped to inquire from an official of a free-milk station about vacant stores.
“Don’t come over here.” “We don’t want trouble.” “Keep out.” These and other pleasantries were hurled at me as I darted in and out of rooming houses, seeking advice, hoping for welcome.
Finally, at 46 Amboy Street, I found a friendly landlord, a Mr. Rabinowitz, who had two first-floor rooms vacant at $50 a month. This was all the money we had (sent from a friend in California) to finance the clinic.
We bought the necessary furniture as cheaply as we could. And Mr. Rabinowitz himself spent hours painting until the rooms were spotless and snow-white. “More hospital looking,” he said.
We had printed about 5,000 handbills in English, Italian, and Yiddish.
They read: “Mothers! Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them?
“Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent.
“Safe, harmless information can be obtained of trained nurses at 46 Amboy Street, near Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn.
“Tell your friends and neighbors. All mothers welcome.”
With a small bundle of these notices, we fared forth each morning in a house-to-house canvass.
Would the people come? Nothing could have stopped them!
My colleague, looking out the window, called, “Do come outside and look.” Halfway to the corner they stood in line, shawled, hatless, their red hands clasping the chapped smaller ones of their children.
All day long and far into the evening, in ever-increasing numbers they came, over 100 the opening day. Jews and Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike made their confessions to us.
Every day the little waiting room was crowded. The women came in pairs, with friends, married daughters, some with nursing babies clasped in their arms. Women from the far end of Long Island, the press having spread the word, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. They came to learn the “secret” which was possessed by the rich and denied the poor.
My sister and I lectured to eight women at a time on the basic techniques of contraception, referring them to a druggist to purchase the necessary equipment. Records were meticulously kept. It was vital to have complete case histories if our work was to have scientific value. We also gave many of the women copies of What Every Girl Should Know, a brief booklet I had written earlier.
Tragic were the stories of the women. One woman told of her 15 children. Six were living. “I’m 37 years old. Look at me! I might be 50!” Then there was a reluctantly pregnant Jewish woman who, after bringing eight children to birth, had had two abortions and heaven knows how many miscarriages. Worn out, not only from housework but from making hats in a sweatshop, nervous beyond words, she cried morbidly, “If you don’t help me, I’m going to chop up a glass and swallow it.”
I comforted her the best I could, but there was nothing I would do to interrupt her pregnancy. We believed in birth control, not abortion.
But it was not altogether sad; we often were cheered by gayer visitors. The grocer’s wife on the corner dropped in to wish us luck, and the jolly old German baker whose wife gave out handbills to everybody passing the door sent us doughnuts. Then Mrs. Rabinowitz would call to us, “If I bring some hot tea now, will you stop the people coming?” The postman delivering his 50 to 100 letters daily had his little pleasantry, “Farewell ladies; hope I find you here tomorrow.”
On the ninth day, a well-dressed, hard-faced woman pushed her way past the humble applicants, gave her name, flaunted a $2 bill, payment for What Every Girl Should Know, and demanded immediate attention. My colleague had a hunch she might be a detective, and pinned the bill on the wall and wrote: “Received from Mrs. --------- of the Police Department, as her contribution.”
Hourly after that we expected trouble. it came the following afternoon at closing hour. The policewoman again pushed her way through the group of patiently waiting women and, striding into my room, snapped peremptorily, “You, Margaret Sanger, are under arrest.”
Three plain-clothes men from the vice squad promptly appeared. They herded our women patients into patrol wagons as though they were the inmates of a brothel. Women began to cry; the infants in their arms began to cry. The clinic soon became a bedlam of screams. The raiders confiscated our 464 case histories, a highly unethical act since the reports were confidential intimacies. They also took our pamphlets.
It was half an hour before I could persuade the men to release the poor mothers, whom I assured the best I could that nothing would happen to them.
Newspapermen and photographers joined the throng. It was a neighborhood where a crowd collected by no more gesture than a tilt of the head skyward. This event brought masses of people into the streets.
I was white-hot with indignation and refused to ride in the Black Maria. I insisted on walking the mile to the Raymond Street jail, marching ahead of the raiders, the crowds following.
I spent the night in jail in so filthy a cell I shall never forget it. The mattresses were spotted and smelly. I lay in my coat, struggling with roaches, crying out as a rat scuttled across the floor.
It was not until afternoon that my bail was arranged. As I emerged from the jail I saw waiting in front the woman who had threatened to swallow the glass; she had been there all the time.
I went back at once to reopen the clinic, but Mr. Rabinowitz came running in to say he was sorry--the police had made him sign eviction papers on the ground that I was “maintaining a public nuisance.” In Holland the clinics were called “public benefactions.”
Again I was arrested. From the rear of the Black Maria, as we rattled away, I heard a scream. It came from a woman wheeling a baby carriage. She left it on the sidewalk, and rushed through the crowd and cried, “Come back and save me!”
The crusade for birth control was actually under way--with jail terms and hunger strikes, and also with popular demonstrations in our behalf. As I reached the depth of despair and public humiliation, something like a miracle occurred. Help and sympathy sprang up on all sides. Legal aid was proffered. Doctors now rallied to my aid. A group of sympathetic and wealthy women in New York promptly formed a Committee of 100 for our defense. Sympathizers even held a mass meeting in Carnegie Hall.
My trial began in Brooklyn on January 29, 1917. About 50 mothers, some equipped with food and pacifiers and extra diapers for their babies, came to court. Timid and distressed, they smiled and nodded, trying to reassure me. Mingled with them were the smartly dressed members of the Committee of 100.
It surprised me that the prosecution should be carried on so vehemently. To me, there seemed to be no argument at all; the last thing in my mind was to deny that I had given birth control advice. I had deliberately violated the letter of the law. But my lawyer, Jonah J. Goldstein, was trying to get me off with a suspended sentence.
One by one, the Brownsville mothers took the stand. “Have you ever seen Mrs. Sanger before?” asked the District Attorney.
“Yes. At the cleenic.”
“Why did you go there?”
“To have her stop the babies.”
“Did you get this information?”
“Yes, dank you, I got it. It wass gut, too.”
For days the legal arguments went on. At last, one wintry day, Judge John J. Freschi banged his fist on the desk. “All we are concerned about is the statue,” he exclaimed. “As long as it remains the law,” he asked my attorney, “Will this woman promise unqualifiedly to obey it?”
He turned to me. “What is your answer to this question, Mrs. Sanger? Yes or no?”
The whole courtroom seemed to hold its breath.
I spoke out as emphatically as I could. “I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect.”
The tension broke. Women shouted and clapped. The judge demanded order. When it came, he announced, “The judgement of the court is that you be imprisoned for 30 days.”
A single cry came from a woman in the corner, “Shame!” It was followed by a sharp rap of the gavel and silence fell. The trial was over.
The next afternoon I was taken to the Queens County Penitentiary in Long Island City.
I can remember the inmates--pick-pockets, prostitutes, thieves--somehow they had heard about me and the birth control movement. One asked me to explain to them about “sex hygiene.” When I asked for permission to do so, the matron said, “Ah, gwan wid ye. They know bad enough already.”
But I persisted and got my way. I also taught some of the girls to read and write letters. And I kept up with my own writing, planning ahead the birth-control movement.
The next step? To appeal to the highest court possible.
I was released on March 6. Noun other experience in my life has been more thrilling that that release. When I stepped through the big steel-barred doorway that gray day, the tingling air of outdoors rushed against my face. In front of me stood my attorney, my friends, and co-workers, their voices lifted in the martial strains of La Marseillaise. And behind, from the windows of the penitentiary, were the faces of newly made friends, and they, too, were singing for me.
The case of the Brownsville birth-control clinic began its journey through the courts. It was on January 8, 1918, that the momentous decision came. The New York Court of Appeals sustained my conviction, but Judge Frederick E. Crane’s liberal interpretation of the law had the effect of permitting physicians to give contraceptive information to a married person for “health reasons.” “Disease” was now to include everything in the broad definition of Webster’s International Dictionary, not just venereal disease, which had been the original understanding.
This opened the clinics, as well as the doctor’s offices, to women for birth-control advice throughout the United States.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project