Margaret Sanger, "Pioneer's Dinner Speech," 26 Mar 1925.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 122:154."
Sanger delivered this speech at the Pioneer's Dinner of the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Sanger was introduced by meeting chairman Heywood Broun who discussed Catholic opposition to birth control and then said: "Nine years ago this spring, at about this time, Margaret Sanger was in prison. She is here tonight." The audience arose and applauded.
MRS.MARGARET SANGER: Mr. Chairman: I did not think that you would quite overwhelm me like this.
Ladies and gentlemen, I feel that more than fifty per cent of the people who are here tonight have been pioneers with me in this cause for Birth Control. I think it is right and fitting that we should honor those pioneers who have fought before us for this great Movement. I find that there are two kinds of pioneers. The ones who go out into the firing line and brace perhaps the storms, the stress of public opinion and prejudice and of ignorance, and the other kind who stays back and really prepares the ammunition.
I could tell you of those early pioneers who in this country nearly a century ago fought for the idea which we call today Birth Control– Robert Dale Owen (applause) who wrote the treatise and it was published in this City of New York on “Moral Physiology”; then there was Dr. Charles Knowlton, who in 1832 published his famous book, “The Truths of Philosophy” in Boston; then there was John Humphrey Noyes and his Oneida Colony; then there was that splendid pioneer women and feminist, Alice Stockum, who was persecuted almost to her death by Anthony Comstock; then there was a fine old hero, Moses Harmon (applause), who at the age of seventy-five years was sent to break stone at Leavenworth, and who, when he came out of jail continued with his work – his educational work – and was again sent back to jail. I could tell you of the splendid inspiring words of Ralph Waldo Emerson; I could tell you of the splendid vision of Robert Ingersoll (applause), and also of Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who at one time was President of the American Medical Association.
There were many, many others almost forgotten tonight. But one especially forgotten hero and pioneer was Dr. Charles Knowlton, whom I have just mentioned. He would be almost entirely forgotten were it not for the famous little book he wrote which really linked up the English Neo-Malthusian Movement with the Movement in the United States. It is almost impossible to find much about his life. I have hunted in the libraries of Boston and the libraries here, and all that I can find about him is that he was sent to jail for publishing his little book, “The Fruits of Philosophy”. He was not discouraged; he was not dismayed, for the very day that he came out of jail in East Cambridge he crystallized his philosophy and his ideas by forming a society called the “Friend of Mental Liberty”. There is nothing more that we find about Dr. Knowlton except that his book wandered around the world for more than forty years. It got itself translated and reprinted again and again and finally led to the famous case or that famous trial, the Bradlaugh-Besant trial, of which Dr. Drysdale will tell you more of a little later on.
The next that we know was perhaps my own coming into this work in the year of 1914. (Applause) Some people have accused us today of this being an emotional movement. I said that I plead guilty. I had been a nurse for over ten or twelve years here in New York City, mainly, and I was quite impressed by the fact that there were two kinds of people here – those whom we would call of the small family group, and others of the large family group.
I investigated both groups again and again. I found in the small family group there were all the nice things that we like in this world– health, happiness, comfort, intelligence, and all the things that we almost all aspire to. But in the large family group I found quite the opposite. There was all the disease, the misery and the ignorance, and the poverty. There we had our slums. There we had all the things that we did not like, and yet I found it was perfectly moral and patriotic to go up and down from one end of the country to another and talk about having large families, when it was considered quite immoral, and a jail sentence was almost given to you if you talked about having small families.
It was moral, in other words, for one group, while it was quite the other for the other group. This seemed a peculiar condition, a peculiar situation. And after having many, many experiences with women who were practically enslaved, who were practically awaiting death sentences, year in and year out because they were told if they bore another child that they would face the grave. After living with this group, after living with this idea for more than two or three years consciously, I decided that it was time for someone to do something other than talking about these conditions. And I tried to get people to listen, tried to see if there could not bee something done about the conditions that I saw. I was told by some of the most advanced women in this country at that time, to wait until we got the vote, but I could not wait.
Susan B. Anthony started nearly fifty years ago and I felt it was not fair to keep women of this country enslaved, bound to the chains of maternal slavery-–because that is really where they are--for another fifty years. Something had to be done to break those chains. I won’t go into detail telling you what happened, but always want it to be understood that the sentence that was imposed upon me of going to jail was not an accident. I challenged of the law, definitely and deliberately. (Applause)
There was no other way to crystallize and focus public opinion upon the conditions that I saw, except by – as Annie Besant said-–going to the “dock” to do it.
I don’t know how far we would have been today had it not been for those other pioneers; the silent kind; those who stood behind me and who have helped me from the very beginning. Those splendid courageous women like Mrs. Lewis G. Delafield, Miss. C. Young, Mrs. Frances Ackermann, and like Mrs. Juliet Barrett Rublee have been the women who have taken the subject of Birth Control out of the police court, out of the “dock” and have established it in the dining room and in the drawing room. They have made it respectable. It is those women who have really broadcasted the idea and the ideals of Birth Control. They are the real pioneers of today.
After all, pioneering still continues. When you look out and see what we have had to do for the past ten years, there are many. I began to count up and I found that the landlord where we have our office was really a pioneer. No other landlord for some distance around would allow us to have our office in their building. (Laughter) When we had a book to publish we walked the streets of New York and visited all the publishers before we could find a publisher, so our publisher becomes a pioneer. When you have something to say you have got to have a hall; when you have got a magazine to publish, you have got to have a printer, so your printer becomes a pioneer, especially when he is the kind of printer who will wait from month to month to get his money. (Applause) And even the management of the Hotel McAlpin is a pioneer (applause) because they came out and invited us to have our International Conference here. (Applause)
Then, ladies and gentlemen, I want to say also that our Toastmaster, Mr. Haywood Broun is also a pioneer. (Applause) If he is not a pioneer in the Birth Control Movement, he certainly is a pioneer in journalism. He is pioneering for truth in journalism. (Applause)
And last, but not least, the United States Government has become a pioneer by its immigration laws. It is really putting into effect today in it immigration laws, exactly what most Birth Controllers want. The only thing is, while it applies its laws in keeping out of this country the mentally defective and the physically weak and defective, the paupers and the other kind of so-called undesirables, we only wish it would extend its laws a little bit more and stop the multiplication of the same undesirable type within. (Applause)
I also want to pay tribute to those scientists in the United States who have been courageously with us almost from the beginning of our organized movement. If you will just look at our program and see our “Who’s Who”, I think you will agree with me that we can well be proud of the courage that the scientists of this country have had in coming in with us and giving us a splendid boost. We know they have been far more courageous in helping use and in guiding us than the medical profession has been. And what we ask tonight is that this same group of scientists just steer us and guide us a little further on for the next few years, pilot us, in other words, through the stormy waters, and I believe we will really be through our journey. I think if they have the courage to continue with us that they will find that courage, like virtue, brings with it its own reward. (Applause)
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project