Margaret Sanger, "Interview with Marcet Haldeman-Julius," 23 May 1931.

Source: " Impressions of Margaret Sanger and Her Talks on Birth Control, The American Freeman, May 23, 1931 ."

This article summarizes Sanger's talks in Kansas City during February 1931.

Impressions of Margaret Sanger and Her Talks on Birth Control

The sixth of February, 1931, marked the beginning of a new epoch for the women in Kansas City. On that day, in All Souls' Unitarian Church, which many of its members and friends prefer to call The Liberal Center, Margaret Sanger, avoiding all ambiguity, gave a plain, straightforward talk on the technique of contraception.

Three paragraphs on the history of the Liberal Center have been omitted by the MSPP editors.

When Margaret Sanger spoke for the University Extension Center course, in Dr. Burris Jenkins’ church, she spoke on the wider aspects of Birth Control in a lecture entitled “The Problem of Population,” but it is indicative of the Liberal Center’s forthright stand on all questions that she was asked to get right down to cases and talk there on practical methods of contraception. And this is precisely what she did.

Margaret Sanger

When I entered Margaret Sanger’s sitting room at the Muehlbach Hotel in Kansas City, there arose from the couch a shimmering, gracious woman whose red-gold hair was shot with grey and whose eyes made me wonder at once whether or not she was Irish. They made me think of deep pools dappled with sunlight, for sadness and wisdom seemed to lie beneath the interest and happiness of the moment.

“This woman has been through a lot, but her life has fallen into pleasant ways,” I thought to myself as we shook hands.

The contact of her palm against mine told me more: she was a warm cordial approachable person. Even before she had put on her smart (oh very, very smart) green velvet turban-like hat that matched the green velvet jacket which, in its turn, exactly matched the color of the large green ring she wore, and slipped into a beautiful mink coat, I knew that I liked her and that in the truest sense we should be able to talk with each other.

“She loves pretty things,” was my mental comment, which I corroborated later when I went into her bedroom to take off my wraps. The frou-frous and the dainty appointments on her dressing table all told me in unmistakable language that she was a decidedly dainty, fastidious woman. She has a trim figure, too! Of medium height, her slenderness is well rounded. She looks what she is--the swanky, youthful mother of two grown sons. (One of them graduated last year from Yale, the other finished this year at Princeton) Although a full lifetime of achievement lies behind her, Margaret Sanger is still only in her forties and can look forward to thirty or more years of continued effort.

There were six of us at dinner: Mr. and Mrs. Birkhead, Dr. and Mrs. Burkhart (active members of the Liberal Center), Margaret Sanger and myself. Before we had reached dessert I was aware that Mrs. Sanger was by temperament and conviction a thorough-going liberal. She is not, as are some of the most valiant fighters for one or another form of freedom, interested only in the ends she herself hopes to achieve. All injustice touches her on the quick. The talk among us flowed heart-warming and mind-stimulating. By the time we were back in Mrs. Sanger’s sitting room I had become more and more curious to know just how she had started this (for so long!) single-handed fight to strike off the chains of ignorance which still make life a nightmare for many married women whose lives, otherwise, would be happy.

The Birkheads and the Burkharts were eager to hear too and although Margaret Sanger is the sort of woman who is far readier to talk about her plans for future legislation and her ideas than about herself, she is very gracious and, gradually, she unfolded the story of her brave and often bitter struggle. It is a struggle that has ended in victory to the extent that she has established the New York Birth Control Clinic which has given contraceptive information to more than twenty thousand women, practical contraceptive instruction to over one thousand regular M. D.’s, and has served as a beacon light to other communities so that now there are over fifty clinics in the country. (There should be at least one in every county seat.) But she is still in the thick of the battle, for the Penal Code of the Federal Statutes still forbids the sending of contraceptive articles through the mail, by express, or by any common carrier.

For the article which is to be purchased now by any college boy at practically any drug store is not primarily for the use of contraception. When this end is effected it is merely a fortunate side issue. (Nor is the article very effective or satisfactory for this purpose, its failure running to something like 61 percent of carefully tabulated cases in which it was relied upon.)

The article is to protect the noble male of the country from contracting disease in his amatory adventures. A lot the United States government or the State Legislature care whether or not as the result of these adventures, a woman finds herself with child. If she does, that is just her hard luck. But then we can no longer blame the men who have placed the law against contraceptive information on the statute books since, now that women have an equal voice in the government, they, themselves, do practically nothing to have these outrageous laws erased. If they are ever erased and this country can stand on a par with other civilized countries, such as Holland, England, and France-–naming only three-–it will be because, for the sake of other women and their unborn children, Mrs. Sanger has been willing to submit to arrest, to stand trial, to spend days in jail and even to endure a year’s exile from her family. Not that she thinks of herself as heroic. On the contrary, she quotes modestly enough the saying “There is no force so great as an idea when its hour has struck.”

A Social Conscience and Its Result

Margaret Sanger, who was the seventh of a family of eleven children, grew to womanhood in an atmosphere of liberal views and tolerance for her father was an ardent admirer of the great single taxer, Henry George, and the great free thinker, Bob Ingersoll. She became a trained nurse, married a young artist and soon had three children: two sons and a daughter. Because money was none too plentiful in the little family, Mrs. Sanger continued her nursing and she might have gone straight on with it had she not, logically enough after her up-bringing, joined the Socialist Party. For a time she was one of its women organizers.

Then, quite by chance, she was asked to be one of the three to bring down to New York some of the destitute children of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strikers. Her helpers were two Italian Socialists. Imagine it-–three people to handle more than two hundred, cold, hungry, excited children! Almost automatically, because her training as a nurse had taught her to keep reference sheets, Margaret Sanger began to keep data on her little charges. This one, she noted down, had no underwear; that one had no shoes. As she found how desperate their need was, her pen scribbled faster, her notes took on more point. She would see to it, she resolved, that these facts reached the ears of the people sympathetic to the strikers.

When she arrived safely in New York with her brood, a large group of Italians were there to meet them. Everyone was singing the “International” hymn. Here were the workers’ children! In a delirium of enthusiasm the Italians tossed the youngsters to their shoulders and, still singing, strode off with them.

Later there was an orderly hearing at Washington. (“Sammy Gompers was there,” she said, “shaking with rage.”) Mrs. Sanger had come at the request of the late Victor L. Berger, who explained to the committee that she had helped bring down the children from Lawrence.

“Tell us something about this,” commanded Warren G. Harding, then only a Senator from Ohio, as deeply as intended.

And Margaret Sanger told. She informed the committee that out of 248 children whose fathers worked in the wooden mills, 238 of the children had no underwear at all and only four had overcoats.

“It was,” she said to me, “As if I had thrown a bomb, for Schedule K had just gone through putting a tax on wool.”

But the words which began to reverberate in her ears were the ever recurrent, “Why do people have so many children when they can’t clothe them? Why do people have so many children when they can’t feed them? Why do people have so many children?

Meanwhile there was a general attitude of “Wait-–just wait!”

“Wait-–-just wait,” said the Socialists of the country. “Just wait until we come into power.” (This, if I remember correctly, was in 1912.)

Meantime Margaret Sanger’s work took her often to New York’s east side and still that refrain, slightly changed, rang through her heart: “Why must people have so many children? When they can’t take care of them? When they can’t take care of them? When they don’t want them? Why? Why?”

For often and often when the uninvited, unwanted babies were born into Margaret Sanger’s hands from the rebellious and bitter mothers, there was no clothes for these bits of humanity; there was not even any place in which to lay them. So Margaret Sanger would wrap the forlorn little boy or girl in the tatters of a blanket and lay it in a soap-box, hastily requisitioned for this purpose. Perhaps after a few minutes of attention to the mother, still suffering with after-pains, Mrs. Sanger would step to look at the new baby and find that it had quietly stopped breathing. Told, the mother, already frantic with trying to feed and keep from nakedness the children she had grown to love, would murmur, “Oh, thank God!”

Margaret Sanger thought of these things as only a sensitive person, herself a woman and a mother, would; as only a person could who had seen with her own eyes the stark privations into which the children were born, and heard with her own ears the birth moans of the mothers martyred by ignorance.

And then, perhaps, she would be invited to assist at a new arrival in one of the many parts of New York where a new baby sends its next of kin into a little orgy of celebration; where the telegram announcing the baby’s advent is the awaited signal for the immediate family to become warm with self-congratulations and to pass the drinks. For if there is nothing, nothing so tragic in all its implications as the birth of an unwanted “too many” child, there is nothing so joyous, so inducive of sweet, overwhelming happiness, as the arrival of one who is wanted and will be cherished.

Margaret Sanger has the gift of understanding. (I was correct in my guess that she is Irish.) An April woman, smiles and tears crowd close together in her heart. She thought. She pondered. She rejoiced with those who could rejoice and –-to the everlasting good of womanhood-–had suffered with those whose travail was not only of the body but of the mind and the tortured mother-heart.

For, to appreciate what Margaret Sanger has done and what she is trying to do, you must in your imagination suffer with them too. And you must bear in mind more than the pain of the involuntary, unwilling mothers. You must think of the children themselves. As Margaret Sanger saw them. As they worried her mind. And tormented her dreams.

For, I could tell by the way she lifted her hand how tormented she has been. Pain was in that eloquent gesture as she recalled those long-gone days.

Imagine yourself a nurse. Imagine yourself hearing those words “Thank God!” from the still-anguished lips of a woman who hears of the death of her own baby, and then imagine yourself called again in perhaps ten weeks, or four of five months, to attend the same woman who, in grim desperation, has deliberately terminated her own pregnancy.

Terminated it, not because she was hard, but because all that was fine in her had not yet been crushed. Because already, in her crowded rooms, there were four and five people in a bed; because in one of them perhaps her own lovely little girls, who could have no privacy, no feeling of modesty, were sleeping with “the boarder” taken in because the few cents he paid were so desperately needed. Because already there was no place for her children to go. Because no matter how her heart cried out in protest, she had to push them out--down to the sidewalk from which, as she very well knew, they would, in turn, be pushed and crowded into the street. Pushed. Pushed--only too often in the end into the jails and reformatories or penitentiaries. And more children coming all the time--all because of the lack of one simple well-fitted inexpensive article that lasts a woman over a year.

Abortions – which among the laity means, incorrectly, only the deliberate terminating of pregnancy – were a common thing on the east side of New York. Margaret Sanger took care of case after case.

And that wasn’t all. As soon as a nurse would arrive in a tenement the women of the neighborhood would come to see her. This one would bring her a little bowl of soup. Another would bring a cup of tea; a third would come bearing a bit of fish prepared in delicious old world fashion. The soup, the tea, the fish, all of them were – bribes. They were coaxing, these women, pleading for knowledge of how to keep themselves from getting with child.

“They seem to feel,” said Margaret Sanger, “as if you had some mysterious secret up your sleeve and wouldn’t give it to them.”

And Margaret Sanger, trained nurse though she was, could not help them. She saw their suffering of body and distress in mind. She felt it and yet she, who was so used to alleviating suffering, could do nothing for them.

And then-–something happened. Her emotions which had lain like the charges in a gun were suddenly turned into effective bullets. The trigger was pulled--by the death of one particular woman.

This was not the first woman Margaret Sanger had seen die from the self-induced abortion. But in the New York Clinic alone, because of that one woman’s death, 20,000 women have been freed from the ignorance that was her curse. Her death, tragic as it was, has brought about is bringing about, woman’s release from the fear that still haunts, so grimly, the overwhelming majority of marriages. She died, crucified on the cross of ignorance, and through her death and its reaction upon Margaret Sanger, as brave as she is sensitive, as clear-headed as she is tender-hearted, thousands of other women lived.

The first time Margaret Sanger attended this woman, she had in grim determination penetrated her own flesh with a knitting needle and the result was infection. She was only about twenty-five and her husband about twenty-eight. Already they had three children. Margaret Sanger and her assistant nurse were obliged to keep her packed in ice, which meant they had to carry it up three flights of stairs. “It was the kind of case,” Margaret Sanger explained, “in which you even slept with your finger on the patient’s pulse. But we pulled her through.”

She was nervous and said to the doctor, “Well I suppose if I have another baby it will go pretty hard on me.” (Mrs. Sanger made us fairly see the hunted look in the woman’s eyes.)

The doctor’s answer was: “Now, don’t you cut any more capers.”

“But what shall I do?” she asked, agony in the question.

“You know what to do,” he returned. “Tell Jake to go sleep on the roof.”

“She turned to me,” said Mrs. Sanger. “‘He is a man,’ she whispered. ‘He doesn’t understand, but you are a woman; you do. Tell me.’”

But at this time nothing was organized, the whole problem of voluntary family limitation was a subject not to be discussed out of primitive life. No one could tell this woman anything. So, less than three months later, Mrs. Sanger and the same doctor and the same other nurse were all called back again. This time the woman died.

“That was the end,” Mrs. Sanger explained, by which she meant that it was the vital beginning point of her effective efforts. “I didn’t care if I went to jail. I didn’t care if I had to leave my husband and children. You can’t imagine what happened to me! From a domestic person, happy with my family, I became a fanatic. I was like something shot out of a gun.”

Her friends sympathized with her point of view, but argued, “Margaret, you are married. You have little children – let someone else do it.” Even her Irish father, who had not been to New York for forty years, came down to see if she didn’t need a rest and offered to send her to a sanatorium! But she was not to be balked. She simply announced that she was going to do something about the Comstock laws which said, and still say, that no information upon contraception or contraceptive articles can be sent through the mail, by express, or by any common carriers. Moreover, as Mrs. Sanger points out in her pamphlet on “Laws concerning Birth Control in the United States,” Section 211 “Makes it unlawful for one physician to send through the mails the result or benefits of his practice or research. To send an applicant for information the address of any legally operating Birth Control Clinic is also illegal, according to the present Federal Statutes.” The penalty is “not more than $5,000, or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both...”

What worried Mrs. Sanger was that she knew nothing as a nurse which she did not know as a wife. All her knowledge had been picked up here and there, not in an orderly fashion as the information of a woman like herself, well informed on other medical facts, should have been.

She gave up nursing, and leaving the support of the family of five entirely up to her artist husband, settled to study.

She went to the New York medical library to dig out some information on contraceptives, but in all that vast library she could not find one single word on the subject. Then she traveled to Boston to search the library there, but again she found nothing on the most vital subject in the world to women. From Boston she went to the Congressional Library at Washington. At last she did find one article – just one and a left-handed one at that, which had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It was by E. A. Ross, a professor of Sociology, and was on “Race Suicide”-–on the other side of the question. (Since then he has reversed his opinion and has written “Standing Room Only”.)

“I thought,” explained Mrs. Sanger to me, with a wise, whimsical smile that seemed to hold in it many an unshed tear, “that all this was entirely original with me.”

Meanwhile her husband had won a prize at the Beaux Arts that would take him to France, and she was told “Why, Margaret, they know all about it in France.”

“So,” she explained to us, “to France we went and the children went too. Although in order to go we had to mortgage everything we had.” (At this time the little Sangers were about ten, five, and three years old.)

What She Learned Abroad

She found that in France the doctors fitted women with the very necessary article with that silly, progress-challenging, tragedy-producing law still on the statute books of this country makes illegal if sent through the mails, by express or by any common carrier; that in France all contraceptive supplies could be purchased, freely. One had only to ask for them as one would ask here for aspirins or a hot water bottle Nor was this all: The Syndicalists in France gave out contraceptive information with their labor propaganda. Moreover, in all their labor lectures they gave diagrams and lists of places where the necessary articles could be bought. Those six months in France were fruitful ones, indeed, for Margaret Sanger and, through her, for the women of the United States. She amassed facts and figures, made, in short, a complete survey, and came back to the United States with the material for her now historic little pamphlet “Family Limitation.”

On the Firing Line

But it was one thing to have the material for the pamphlet, quite another to get it printed. In fact it took nearly a year to accomplish this. Margaret Sanger literally walked “the sidewalks of New York” in search of some one who was able and willing to help her.

“Well, now, Margaret,” this one and that would say, “do you want me to go to Sing Sing?”

All the time Anthony Comstock, who was privileged to open any letter, was snooping about. Of that she was positive. She couldn’t blame people for refusing to help her. Yet she was determined to get her recently accumulated knowledge to those who needed it. After she was nearly exhausted she decided to see if she could get the work done in France.

Then, suddenly, a Russian (who today is Chief of Police in Moscow, but was then a linotype operator in New York), said he would help her. Each evening, after the other men had left the shop, he stayed and set the type. But even after the type was set there remained the problem of getting the pamphlets printed, of getting them stitched, and then of finding a safe place in which to store them.

“Meanwhile,” Margaret Sanger explained, “I had to have some window dressing, so I started The Woman Rebel, a monthly magazine, that had for its motto ‘No Gods, No Master.’ That little Woman Rebel came out to fight section 211 of the Penal Laws of the Federal Statutes.”

Nine issues were published and, of the nine, seven were suppressed. Nine articles were declared indictable and for each indictment the penalty was five years, which meant that, if Mrs. Sanger were convicted, she could be sentenced to forty-five years penal servitude. She made up her mind that if she was going to jail for forty-five years she was going to make a terrible racket. She would cannonade the public conscience with the thunder of her pamphlets.

You must understand that she was not arrested for giving contraceptive information. She simply kept baiting the law. One article called “The Marriage Bed” had nothing in it at all beside sound hygiene. But Comstock was bringing the indictments.

By this time a group of kindred spirits had gather around Margaret Sanger. They would meet regularly, at appointed spots, in the early morning and put the little magazine into different mail boxes.

“It was,” she explained, “just to keep the tom-toms beating while I was really trying to get the pamphlets on ‘Family Limitation’ printed and stored. There were 100,000 of these in preparation.”

“Where did you get the money to do all this?” I asked. It seemed she scraped it from here and there and even took all the money the children had inherited or had been given for their education for by this time Margaret Sanger was lashed to the straight, tall mast of an ideal which in her mind justified everything.

The miners in Butte, Montana ordered 10,000 of these pamphlets and the miners in West Virginia ordered 10,000 more. She had them all wrapped and addressed ready for simultaneous release. Some were shipped to Pittsburgh, some to Chicago and some to San Francisco for distribution from these points, as well as from New York. By the time she was indicted the very last of the pamphlets were out of the printer’s hands. Her plans were complete.

In August, 1914, the world went to war and it was in September of that year that Mrs. Sanger was indicted on nine counts because of nine different articles in The Woman Rebel. She asked for a month’s postponement of her case which was to be tried in the Federal Courts of New York City.

The District Attorney, a man whose name, ironically enough, was Content, agreed to this postponement. But in less than two weeks, really in just about ten days, she received a telephone message saying: “Your case is called. Please appear in court.” Arrived there she found that Content had entirely changed his attitude.

Mrs. Sanger would consult with her lawyers and have them advise her, but she would not have any lawyer speak for her before the judge. Her position was that she was an American citizen who had done nothing wrong, and who therefore needed only to tell the plain truth in order to clear herself. It was a naive attitude. She appeared and explained she was as yet unprepared; that the judge had agreed she should have a full month’s postponement. “Now,” she explained to us, “if you throw a stone in New York City,” you would hit one of my Irish relatives. And one of them, an employee of the post office, said to me: “They are going to railroad you, Margaret. You had better get the best lawyer you can!”

The judge would not consent to postpone her case for more than a single day. When, the next morning, it was called, Content answered “Ready.”

“But I am not ready, judge,” insisted Mrs. Sanger.

“You were told to get ready,” said the judge. “The state will pay for an attorney for you.” At which point the district attorney exclaimed: “She’s posing! Just posing!”

Then the judge became very severe: “Whether you are ready or not, Mrs. Sanger, we are going on with this case tomorrow at ten o’clock.”


It was a terrible moment in Margaret Sanger’s life. What to do? Should she go to trial before her case was prepared or-–should she flee? She had been allowed to come and go on her own recognizance. If she had given bail it would have been easier to leave, but she was on her honor, besides it was a terrible wrench to tear herself away from her three children, and her husband who was a better artist than he was provider . (Fortunately Margaret Sanger had a sister, Mrs. Ethel Byrne, who could and did mother the little Sangers during the long year and three months that Mrs. Sanger was away.) “Besides,” she said frankly, “everybody thought I was just losing my mind and many people thought I was simply courting publicity.”

So she fought her battle – weighing odds against odds, her future usefulness against her present sense of duty – while the clock ticked off the precious minutes. Then suddenly she made up her mind. At five minutes before midnight she boarded the train leaving for Montreal, from which city she sailed, under an assumed name, for England, without a passport and while that country was at war!

“But how on earth,” I asked, “did you get into England without a passport?”

“I told them that I didn’t know I had to have one,” she smiled.

The passengers, it seemed, were friendly. (I have already told you, Margaret Sanger has charm.) They took up the cudgels for her; and the captain too, was won over by her true explanation that even if she had known about the passport “she had no time in which to secure one.” At all events she was permitted to enter England and to remain there in peace.

Meanwhile, on shipboard, she wrote the judge a letter in which she explained that by refusing her reasonable request for a month’s postponement of her case he had compelled her to take a year’s postponement, thereby inconveniencing her greatly. She further stated that when she returned to the United States she would report for trial. It was, too, while she was in the middle of the ocean that a hundred thousand of the “Family Limitation” pamphlets went to miners and to working people in different sections of the United States. Also, one went to her trial judge and one to the district attorney.

In England she found, as she had in France, that contraception information and articles were sold and dispensed as a matter of course. She met Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and other interesting men, besides learning many things which she never would have known had she not gone to England. In that country she spent many hours at the British Museum where she read constantly on the subject nearest her heart.

In Holland, where the Birth Control movement was and is more thoroughly organized than anywhere else, she did more than read. She took a three months’ course in contraception under Doctor Rutgers, who was at the head of the family limitation movement in that country. She couldn’t get into Germany because of the war, but she did travel down into Spain and studied and made surveys there as well as in England.

Meanwhile, during Mrs. Sanger’s stay in England, Comstock set a trap for Mr. Sanger. A very dilapidated man came to him with a tale that his wife was ill after their seventh child. Couldn’t and wouldn’t Mr. Sanger give him that little pamphlet that told how not to have more children? Not having any on hand, Mr. Sanger went to the bother of borrowing one and gave it to the stranger. The man asked how much he should pay for it, to which Mr. Sanger told him that he could have it free of charge. Very shortly the stranger returned with Anthony Comstock. The result was that Mr. Sanger himself spent thirty days in jail, which, as it was not his fight, was pretty rough.

Perhaps this is as good a moment as any in which to tell you that – although I did not get this directly from Margaret Sanger herself--it is generally understood that gradually Mr. and Mrs. Sanger’s interests drifted apart. He was an artist and his heart was in his work. She was a woman motivated by her acute sense of social injustice. Their paths simply diverged until eventually they faced this fact, without any unfriendliness . Mrs. Sanger has since married Mr. J. H. Slee, an able business man who is in close sympathy with her efforts and, I gather from this and that, has smooth many stones from her path.

Holland’s Lesson – Clinics Needed Here

It was while Mrs. Sanger was in Holland that she realized that the problem of bringing correct contraceptive knowledge to the rank and file of people involved much more than free speech and the free distribution of literature on the subject. Not only was the task of trying to put the facts into English that our foreign population could understand almost too difficult – for even our native born women needed to learn a new vocabulary – but the clinics in Holland had opened Margaret Sanger’s eyes. She realized she had been on the wrong track. All her friends thought she had grown conservative, but Margaret Sanger now knew that what this country needed was not talk but clinics where a woman could be properly fitted and supplied with the precise article which her particular case demanded. Margaret Sanger came back to this country determined she would open a clinic in New York City.

For, drawn by her deep and inner need to see her family, she did come back. She was anxious, also, to observe first hand what the situation was. She found public opinion discouragingly unchanged.

But first there was the matter of that old case against her to be settled. True to her word, she reported to her trial judge. With her she had brought a letter to President Wilson and the people of the United States. It was signed by Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Gilbert Murray, Edward Carpenter, and Havelock Ellis.

The letter she brought ran something like this:

“We, the undersigned, are pleading on behalf of Mrs. Sanger who has seen the miseries of women in her country as we have seen them in ours.” It also pointed out that England had settled the matter of the need for widely spread contraceptive information thirty years before at the trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh and suggested that one could scarcely prosecute a woman with such noble ideas as Mrs. Sanger’s.

When her case came up, every morning the letters protesting about it would pile in to the judge, who filled waste basket after waste basket with them. He didn’t bother to read them but nevertheless they had their influence. He would say testily, “Take that Sanger mail away.” In the end President Wilson recommended to the attorney general that the indictments be quashed, and they were.

And in the midst of her struggle for others Margaret Sanger had to face a deep personal sorrow – her little daughter died.>

The First Clinic

Mrs. Sanger and her sister, Mrs. Ethel Byrne (also a trained nurse), chose for the location of the first clinic in the United States, the district in Brooklyn (Brownsville) that had the highest degree of infant mortality, from where there were more appeals for charity than from any other district in New York; in which more children, in proportion to the number in the district, applied for labor certificates.

This time Margaret Sanger had to deal with the Irish bull dogs. To them the very words “birth control” had an indecent sound, seemed, indeed, to smack the houses of prostitution. For ten days everything went on smoothly. Nearly 500 women came to hear the precious new knowledge from these valiant nurses (Mrs. Sanger and Mrs. Byrne), and the interpreter who helped them. But it was inevitable that the police-–and newspaper reporters and cameramen--should notice the line of baby carriages that stretched in a line around the block. As a result all three women were arrested for violating Section 1142 of the New York State Laws. Both Mrs. Sanger and Mrs. Byrne were sentenced to jail for thirty days. They carried the case to the court of appeals because they wanted to get an interpretation of the law on this subject. Their convictions for violating Section 1142 were affirmed, but the decision handed down by Judge Charles R. Crain of the Court of Appeals of New York State, made it clear that under Section 1142 of the same laws any licensed physician practicing in the state of New York can give contraceptive information for the prevention or cure of “disease.”

Mrs. Sanger and Mrs. Byrne, thinking at the time they would be sent to jail, together told the New York World that they were going on a hunger strike. But Mrs. Byrne was sent first by herself to the work-house on Blackwell Island. The New York World’s reporter was the only one allowed to see her. He had an assistant attorney’s credentials and while the other newspapers consistently misrepresented Mrs. Byrne’s case, he told the truth about it from day to day--giving all the details of the long, terrible eleven days she endured without food or water. By the end of that time she was so ill that, in order to save her life, Governor Whitman granted her a full pardon and she was taken from the work-house in an ambulance. But her sufferings had focused public attention on the case and aroused lethargic public opinion. As the other charge only was for selling “What Every Girl Should Know,” she was let off with only a $25 fine. When her case was appealed the court ruled that there was no reason why the book should not be sold.

Six years later, in April 1929, the New York Birth Control Clinic was again raided, but this time there were no jail sentences for those in charge of it. A decoy had arrived--a woman who said she had three children, one five years old, one three, and one eleven months. She went through the usual routine, had a gynecological examination and a complete check-up by a second doctor. A week later she returned with several plainclothesmen, stated that she was Police Woman Mary Sullivan; that as a matter of fact she had two grown children; that there was nothing the matter with her, and that the doctors should have known it. Then she made a big mistake. In her official capacity, she grabbed her “history cards.”

Dr. Stone and Dr. Pissoort, in charge of the clinic at the time, were hustled into a patrol wagon. Babies were crying. Women were pleading, “Don’t tell my name! Oh, don’t!” I don’t want my name in the papers! I don’t want my husband to know that I am here.” All was in confusion.

Fortunately, at this critical moment, Mrs. Sanger arrived and assured the women they need have no fears. She warned Mary Sullivan that she had better be careful and let those history cards alone or she would get into trouble. To which the police woman retorted, “I in trouble? What about you?”

As a matter of fact, Mrs. Sullivan was demoted, and Whalen, the police commissioner, was loud in his protests that she had acted without any order from him. When the case came to trial, it was shown that although the decoy may have believed herself to be in perfect health her condition was such that until it was rectified a pregnancy and child-birth would have been very dangerous for her. Furthermore, the press and public opinion were friendly to the clinic, and the New York Academy of Medicine, incensed because their sacred “cards” had been touched, took a firm attitude. The case was dismissed.

It is a far cry from that first clinic, which only gave advice, to the fifty well-equipped, well-staffed ones, now in daily use, in the United States.

The Talk at the Liberal Center

As Mrs. Sanger stood in that pretty little stone building, looking down at her intent audience, I studied it from the chair on the platform behind her.

In the entire auditorium there were only women. Most of them were under forty-five although there were some whom I judged to be in their sixties and even a very few in their seventies, interested perhaps because of daughters of grand-daughters, or because of the wider aspects of the question. For the technique of contraception is the most vital subject in the whole world to women. It involves and modifies woman’s love for her mate to such an extent that whether this may be blasted or bloom to a beautiful fruition, depends upon her knowledge or ignorance of simple facts of birth control. The whole question of voluntary family limitation connects up, too, with the problems of poverty, of disease, of child-labor, of maternal mortality, of infant mortality, of delinquency, of divorce, and of war.

It is something that concerns Catholic women as well as Protestant and Freethinkers. For whatever the attitude of the Catholic Church as a church may be, the attitude of the big majority of Catholic girls and women is exactly that of their non-Catholic sisters – they are eager to know how to space their children wisely and to bring into the world only the number for which they can care for well. It is a question that concerns one race as much as another, and rich and poor alike. It is in fact perhaps the only question in which every grown woman is equally interested, whether she wishes to be the mother of fourteen children, of five, of the conventional two, or to have no family at all. Yet I am quite sure that not more than a dozen – if that many – of those several hundred women ever before had heard a forthright lecture on how conception could be prevented. Margaret Sanger spoke plainly and accurately, although with perfect taste, illustrating her talk simply but clearly by diagrams and by chart, and in certain instances with the actual articles themselves. For there is nothing in the statutes of Missouri that prevents her from telling any one all that she told that eager audience.

First, calmly but convincingly, she discussed the absurdity of advising continence to the point of having sexual intercourse only when children are wished. She stressed the fact that even one union a year would be enough to result in a baby every year. In this way a couple could easily acquire a family too large for the woman to bear with continued health, or the man to support. Then she discussed the harmful psychological effects which result from the repression of natural sex expression when two people live in the close intimacy of marriage. With a simple little story, beautifully told for illustration, Margaret Sanger made the women in that audience feel that marriage without the full embrace, when mutual impulse impels toward it, is a mockery.

She took up the question of sterilization, explaining exactly what it meant; for a woman a major operation; for a man, an operation which takes something like twenty minutes and after which he is able to be at work in two days. She made the point that if, because either husband or wife had a serious transmittable disease, a couple should not bring children into the world and decided that sterilization was the method by which they wished to assure this result, then the partner through whom the disease would be transmitted should be the one to undergo the operation. Sterilization of either man or woman does not interfere with the full expression of both partners.

Then having led her audience along step by step, establishing in their minds confidence both in her fairness of attitude and in her precise knowledge, she discussed the two ways in which the husband may try to prevent conception. She explained how ineffective both methods are likely to be and how unsatisfactory they both are from a psychological and emotional viewpoint. (In fact out of different methods used by 400 cases recently tabulated at the New York Birth Control Clinic those who had used the method which depends on no mechanical mean, rated 66 percent of failures and both partners had found their union lost much of its beauty.) In the other method, which is the one most commonly relied upon in this country, the percentage of failures was 61 percent and the sense of physical and mental communion lessened instead of increased by its use.

Besides, both these methods place a woman at the mercy of her partner whose interest in being careful seldom quite equals her own. For if they are determined not to have children and conception doe take place it is she who must go through he physical pain as well as the mental anxiety of an abortion. And right here let me make it clear that abortions are just what the Birth Control Clinics help women to avoid. (To prevent conception and to interrupt a pregnancy, once conception has taken place, are two very different matters.)

She discussed the value of cleanliness. (The percentage of failures with this method is 80 percent.)

She came to the methods which the wife may use. But she showed by diagrams why the one most commonly employed by peasant women in France and in other European countries (and perhaps one of the three most generally sued by the average woman in this country) is so often ineffective. (Its percentage of failures in this 400 tabulated cases was 64 percent.) She discussed the harmfulness of a certain permanent mechanical device (which this same tabulation rates with 73 percent of failures) of all metal devices, and showed that no faith can be put in woman’s so-called “safe period.”

And last she came to the articles which are effective, harmless and which in no way blunt the sensations, but which, since they come in six or seven widely different sizes, must be fitted by a competent physician.

Fortunately scattered over the whole United States, there are men and women, ranking high in the medical profession, who are both willing and competent and legally entitled by the laws of the respective state to meet this need. These doctors are listed, and there is no law which prohibits your writing to ask anyone if he or she can recommend to you a good doctor in your vicinity. Nor, providing nothing is said about contraception in the answer, does any law prevent the name of a modern, progressive doctor being supplied to you. There are moreover a good many people in the vanguard of the Birth Control Movement who have the courage to take chances for the sake of their convictions.

(Don’t be too angry with your family physician if he refuses you information on this subject – quite probably he doesn’t know any but the ineffective methods that are in common, more or less unsatisfactory use!) According to the pamphlet issued by the Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control there are 31 states in which physicians may freely give you contraceptive information and this, not only on health or economic grounds but merely because you wish it. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Colombia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

There are 11 states in which the physician may legally give information on prevention of conception but cannot publish such information. They are Arizona, California, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, Washington, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada.

This means that in 42 states the only reason there are so few Birth Control Clinics is that women are too apathetic to move in their own interest. At this writing, for instance, there is not one Birth Control Clinic in the whole state of Missouri--although it seems highly probably that as a result of Mrs. Sanger’s talk Kansas City will have one soon.

In two states physicians may legally give information on prevention of conception for cure and prevention of “disease.” These two are Minnesota and New York.

Then there are four doubtful states: Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Jersey – but although a physician can give contraceptive information in Connecticut it is the only state in the union which forbids the actual use of contraceptives. There is one state – just one, Mississippi – in which physicians may not give information on prevention of conception. Mississippi in the south and Connecticut in the north are, in this respect, the two most backwards states.

Yet understand-–while Margaret Sanger broke no law, as she lectured to that eager audience, if someone had taken down her lecture in shorthand and transcribed it and I had mailed it, for instance, to my husband or sent it to him by express, I should have laid myself liable to a fine of not more than $5,000 or not more than five years’ imprisonment or both.

And this will be true as long as Section 211 of the Federal Statutes and its companion section in express companies remain unchanged. (The national Federation of Women’s Clubs has gone on record to approve Mrs. Sanger’s effort to have these laws amended.)

In order to devote her whole time to this end she resigned in 1928 from the presidency of The American Birth Control League, which believes, as I understand it, that each state should bring about broad and sane laws, while Mrs. Sanger and the Committee on Federal Legislation believe that the very first step should be to get the Federal Statutes amended, so that physicians shall be allowed complete freedom to sue their discretion. In her opinion, as yet, the dissemination of contraceptive information should be confined to this profession.

If the interest of those Kansas City women was any indication of the attitude of the women throughout the country she could succeed.

After the hour’s lecture, there followed a solid hour of question. Some were asked, some were written. They poured out so steadily into my hands from the ushers that I could scarcely separate the duplications. It would have taken Mrs. Sanger several hours to reply even to one of each kind.

And all through that talk she did more than simply give precise contraceptive information many must have caught a new vision of what the sex relation may mean when both partners are free from all mental anxiety. She gave them a new vision of what it should mean or not be entered into at all. And for the first time many – although they had children – saw just how those children lay in the mother’s womb. (I wish you could have seen the intent, interested expression on some of the faces as they studied the chart kindly lent by the redoubtable Dr. Logan C. Clendening!) It seems too obvious for comment that a woman should know the basic facts about bother her own body and her husband’s. (One reason so many mothers fail with their sons is because they can tell them so little when the need for knowledge is most urgent.)

Nor was that all. When Mrs. Sanger touched on frigidity and its causes what I saw in some of those faces, too absorbed to be self-conscious, drove a quick pain through my heart. I wished at moments that, instead of speaking to an audience of women, she were addressing their husbands. For what use was it to say “A woman must be wooed” if that same woman’s husband has grown too matter-of-fact, is too ignorant, too lazy, or too selfish to put himself to the bother of the wooing so essential to a woman’s fullest pleasure and response.

Of course in Russia, as Mrs. Sanger pointed out, every word of her talk could have been given to a mixed audience. But the inhibitions of this country can only be overcome step by step.

And Margaret Sanger is doing much to overcome them. (Besides the lectures she gives so steadily she has written What Every Girl Should Know, What Every Mother Should Know, Woman and the New Race, Happiness in Marriage, Pivot of Civilization, Mother in Bondage--and some others of which I am unaware.) Her talk through which there sparkled a sweet humor, lifted her audience to heights and gave them glimpses of a finer plane of living.

As, at last, the people poured out of the building, one woman, better informed than many, was heard to say to her companion, “Do you think most of that was really new to the majority?” “My dear,” was the quick answer, “it is difficult ever to overestimate the ignorance of the average woman.” And this is true. Her ignorance and her inertia are abysmal.

Otherwise, woman would rise in the strength of her numbers and, with the cooperation of the men who value love more than lust and wish to secure the greatest inspiration and physical happiness out of what can be the most beautiful and uplifting of all relationships, she would demand, as Margaret Sanger does, that the path should be made clear for the knowledge that is so essential to the well-being of humanity.

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Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project