Margaret Sanger: Family Planning
At the turn of the century, American women weren't just keeping house. "We know how much we are needed in the world's affairs," said the spokesperson for the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Middle-class women were organizing clubs and political organizations to clean up society's disorder.
Suffragists Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were renewing their fight for the vote. Settlement workers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald were helping immigrants assimilate into American life. Reformers like Carrie Nation were fighting to close saloons. And other women activists were pushing for education laws, child labor restrictions, food sanitation laws, and juvenile courts.
One of the most controversial branches of activism was the struggle for legal birth control, led by Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), a nurse from New York City. "Enforced motherhood," she said, "is the most complete denial of a woman's right to life and liberty." With birth control, she thought, women could develop into better mothers, better citizens.
In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the U.S., and went to jail for her efforts. She spent the rest of her 86 years lobbying for birth control. "A woman's body," she said, "belongs to herself alone."
This story is excerpted from Sanger's autobiography, My Fight for Birth Control, published in 1931.
Early in the year 1912, I came to a realization that my work as a nurse and my activities in social service were useless to relieve the misery I saw all about me. Were it possible for me to depict the revolting conditions existing in the homes of some of the women I attended in that one year, one would find it hard to believe. Pregnancy was an almost chronic condition. I knew one woman who had given birth to eight children with no professional care whatever. The last one was born in the kitchen, witnessed by a son of 10 years who, under his mother's directions, cleaned the bed, wrapped the soiled articles in paper and threw them out of the window into the court below.
In this atmosphere, abortions and birth become the main theme of conversation. On Saturday nights I have seen groups of 50 to 100 women going into questionable offices well known in the community for cheap abortions. Often an ambulance carried the victim to the hospital, and if she returned home at all she was looked upon as a lucky woman.
This state of things became a nightmare to me. There seemed no sense to it, no reason for such waste of a mother's life, no right to exhaust women's vitality and to throw them on the scrap heap at age 35.
Mrs. Sacks was only 28 years old. Her husband, an unskilled worker, 32. Three children, aged five, three and one, were none too strong nor sturdy. Both parents were devoted to these children and to each other. The woman had become pregnant and had taken various drugs as advised by her neighbors. She was found prostrate on the floor amidst the crying children when her husband returned from work. The husband would not hear of her going to a hospital and as a little money had been saved in the bank, a nurse was called and the battle for that woman's precious life began.
At the end of two weeks, recovery was in sight, and at the end of three weeks, I was preparing to leave the fragile patient. Everyone was congratulating her on her recovery. Still, she appeared despondent and worried.
As the hour for my departure came nearer, her anxiety increased, and finally with trembling voice she said, "Another baby will finish me, I suppose."
"It's too early to talk about that," I said.
"Something I Really Did Not Know"
She clasped her hands as if in prayer. She leaned over and looked straight into my eyes and beseechingly implored me to tell her something — something I really did not know.
A little later when she slept, I left the house, and made up my mind that I'd keep away from those cases in the future. I felt helpless to do anything at all.
Time flew, and weeks rolled into months. That wistful, appealing face haunted me day and night. I could not banish from my mind memories of that trembling voice begging for knowledge she had a right to have.
I was about to retire one night three months later when the telephone rang, and an agitated man's voice begged me to come help his wife who was sick again. I was the husband of Mrs. Sacks, and I intuitively knew before I left the telephone that it was useless to go.
I dreaded to face that woman. I was tempted to send someone else in my place. I longed for an accident on the subway, or on the street — anything to prevent my going into that home. But on I went.
The woman died within 10 minutes after my arrival. It was the same result, the same story told a thousand times before — she had become pregnant, had then consulted a five-dollar abortionist, and death followed.
The Revolution came — but not as it had been pictured nor as history relates that revolutions have come. It came in my own life. It began in my very being as I walked home that night after I had closed the eyes and covered with a sheet the body of that little helpless mother whose life had been sacrificed to ignorance.
I entered [my] house quietly, and looked out of the window down upon the dimly lighted, sleeping city. As I stood at the window and looked out, the miseries and problems of that sleeping city arose before me in a clear vision: crowded homes, too many children; babies dying in infancy; mothers overworked; children neglected and hungry — mothers so nervously wrought they could not give the little things the care they needed; mothers sick most of their lives; women made into drudges; children aged six pushed into the labor market to earn a living; another baby on the way; a baby born dead — great relief; an older child dies — sorrow, but nevertheless relief — insurance helps; a mother's death — children scattered into institutions; the father, desperate, drunken; he slinks away to become an outcast in a society which has trapped him...
"A Public Nuisance"
I resolved that American women should have knowledge of contraception. I would strike out — I would scream from the housetops. I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. I would be heard. No matter what it should cost, I would be heard.
But there was the law — the law of New York State. Section 1142 stated that no one could give information to prevent conception to anyone for any reason. There was, however, Section 1145, which distinctly stated that physicians only could give advice to prevent conception for the cure or prevention of disease. Dared I risk it?
It was on October 16, 1916, that we opened the doors of the first birth-control clinic in America. News of our work spread like wildfire. Within a few days there was not a darkened tenement, hovel, or flat but was brightened by the knowledge that motherhood could be voluntary, that children need not be born into the world unless they are wanted and have a place provided for them. For the first time, women talked openly of this terror of unwanted pregnancy which had haunted their lives since time immemorial. The newspapers, in glaring headlines, used the words "birth control," and carried the message that somewhere in Brooklyn there was a place where contraceptive information could be obtained by all overburdened mothers who wanted it. It is difficult to tell how many women came in those few days to seek advice, but we estimate that it was more than 500.
As in any new enterprise, false reports were maliciously spread about the clinic; weird stories without the slightest foundation of truth. We talked plain talk and gave plain facts to the women who came there.
It was whispered that the police were to raid the place for abortions. We had no fear of that accusation. We were trying to spare mothers the necessity of that ordeal by giving them proper information.
One day a woman by the name of Margaret Whitehurst came to us. She said that she was the mother of two children and that she had not money to support more. Her story was a pitiful one —all lies. She asked for our literature and preventives, and received both. Then she triumphantly went to the District Attorney's office and secured a warrant for our arrest.
The arrest and raid on the Brooklyn clinic was spectacular. At first I refused to close the clinic, hoping that a court decision would allow us to continue. I was to be disappointed. Pressure was brought upon the landlord, and we were dispossessed by the law as a "public nuisance."
Crowds began to gather outside. A long line of women with baby carriages and children had been waiting to get into the clinic. Now the streets were filled, and police had to see that traffic was not blocked. The patrol wagon came rattling through the streets to our door, and at length we took our seats within, to be taken to the police station.
"Come Back And Save Me!"
As I sat in the rear of the car and looked out on that seething mob of humans, I wondered, and asked myself what had gone out of the race. Something had gone from them which silenced them, made them impotent to defend their rights. But as I sat in this mood, I looked out as the mass and heard a scream. It came from a woman wheeling a baby carriage, who had just come around the corner preparing to visit the clinic. She saw the patrol wagon, realized what had happened, left the baby carriage on the walk, rushed through the crowd to the wagon and cried to me: "Come back! Come back and save me!" The woman looked wild. She ran after the car for a dozen yards or so, when some friends caught her weeping form in their arms and led her back to the sidewalk. That was the last thing I saw.
March 23, 1990