"Margaret Sanger Gagged!" Spring 2004, #36
In 1999, Barbara Walters called it "Perhaps this century's first photo op."
It is probably the most famous photograph of Margaret Sanger (see page 2): her intense gaze directed just beyond the camera; a two-inch wide white gag running across her mouth; her hand pressed to a large corsage that covered her mid-section; a young woman tying the gag at the back of Sanger's head. The picture was captured on April 16, 1929 at Boston's Ford Hall Forum when a silenced Margaret Sanger appeared on stage and handed her prepared speech to Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger to read to an audience of 800.
The image has become a symbol of censorship, often cropped and captioned to appear as though Sanger was an unredeemed captive of the free-speech wars that peaked a decade earlier; that she was gagged by coercion, forced to endure ridicule as punishment for her sin of speaking freely about sex and birth control. Planned Parenthood groups have printed the photo on calendars and cards, indicating that Sanger put on the gag after Boston authorities told her she cold not deliver a speech on birth control. There was much truth to this; Boston prohibited Sanger from making a public presentation. But the startling, disquieting sight of Sanger standing with her mouth forcibly shut is also steeped in theater. There's a smirk beneath that gag.
First let's backtrack a few years. Since the formation of the American Birth Control League in 1921, Sanger had tried to arrange a public appearance in Boston, a hub of censorship under the control of Mayor James Michael Curley, the colorful defender of Boston's morals. Curley's crackdown on obscenity and unpopular political discourse brought forth the phrase "banned in Boston" in the 1920s. And though he exerted censorious powers against a number of writers and lecturers, he was most consistent in interfering with birth control and Ku Klux Klan meetings. He referred to Sanger's crusade as "her child murder propaganda." Mayor Malcolm E. Nichols, Curley's successor, continued the ban against speech promoting birth control during his mayoralty from 1926-1929. However, birth control opposition meetings were freely held in the city. (Zechariah Chafee, Jr., The Censorship in Boston [Boston, 1929], 15-16; Boston Globe, Feb. 24, 1925.)
Despite the protests of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations, Curley prohibited public meetings in Boston for Sanger in 1923, 1924 and 1925. "I ache all over," Sanger wrote ACLU founder Roger Baldwin in 1924, "every time I think of Boston." And Mayor Nichols blocked an attempt in March 1929 by the Boston Community Church to rent Symphony Hall for a Sanger appearance. (MS to Baldwin, Sept. 15, 1924 [MSM C3:188]; Industrial Solidarity, March 13, 1929.)
Enter the Ford Hall Forum on Beacon Hill, one of the oldest and most well known public speaking forums in the U.S. Founded in 1908, the Forum quickly became an outlet for social discontents and gained a reputation for defending free-speech and inspiring tolerance. Lecturers represented all facets of society and discussed the vital issues of the day including birth control, war, women's rights, the failings of democracy, as well as topics in literature and the arts. Regular speakers at the Forum included Carl Sandburg, Rev. John Haynes Holmes, W. E. B. DuBois and Clarence Darrow. Generally praised from diverse quarters for its commitment to fairness and enlightenment, the Forum came under heavy criticism in the late 1920s for being too radical. In 1928 the Daughters of the American Revolution blacklisted the Forum, condemning it as "Red." Conservative religious leaders claimed it was anti-Christian and tried to close it down. (Millicent Kindle, The Ford Hall Forum: 75 Years of Public Discourse [Boston, 1983], 1-7.)
The Forum persevered and annually celebrated its distinction as a beleaguered stronghold of free-speech and diversity with a banquet and "frolic." For the 1929 banquet, the Forum invited a cross-section of authors, playwrights, civil libertarians and activists who had been a target of Boston's censors. Billing itself as "Boston's most undesirable institution," Ford Hall warned on a program poster for the event, "NO ONE ADMITTED UNLESS UNDESIRABLE." Regarding Sanger, "the outstanding social warrior of the century," the program advertised that since "Those Who Sit in High Places insist that we must be protected from this dangerous woman, she will make no Speech." And that "Although Mrs. Sanger is muzzled, she will not be handcuffed." The cuffs were reserved for author of banned books Percy Marks to keep him from writing. In his invitation to Sanger, the associate director of the Forum wrote "that by laughing in this way at those who are responsible for the censorship we can do more good than in any other way." (David. K. Niles to MS, March 5, 1929 [LCM 8:696].)
Sanger arrived at the banquet with gag in place, though it was briefly removed so that she could eat. Following the dinner she was again muzzled and introduced to the audience. According to the Boston Post, she "received an ovation which brought a flush of surprise and happiness, the entire assembly rising to its feet in her honor." (Boston Post, Apr. 17, 1929.)
The frolic began with several introductions and opening speeches. Forum director George W. Coleman told the audience, "I assure you there will be nothing unseemly at this frolic. Mrs. Sanger has been gagged." He then gave way to a group of actors who put on a sketch titled "The Suppressed Bookshop," which included a shop keeper fumigating the nasty books with disinfectant. Actors paraded by in the costumes of characters from famous banned books. Posters advertising censored books hung from the balcony rails. The audience sang a verse of "America," followed by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," then whistled "Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys," after being informed they were not allowed to sing the words. They were urged to sign a petition to suppress Percy Marks's newest book so that his sales would increase in other parts of the country. "I am pleased that reformers are using the weapons of satire and humor," Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of The Nation, said from his table, "we are often too serious." (Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1929; Boston Herald, Apr. 17, 1929)
Regrets on being unable to attend were read from Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Judge Ben B. Lindsey and H. L. Menken, before Professor Arthur Schlesinger, the distinguished historian, rose to complain that the one woman that Forum organizers chose to speak at the frolic happened to be banned from speaking in Boston. After the laughter cleared, Sanger was again introduced to a standing ovation. (Boston Post, Apr. 17, 1929.)
Securely gagged, she handed her speech to Schlesinger. The laughter and mischievous chaos of the evening subsided. The audience sobered as Schlesinger read Sanger's words: "To inflict silence upon a woman is supposed to be a terrible punishment. It is. But there are certain advantages and benefits to be derived from this awful punishment. . . . Silence inflicts thoughts upon us. It makes us ponder over what we have lost – and what we have gained. Words are, after all, only the small change of thought. If we have convictions, deep convictions, let us not waste them in words. Let us act them out. Let us live them!"
As most people in the audience were aware, Sanger's clinic in New York had the previous day been raided by police. Five of her staff members had been arrested and patient records confiscated. Sanger accompanied the arrested doctors and nurses to the police station, notified her lawyers, and gave a number of newspaper interviews before dashing to Boston to make the Forum banquet. In light of this event, emblazoned in the headlines of major news dailies, Sanger's words took on added urgency. Her emphasis turned from free-speech to action.
"I care nothing for Free Speech in and by itself. All of us place too much value on the power of the printed word and the power of the spoken word. We read too much. We listen too much. We live too little. We act too little. . . . I speak to you by my actions past and present. I have been gagged, I have been suppressed, I have been arrested, I have been hauled off to jail. Yet every time, more people have listened to me, more have protested, more have lifted their own voices, more have responded with courage and bravery. . . . As a propagandist, I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk about me, and the cause in which I live." (Ford Hall Forum Speech, Apr. 16, 1929 [LCM 129:484-485)
Sanger's attorney, Morris Ernst, a vocal defender of First Amendment rights, followed Sanger to the stage. "The authorities may gag Mrs. Sanger," he said, "but they can't gag the truth." (Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1929.)
The evening concluded with a speech by Clarence Darrow, at the time the country's most famous lawyer following his 1925 Scopes trial defense of the teaching of evolution in the schools. "The only time I ever feel funny," he told the audience, "is when I am serious. Then I am apt to look on the whole thing as a huge joke. You know, it takes a sense of humor to live in this world where asses are serious so intelligent people can laugh at them." He suggested that liberals "should organize a watch and ward society of our own to watch the bigots and oppressors, and to watch over this divine liberty, without which life would not be worth living." He turned to the topic of birth control, indicting the rich and powerful for keeping information from the poor. "Why," he asked. Because "Somebody has to have children so they can keep on being rich. They want to have a monopoly of the good things of life." In a rousing defense of Sanger he declared "Error and ignorance is often supreme and often intrenched by law. But no power on earth can stop the work Mrs. Sanger began." (Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1929; Boston Herald, Apr. 17, 1929.)
Sanger and Ernst returned to New York to successfully defend the legal existence of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in a case that greatly accelerated the nullification of the Comstock Laws. Another attempt to silence Sanger's message and impede her progress had failed.
The complete text of Sanger's Ford Hall Forum Speech is being published in Volume II of the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939.
Revised: September 26, 2005