Margaret Sanger, "Woman and the Future," 27 Jan 1937.
Typed Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , Library of Congress Microfilm 129:480 .
Sanger gave this 15-minute radio address at the 17th Annual Convention of the Federation of Jewish Women's Organizations held at the Hotel Astor in New York. It was broadcast on WMCA. Sanger's speech was opened with the following announcement: "Margaret Sanger, who is recognized as the leader of the birth control movement both in America and abroad, will speak today on the subject "Woman and the Future". Mrs. Sanger has devoted her life to the cause of womanhood, and the success which she has won gives her the right to speak with authority on this topic. Mrs Sanger..."
Just four years ago the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations at whose annual convention I am speaking today, went on record in support of the legalization of birth control. It is in great measure due to the active help of this organization and other groups of courageous women, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Y.W.C.A., that the birth control movement is today celebrating a glorious victory and looking forward to the inspiring and constructive work which lies ahead.
We can today with some measure of clarity and hope talk about Woman and the Future. It has been a good fight, but a long one.
In 1873 Congress, urged on by Anthony Comstock, passed the so-called obscenity laws, prohibiting the use of the mails and common carriers for items which were considered lewd or obscene. The general aim of these laws was perhaps laudable enough. But unfortunately articles and information relating to the prevention of conception were also classed as obscene. It was made a crime, punishable by $5000 fine or 5 years imprisonment or both, for anyone, even a physician, to send contraceptive information or supplies through the mails or by common carrier, that is by express. Importation was also forbidden.
The birth control movement has spent years of effort in rectifying this mistake. For with the law thus tangled and confused, many doctors hesitated to give birth control advice, hospitals and dispensaries which should have been telling women how to space their children and plan their families were afraid to do so.
For the past seven years the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, of which I am the president, has been seeking to have this law amended. We have found men in Congress brave enough to introduce bills exempting physicians from the restrictions of the law in matters relating to contraception. It may be hard for you to realize it, but at first it took courage for a member of Congress to come out openly for birth control. Hearings were held; the press gave its support; more and more men in Congress came to see the right and justice of what we were asking; a hundred thousand individuals and a thousand organizations placed themselves on record approving of what we were trying to do, and pledging their help.
A wise and reasonable Court decision in a test case on the importation of birth control materials sent to a doctor for research purposes, has given the medical profession what we were seeking through Congress. The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the second circuit, in unanimously upholding the decision of the lower court has interpreted the Comstock laws, and has defined the rights of the American physician in regard to birth control.
The decision, handed down on November 30, 1936, comes as a result of an informed public opinion, as the result of the support of organizations such as this Federation. “We are satisfied”, said the judges, “that this statute embraced only such articles as Congress would have denounced as immoral if it had understood all the conditions under which they were to be used.” That is, birth control as we understand it today, would not have been included in the statute.“It’s design” the decision continues, “was not to prevent the importation, sale, or carriage by mail of things which might intelligently be employed by conscientious and competent physicians for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well-being of their patients.”
With the tangles and confusions of the past cleared away, we can now look ahead. We can envisage what birth control can do for the woman of today and tomorrow.
For up to now, woman has been a victim of her own powers of reproduction. It has been the comparatively few and more fortunate who have known how to have only as many children as they could take care of. A small fraction of all women have known how to make motherhood a matter of conscious and joyful choice, not a thing of tragedy and chance.
I will not speak today of what needs to be done in far countries, in China, and India, in Japan. Nor will I speak of the women of Italy and Germany, who are being prodded and cajoled to produce cannon fodder for future wars. Let us think first of America.
Here a new epoch in the birth control movement has begun. Scientific and reliable information can now be given to every woman in the land. Every hospital, and there are seven thousand of them, every health unit and welfare center, every place which cares for the health of women, can now have a physician give birth control advice.
Last month several hundred physicians, scientists and representatives from birth control clinics, met in a two day Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice. It was no longer necessary to prove the case for birth control. It was no longer necessary to talk of belief or disbelief, or of legality, or to bandy arguments or opinions. The entire matter had passed from the realm of propaganda to the realm of science. These fine men and women came together to confer and interchange their knowledge and experiences, so that we might have better methods, better ways of teaching women, more knowledge in this field. There was discussion at one interesting session as to what a birth control center should be called. Many thought it might better be called a mothers Health Center, or a Race Betterment Center, and these terms well describe what such a center is. But I confess that I am in favor of the simple phrase birth control. As you may know, I coined it more than twenty years ago, and it must have something good in it, for it stuck. You will find it in dictionaries and encyclopedias, in scientific journals and in newspaper columns. Wherever people speak of bettering the lives of women, of bringing forth a better, stronger, happier and healthier race, they speak of birth control.
Emphasis should be placed on the word control. Controlling the size of a family does not mean that births should be limited to any arbitrary number. Birth control is not a program for the one or two child family. We control our automobiles; we control the heat that keeps us warm in winter, and before long so they tell us, we shall be controlling the heat that makes us unhappy in summer. We control our time, our appetites, our incomes, our lives. It is simple common sense to control the number of children in a family, in order that they may be cherished and loved, cared for properly and raised to become useful and happy citizens.
Children should be wanted. They should be conceived in marital love, born of the parents’ conscious desire and given the heritage of healthy bodies and sound minds.
I believe that the bearing and nurture of children are not the aim and end of women’s existence. I want to see the woman of the future liberated, spiritually free, conscious of her creative powers. I want to see her using them with vision and intelligence, for greater happiness, for security, for peace. To do this, woman must first liberate herself. Motherhood must be conscious and voluntary, before it can be creative. Then she can make the most of the greatest of all her gifts and responsibilities, the handing on of the precious, mysterious gift of life.
Through birth control women will gain control not only of their bodies, but they will develop their souls. Then they will lead the race to heights we can as yet not see. Birth control is one of the greatest movements of today and of tomorrow, and what it will do for the children, for the women of the future, none of us can yet visualize.
But we can believe and push on.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project