Margaret Sanger, "Mother India as I Saw Her," 21 May 1936.
Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , Library of Congress Microfilm, 130:0149 .
Sanger gave this speech to the Union of East and West at the Hotel New Yorker in New York City.Earlier drafts on 130:0155B and S71:0835.
I am rather appalled at the idea that I should even think of speaking to you tonight on “Mother India As I Saw Her,” for after all I was in India only nine weeks. But during that time I traveled over 10,000 miles and had the good fortune of being the state guest in several different states and provinces. It is said that one is never a prophet in his own country and must often go very far from home in order to be received by ministers, governors, mayors, and other officials high in command in their communities. Certainly I have never encountered such hospitality and friendliness as I found in India, nor such kind-liness and gratitude.
I was invited to come to India to address the All India Women’s Conference, and it was my hope that by appearing before this group, which represents ten million women, and be securing the passage of a resolution in support of birth control, I might give impetus to the birth control movement in that country.
Although I have attended many conferences during the past twenty or twenty-five years, I can truthfully say that I have never been at a conference of women where I had more surprises, where I had to reexamine my own values of life, and where I as so impressed by the confidence, the diplomacy, and the courtesy with which the women managed their affairs. This may seem a rather strange thing to say, because we in America think that no other women in the world know as much about organization as we do. But The All India Women’s Conference was a group of women, a large number of whom had been in retirement--in Purdah--all their lives. Numbers of them had, from early puberty, been kept away from any contact with the outside world. I found that many of these women were appearing in public perhaps for the first time in their lives, were speaking not only to the women but to the men, and doing it extremely well. I was especially delighted because in this early period of their emancipation Indian women have struck directly at the roots of one of their greatest problems--that of controlling fertility, and have taken a stand on birth control.
These women appreciated, as have no women in the Western World with the exception of the Scandinavian, that fighting for and obtaining the vote was insignificant as compared with fighting for--and obtaining--knowledge about their own bodies and freedom to shape their own destinies. These fine, modest women dared to come out of their seclusion and demand this ↑the↓ knowledge which would free them from the bondage of their biological slavery. The idea has been handed down for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years that the ideal existence for all women is to have large numbers of children and to have them as fast as they could be born--all to the glory of woman and the family. Not only has this been true in India, but also in Japan and China and in other parts of the Orient. The birth of a boy is highly desirable, and not until a woman has presented her husband with a son, even though in doing so she may lose her life, does she feel that she has fulfilled her mission as a wife.
I was encouraged to find that the women who came to this Conference have gone into the great fundamental question of birth control with keenness and thoroughness--even into the economic, sociological, biological, legislative, historical, and spiritual aspects of the subject. Though they have discarded the idea that it is necessary for a woman to have a child every twelve months, they realize that having a family is to fulfill the destiny of a normal woman. I believe that the women of America feel the same way about having children.
The opposition, to my surprise, was much the same as we find in this country and in Europe. It came not from the Hindus, nor the Mohammedans, nor the Parsees, but from the Roman Catholic Church. In Madras, I found that one of the priests had called public attention to the fact that “another America woman” was on her way to India. He recalled that Katherine Mayo had betrayed the trust placed in her and written a book containing many misrepresentations. He warned them to beware of this second woman who was coming not only to “betray” them, but also to break up their homes. The same old arguments. . . ↑after a generation of actual proof to the contrary.↓ Truly it seemed strange to find them ↑cropping up↓ in India.
I am glad to say that this did not stop the Indian women from attending ↑adopting the resolution at↓ the Conference. They came from all over the country and in large numbers ↑, and↓ many came who wanted to know especially about birth control. They came bringing their babies and children, and nurses to take care of them. One of the most unusual sights was to see the children playing outside the Conference in the courtyard and the women nursing their babies in the Conference. To witness this was indeed a new experience for me.
When the Birth Control Revolution was presented, Her Highness, the Maharani of Travancore, presided, and it is noteworthy that this was only the second time she had ever appeared at a public meeting in her own state and country, though she had appeared in public many times in Europe. Yet Travancore is a state where they still have the matriarchal system of delegating power--that is, the power is handed down through the women. The Maharani’s position had come from her mother and will go on to her children through her. It was a wonderful experience to see “Mother India” in all her glory. The Maharani entertained the women of the Conference at a garden party such as we in the West read of in the Arabian Nights. The beauty of the gardens, the colors, the flowers, the lights, the playing fountains--all this simply entranced me, and it was enchanting to be close to so much beauty. The women wear jasmine flowers in their hair and around their necks, and garlands of jasmine are given to the visitors, when they arrive and when they depart.
The spirit of friendliness, which is characteristic of India, was apparent when the women considered the Birth Control Resolution. Their attitude toward each other, and especially towards those women who opposed the Resolution, was one of sympathy and cooperation. Those who were against it were given two opportunities to speak, while those in favor were given only one. I was not so sure that this was true democracy, and thought perhaps a fifty-fifty arrangement would have been somewhat fairer. I was amazed to find that most of the opposition came from Europeans and from Christian missionaries, and not from Indian women themselves. Miss Smith, Miss Jones, Miss this and Miss that, spoke in no uncertain terms of the dire effects of birth control and of the licentiousness and immorality within the marriage state which would follow its use. Finally, an Indian woman arose and said: “I am the mother of five children; every woman who has spoken in favor of this Resolution today is the mother of from three to five and even nine children. I have never heard so much about the ‘lusts’ and ‘passions’ of men as we have heard this morning from the unmarried women.” Everyone saw the humor fo her remarks, and immediately the tension was relaxed. The Resolution was passed. It was most constructive, and recommended that doctors and public health organizations disseminate contraceptive information.
Now I want to tell you a little about “Mother India As I Saw Her.” The population problem, of course, interested me a great deal. Most of our time in India was spent in the large cities, but in travelling we went through many of the outlying districts and villages. We went from Bombay to Wardha to see Mahatma Gandhi and then to Calcutta and then to see the Himalayas. We came back to Calcutta to visit the poet, Dr. Tagore, and then on to Benares, Allahabad, Delhi, and Baroda, and again back to Bombay. In this way, we saw a great deal of the country, particularly in ↑from↓ railroads and in railway stations, and we met many people who come in delegations to meet the ↑our↓ trains. (Anna Jane Phillips, who volunteered her services ↑ and experiences to go with me and help, travelled with me.↓
Population is, I think, one of India’s greatest problems. The population of India, of course, is very large. There are, we are told, some 350 millions of people, with an increase of thirty-four millions in ten years and of twenty millions in the last two years. I do not believe that this last figure is ↑an actual increase. It resulted from the fact that↓ when the census prior to the last one was taken, the noncooperative movement was at its height and many of the people did not register. This fact alone could account for perhaps some fifteen or twenty millions, which would increase the total at the time of the last census, when the noncooperative movement had subsided.
One of the recent aims of the public health program has been to lessen infant mortality and to raise the age of marriage. The Women’s Conference passed a resolution to put teeth into the laws prohibiting child marriages by urging the penalty of a large fine when parents allowed young boys and girls below the age of fifteen to marry. But that very act they are going to ↑continue the birth rate,↓ decrease infant mortality, and at the same time save the lives of women. This will, of course, tend to increase the population. People are also being saved from famine, small pox epidemics, plagues, and are being helped to live longer.
Infant mortality, however is still high--far too high. Statistics show that one-fifth of the babies born do not live until their first birthday and one-half of them do not live until the age of five. The are three factors affecting infant mortality: first, the economic condition of the family, i.e. the father’s wage; second, the spacing of the children; and third, where the child is placed in the family. We are familiar with the first two factors, but let us consider some statistics with regard to the third, and we shall be very much surprised to find how smiliar they are to our own figures in the United States.
In India, for ↑of↓ each 100 first-born children 22.7 do not live ↑to its first holiday↓ and this is only a little higher than the figure for our country. The second and third children have about the same chance of survival--21.4 of them do not live to complete their first year. The infant mortality rate increases rapidly with the fourth, fifth, and sixth children because they have much less care. Of those who are born tenth in the family 42 out of each 100 die in infancy; and the rate rises to 51 and 60 for the 11th and 12th children.
Figures from the United States Children’s Bureau show that the life of a baby in America is also largely dependent upon where the child is placed in the family. As for child spacing, unless the children are properly spaced the health of the mother is greatly depleted and the child is not born with a sound and healthy body. If during the pre-natal life it is not adequately nourished, i.e. unless the father’s wage is such to provide the family with sufficient food, the child, of course, does not have a chance to develop and grow through early infancy.
If ↑The density of population↓ all of India there are only ↑is about↓ 195 people per square mile, but in some villages we find that there are 2000 and even 4000 people living per square mile. These people simply eke out an existence--they are the poor farmer class with barely enough to eat, since they have not learned to use properly what little land they have. They know little or nothing of the ↑Scientific↓ methods of farming such as irrigation, rotation of crops, and the proper nourishment has gone out of the soil and land produces less and less each year. fertilization of the soil. ↑Nourishment has gone out of the soil, and the land produces less and less each year.↓ It is said that ninety-five per cent of them do not have what we would consider a “full meal” a day, and that ninety-seven per cent live on less than five cents in American money per day. The figures given out by the British officials do not agree with these figures. They claim that only twenty per cent of the people are very, very poor. Of course, as in all countries, a few people, the minority, live in luxury and beauty and have some of the loveliest things of the world. It is difficult to find out the actual facts ↑, just as↓ it is difficult to find out even in America actually what ninety-five per cent of our people earn and what percentage go hungry.
In the large cities in India, we find people sleeping out of doors in the streets--people who have no homes or shelter to go to and who beg in the markets by day. I would far rather sleep out of doors in India where the nights are warm, with the wide blue heavens above me and the thousands of twinkling stars to make my roof, than to sleep in a crowded tenement on the Lower East Side of New York City, where there are eight and ten and even twelve persons packed into a three or two-room tenement with its foul and fetid air, its disease, and its lack of even the most necessary sanitation! (Applause)
Welfare work in India has been largely concerned with obtaining the proper hospital facilities for women, and where formerly very few of the women had their children in hospitals with proper medical care, sixty-five per cent of the babies born in Bombay are now delivered in hospitals. In India, a new day is dawning. They are saving more babies each year by giving them the proper care in baby clinics--physical examinations, co liver oil, and the correct diet. They are ↑The State is↓ willing to assume the cost and make provisions for such care, but as I pointed out to the officials and social workers in one community ↑and ↓ where they are making rapid strides in infant care, what are the provisions to be for taking care of these children when they reach the ages of two and three? Unless they know now that the families will ↑continue to give↓ assume the same care of ↑to↓ these babies when they become of walking age, the mortality rates for that age group will rise sharply within the next five years. They must either plan their budgets to take care of the children until they are able to take care of themselves, ↑or↓ supplement the family income, or give the mothers knowledge of how to space and control births.
These facts had not previously been considered, but immediately these officials and workers asked how it could be done. They did not stop to parley about the cost or the work. They simply asked, “How?” And the answer is: by allowing the mother to space her children properly so that she can care for each one until it has a fair start in life. Mothers should know how to plan each pregnancy, Naturally the small child of two or three will receive more attention if there is not a tinier brother or sister, and perhaps another baby about to be born. The mother cannot possibly carry on with her strength constantly depleted by too numerous pregnancies, so that her boy never has a chance to recuperate and build itself up. And, what is worse, she has very little chance, of surviving such rapid demands on her body.
But these people asked: When can we begin? And I am happy to say that when I left India there were fifty contraceptive centers already established under the proper authorities either in hospitals, in public health clinics where the necessary information as to the methods is given by a doctor or nurse under the doctors’ supervision to these mothers. There was no question, is this moral, is it ethical, is it proper. It was, they understood, necessary, and that was all. They were delighted to accept the idea of a birth control.
We held over forty-three medical meetings, and the attitude of the doctors was splendid. I had with me two scientific films on “The Biology of Conception,” and these helped in explaining the technical aspects of contraception to the physicians. Not only were the doctors willing to have these films presented to their own groups, but they invited senior medical students and trained nurses to attend. Here again I was impressed by the difference in attitude--in India when the doctors found something of interest and worth while, they were only too willing to share it and to have it used.
And now I want to tell you a little about my visit with Mahatma Gandhi, at Wardha. As soon as I arrived at Bombay, there was a message to the effect that Gandhi would receive me, that I should come at any time and stay as long as I wished. And, of course, I wanted to pay my respects to him, admiring and venerating him greatly and knowing that he is best loved of all in India. I had only three days to spend at Wardha, not a very long time for what we had to consider, because when the Mahatma was asked if he were going to be converted by Margaret Sanger, he replied that he was going to convert her. However, I arrived at Wardha on Monday, to find that this was Gandhi’s day of silence, so I could not talk with him. However, I did have the opportunity of talking with some of the  ↑members↓ in his household. They all arose at four o’clock in the morning, and from five to six gathered for prayers. On the second day of my visit, ↑starting↓ at seven o’clock promptly, the Mahatma and I walked for an hour. This was very delightful, even though there was no “shop talk” while we were walking to the village and back. We had breakfast at eleven and supper at five, and in the intervals we conferred. He ate sparingly, but the rest of us had more than we could eat and in abundance. Of course, he had his secretary and I had mine, and they took down every one of our “golden words.” Gandhi agreed with me in principle, and I agreed with him in principle. He said he was a greater feminist than I was, because he believed women should have everything to say about babies. I said I thought it should be fifty-fifty: that the women should say “when” and the man should say “how many,” as he has to support them. Gandhi said he was informed, that he knew what women had to go through (and that he was thinking entirely in his own province.) He said he did not believe that India has a particular problem in population. He felt that if India ever developed and fulfilled her own destiny, she could solve her own population problem. Of course, we disagreed on that.
We discussed marriage, remarriage, and divorce. We discussed population from every aspect; we discussed continence, the safe period or rhythm, and birth control. ↑He↓ told him ↑me↓ that even though continence might ↑would↓ be better ↑for the peoples↓ spiritually ↑development↓ I ↑replied↓ that until people come to that point, ↑and accepted continence in practice↓ it would be far better to use the safest methods ↑of BC↓ and bring ↑a solution to their national and family problem↓ . Incidentally, Dr. Tagore encouraged me greatly by agreeing on this particular question.
I had just one more story to tell you before I finish. I was the guest for a short time at the home of a very cultured family who had three girls, but no sons. My coming had been discussed and the youngest child, who was very precocious, had thought over what she had heard. Finally she came to her father and said: “Daddy, if you had met Margaret Sanger before I was born, would I be here?” And her Daddy took her up in his arms and gave her the answer which I am sure you will all feel every parent should be able to give his children. He said, “Joan, dear, if there were a hundred Margaret Sangers you would still be here, because we wanted you!!”
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project