Margaret Sanger, "Clinics, Courts and Jails," Apr 1918.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Apr. 1918, 3 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S70:795 .
In February, 1915, when I heard Dr. J. Rutgers at The Hague give his last instructions to one of his maternity nurses, as she left his class fully equipped to open a clinic in one of the outlying districts, I knew that the people of the United States would never be fully aroused to the needs of birth control until such a clinic was also established here. My course of instruction which followed in Holland was taken solely for this purpose, the execution of which seemed to be a thing of years to come.
Upon returning to America in November, 1915, to take up the fight in the Federal Courts, the possibility of opening such a clinic came very suddenly after my case was dismissed on February 18th, 1916, without coming to trial. I was then free to lecture throughout the United States, to tell the people what birth control means to the individual, to the family and to the race. For four months I visited all the large cities to and from the Pacific Coast and was greatly encouraged because of the fact that the idea of disseminating contraceptive information by means of clinics with trained persons in charge was always greeted with the most profound interest. I came to the conclusion that a practical test of the law would have the moral endorsement of all thinking people in this country.
Shortly after this, plans were carefully laid and districts especially chosen to open a clinic in each borough of Greater New York. The Board of Health's report was to be my guide. The idea was to conduct the work where records showed the highest death rate, infant mortality, etc. If perchance we were allowed to remain unmolested, the results would speak for themselves, by comparison, in the next Board of Health report.
For weeks and weeks, I trudged the streets looking for rooms suitable for the purpose. At last I found some on Avenue A, between 21st and 20th Streets, New York City, and another in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and paid a month's rent in advance. This relieved me of all available cash for the time being.
Everything was ready--plans, enthusiasm, nurses, translators, vision, decision--everything, but the finances.
For nearly a week I waited for the call to action. It came one afternoon when five women with babies in their arms called on me. They came from Brownsville. They had left the other children with one of the women in the tenement where they lived, while they came to seek advice. They told of the ravages of infantile paralysis in their district, of the low wages of the men, of the high cost of food. They told how the neighbors talked of the clinic, what a blessing, a godsend, it would be over there.
That night a friend called me on the phone and said fifty dollars had been sent to her from a woman in Los Angeles to give to me to use as I wished. The next day Fania Mindell and I started out to equip the place with chairs, desks, floor covering, curtains, stove, basins, etc. A week later, October 16th, 1917, we opened the doors of the first Birth Control Clinic in America. The opening of these doors was a great social force in the lives of modern womanhood.
There was not a darkened tenement, or a hovel or hut, but was brightened by the knowledge that motherhood can be voluntary, that children need not be born into the world unless they are wanted and 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.
From the start the newspapers in glaring headlines, used the words "birth control" and carried to all who read, the message that somewhere in Brooklyn there was a place where contraceptive information could be obtained for all over-burdened mothers who wanted it!
From the first day, the little outer waiting room was crowded. The women came in pairs, with their neighbors, with their married daughters and their husbands. Some came in groups with nursing babies clasped in their arms. Some came from the far end of Long Island, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. They came from near and from far to learn the "secret" which they said the rich women all possessed and the poor women could not obtain. No unmarried women came--all were mothers, except one woman, married twelve years, but who could not carry a child to full term, and who came for advice. Her physician knew she could not bear a child and yet allowed her to conceive, month after month. Her health had been ruined and she was almost a nervous wreck when she came from Connecticut to seek advice.
Fania Mindell acted as the interpreter and took down the histories of the women as fast as she could get them. We recorded the nationality, the age, the husband's wage, the number of children living, number of children dead, number of miscarriages performed and whether by doctor or midwife, the reason for not desiring more children, whether for health, social or economic reasons.
Ethel Byrne, a trained nurse assisted me in advising and explaining and demonstrating to the women how to prevent conception. As most of the records, so carefully taken, were confiscated by the detectives when they made their arrests, it is difficult to tell exactly how many women came there in those few days to seek advice, but we roughly estimate that between 480 and 500 women's names were placed on the records. Hundreds of letters also poured in each day from all over the United States, telling sad and tragic tales of mothers ready to commit suicide, ready to go to any extreme or torture rather than endure child birth again.
Then one day, while I was absent making preparations for the opening of the Avenue A rooms, a woman came ostensibly to seek advice. She was of Irish type, with detective stamped plainly all over her. She told her story of a large family, a brutal husband and several abortions and received advice from the nurse, like all those before her.
A few days later, the same woman came in charge of a detective squad and arrested Fania Mindell, Ethel Byrne and myself.
Then began months of activities quite beyond description. All the forces of opposition were on hand to malign individuals and to misrepresent the cause. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church was seen everywhere. It was especially seen in the Court's refusal to allow us a jury trial, and in refusing to allow physicians to present such medical testimony as was necessary in challenging the constitutionality of Section 1142 of the Penal Law of the New York State.
Comstock's successor was also present to represent the "Society for the Suppression of Vice," but everywhere, and at every turn, the strongest opposition came from subtle underground workings of that Church which apparently dominates American courts of justice and political life today.
We all spent one night in jail and were allowed out on bail. I returned to the clinic and opened the doors but was re-arrested on the charge of "maintaining a public nuisance." The landlord had a court order to eject me from the premises; but this action was finally dropped.
From October 25, 1916, to June 1, 1917 most of my time was spent in courts and jails and in preparing and collecting facts for the trials and appeals for the higher courts. However, time was found to start The Birth Control Review in February, 1917. There were lectures given in cities, such as Chicago, Rochester, Paterson, Newark, Bridgeport and two to three each week in private homes in New York City. The police of Albany refused to allow a meeting, and in Buffalo too they refused to rent us a hall in which to speak on the subject. Then there was the preparation of a birth control film play, depicting the needs of birth control in American life among the poor. Again the Church exerted its influence openly; the film was forbidden to be shown. Countless hours were given to interviews to reporters from near and far who came to learn the facts. Then came women, old and young, frequently calling on me at seven in the morning; hundreds and hundreds of letters to be answered and phone calls to the amount of 80 to 107 in one day. Often the telephone operator would say, "You have had a hard day, haven't you?"
The greatest interest was stimulated when Mrs. Byrne, indignant at the outrageous sentence imposed on her and the treatment accorded her by the Court of Special Sessions, declared she would protest against her imprisonment by refusing to eat or drink until she was released.
For nearly a week she remained obdurate, and finally to keep her from dying the authorities in charge removed her to the hospital ward where she was forcibly fed. On the eleventh day she was released from the Workhouse, pardoned by Governor Whitman, taken to her home in an ambulance and placed under the care of two doctors and nurses until her health was partly restored.
The week after her release Fania Mindell and I were both found guilty. A fifty-dollar fine was imposed on Miss Mindell and a thirty-days' sentence on Blackwell's Island on me. Both cases were at once appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision in Fania Mindell's case. My case has gone up to the Supreme Court of the United States.
When one sums up the activities of the movement throughout the United States during the year, it is interesting to note that where arrests were made, where sentences were imposed upon advocates, there the movement is now strongest.
Thousands came when the interest was highest. Some came for selfish interests, some to inquire, some to exploit. Those who came to dally in sentimentality soon found themselves face to face with fundamental problems often too big for superficial minds to grasp. Those who came to be thrilled by the excitement of the moment are today still seeking thrills in other movements.
To the women of New York I am grateful, especially to the mothers of Brownsville. Day after day they came to the court and waited patiently for the case to begin. Other duties were put aside while they stood beside us in the fight for birth control, for woman's right of ownership and dominion over her own body.
All together, the year's work can well be considered one of the greatest educational efforts of this generation.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project