Margaret Sanger, "My Experiences in Holland," [Jul 1931] .
Typed article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection , MSMS73:121 .
For another version see LCM 17:11.
In 1914, after my challenge to the United States Government on the legality of birth control, I went to Europe to study the movement there and build up a convincing defense for my coming trial. I went first to England. It was during my arduous research in the British Museum that a study of the birth and death rates of European countries revealed to me that Holland stood out as the one nation where some force was automatically at work on what seemed to me constructive race building.
I soon became convinced that I must go to Holland and dig out facts not only from records but from personal observation. Shortly after my first visit to the Neo-Malthusian headquarters in London I decided to visit Holland. Both Dr. and Mrs. Drysdale were most helpful in giving me letters of introduction to various people, principally Dr. Aletta Jacobs of Amsterdam and Dr. Johannes Rutgers of The Hague.
In those early days I never stopped to fill my head with details. I did not write to anyone in Holland to inquire if either Dr. Jacobs or Dr. Rutgers was there. I just decided to go over to Holland and look the ground over carefully. Perhaps there at last I would find the answer to the many problems constantly popping into my brain the deeper I probed into the question of birth control.
The war was in its first phase. Passports and visas were important. Already the blockade was threatened. To cross the Channel meant possible encounters with floating bombs, submarines, and all kinds of inconveniences and delays. It was no wonder that friends begged me to remain in London and to postpone my visit to the Continent until things were more settled. For me this was impossible; I was out to search for knowledge and facts. My children were awaiting my return home. I could not allow possible war difficulties to hold me back from the goal I had set out to reach.
Early in the morning of a cold January day in 1915 I arrived at The Hague. At the small hotel where I registered the guests were gathered en famille at a long table and breakfasting on black bread, cheese and coffee. Speaking neither Dutch nor German, I could only sit and watch.
For the same reason I could not telephone to Dr. Rutgers. So at nine o'clock the same morning, I write his address on a piece of paper, hailed a taxi and set forth to call on the veteran of Dutch Neo-Malthusianism. Never shall I forget the feeling I had when, in response to my ring, a small, square aperture in the upper part of the door opened in an uncanny way, and a face, wizened, aged and inquisitive, appeared in the frame window. Finally, after I had explained my mission, the doctor himself opened the door. I was ushered into his library to wait until he was dressed. We then went out to a second “breakfast” together at a nearby cafe, where we talked about the sitution in Holland and the difficulties in America until noon.
From Dr. Rutgers I learned much of the complexities of the technique of contraception. He suggested that I learn his technique in adjusting the Mensinga pessary. The following day, accordingly, I began my daily visits to his office which I continued for several weeks. Under his tutelage, I began to realize the importance of individual instruction for each woman if the method advised was to benefit her. Fortunately, my knowledge of anatomy and physiology stood me in good stead for learning this quickly.
To my surprise, I found over fifteen different kinds of devices in use as contraceptives, and fourteen sizes of the diaphragm, or Mensinga pessary adopted and generally recommended in Holland. The fact that each woman had to be examined by Dr. Rutgers before the method of contraception could be advised, presented an entirely new aspect of the question to me. I began to delve into the whys and wherefores with deep interest. I bombarded the little man with questions concerning each case. At some sessions there were as many as ten or even fifteen women in his office for instruction.
Besides myself, two midwives were learning the technique from Dr. Rutgers. They came each morning to equip themselves with knowledge preparatory to starting a center in the outskirts of The Hague. There were already over fifty such centers, which Dr. Rutgers called “clinics”. This name was given to the fifty consultation centers which at that time had been organized and were being supported by the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League, established in 1881. The nurses or midwives were trained by Dr. Rutgers as experts in hygienic methods of family limitation. They were then set up in practice in various towns or cities throughout Holland.
After the morning’s work at the doctor’s office, I would wander about the city looking into shops where supplies were sold, which at that time carried window displays. I spent hours studying in the libraries and in the Central Bureau of Statistics. I employed a translator to help me obtain the facts and figures on Holland’s birth and death rates, infant mortality, legitimate and illegitimate fertility, child labor, and wages, over the period of years from the establishment of the first birth control clinic in 1878 by Dr. Aletta Jacobs to the year 1914.
The facts were illuminating and the conclusions revealing. I felt aglow with fresh enthusiasm as the results of a controlled and directed birth rate were shown from data to be as beneficial as I had conceived they might be.
I found that birth control information had been more widely disseminated among the mass of the people in Holland than in any other country in the world, thanks to that great humanitarian, Dr. Rutgers, and the Dutch Malthusian League under his leadership. His service to the movement in the development of clinics and in directing the teachings of family limitation into homes where there was poverty, or disease, cannot be overestimated. I found that the infant mortality rates of The Hague and Amsterdam were at that time the lowest of all cities in the world, while the general and infant death rates of Holland were the lowest of all European countries. New Zealand was the only country in the world that could boast of a higher record in the saving of lives.
After my arrival in Holland I had sent a note to Dr. Aletta Jacobs, the first woman doctor in Holland, founder of the first birth control clinic in that country (or in any country), requesting the honor and the privilege of an interview with her at any time convenient after my arrival in Amsterdam. I wrote her that I intended to make a full study of the subject while in her country, and complimented her on the brave stand she had taken, many details of which I had but recently gathered from Dr. Rutgers. A reply came. She refused to see me, and stated bluntly that she did not wish to have anything to do with me or my studies; that it was not for “laymen” to interfere in this work; it was a doctor’s subject, and only professional men and women should take it up. I was surprised, of course, and hurt as much as I could be hurt in those days, for I seemed to be one mass of aches, physically, mentally and spiritually, all the day long. I went to bed sore in heart and soul, and awakened to start another day of aches, so that Dr. Jacobs’ letter was just one more sting to an already numbed condition.
To do her justice, I want to say that in 1925, when she attended the Sixth International Birth Control Conference in New York at my invitation and as my guest, she took me aside one day and apologized for her letter and behavior, and moreover congratulated me for the advance the cause had made through what she was pleased to term my “impersonal leadership.”
After finishing my course of study at The Hague, I went to Amsterdam and Rotterdam and visited many of the clinics and the independent nurses, many of whom had been trained by Dr. Rutgers. It was my good fortune in Amsterdam to meet Mme. de Beer Meijers, an active Neo-Malthusian, who spoke English fluently and gave me much personal assistance in taking me to the various clinics.
Mme. de Beer-Meijers was to organize, a few years later, the Amsterdam conference on contraceptives, when Dr. and Mrs. Drysdale and Dr. Haire from London and I met with the Dutch and German leaders. To her is due the success of that conference. One of its most enlightening features was the visit to the Amsterdam clinics when Mme. de Beer-Meijers made explanations in English and interpreted for us.
My visit to Holland was early in January. I remained there until the end of February, when I was finally able to secure passage on a small freighter, the first which was to test out the blockade across the English Channel. We left Amsterdam one evening and arrived in London three days later, a journey that usually takes but one night.
This trip to Holland revolutionized my ideas regarding the future of the movement. No longer could I look upon birth control knowledge as essentially a free speech fight. I realized now that it involved much more than talk, much more than books or pamphlets no matter how widely or freely one might wish to spread pamphlets containing this information. That was not enough. Personal instruction must depend upon physiological and anatomical knowledge. Only persons equipped with such knowledge could instruct properly and safely.
Now that I was convinced of this, a new field lay before me, and one far more difficult to travel, viz., to direct and educate the public to demand from the medical profession, safe, reliable information, and to arouse and awaken the same profession to the importance of their having such knowledge to give. This has been a long, hard road, and the end has not yet been reached fifteen years later.
In 1921 after the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League’s old, conservative officers had come into conflict with the new, younger groups whose ideas were influenced by the wave of freedom spreading from Russia, Dr. Rutgers wrote me as follows:
The year 1920 was a difficult one for the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League. The general meeting at Utrecht in April disapproved the tactics of the Board of Directors, and a new one was formed.
The new Board of Directors is more democratic; every member does his own work in order that more can be done in the future for propaganda.
The number of members of the League was 6,418 on the first of January, 1921.
Many physicians asked for and received a report telling all about the League.
There are in Holland fifty-four clinics, with eight doctors and fifty-six nurses, the latter trained by doctors.
More than 1,000 persons have asked yearly for information. Consultation is gratis. The usual charge for articles advised is about five guilders per person. When they can prove that the charge is too much, the League will pay partly or wholly....
I visited Dr. Rutgers again in 1920, and found a sad and unhappy man, ever willing that the younger generation should try its hand but realizing how much they were lacking in experience. The following year he was unable, on account of his health, to join us at the Amsterdam Conference on Contraceptives. His death in 1924 was ten years too soon. Today the influence of his work goes on spreading itself sanely, quietly into the lives of people who are not afraid to think.
The results of my first visit to Holland were to change the whole course of the birth control movement, not only in America but in England as well.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project