Margaret Sanger, "An Open Letter To Alfred E. Smith," Nov 1918.

Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Nov. 1918. 3-4 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S70:803 .


HON. ALFRED E. SMITH, President of the Board of Alderman, City Hall, New York.


On September 26th, I addressed to you the following letter: "The subject of birth control is of vital importance to the women voters who are casting their first vote in the coming election of this state.

For the benefit of the thousands who are interested in this subject will you not state your position regarding it, inasmuch as Governor Whitman has already gone on record for a Commission to investigate the necessity of changing the anti-birth control laws.

I will greatly appreciate hearing from you at your earliest possible convenience."

Very truly yours, [Signed] MARGARET SANGER.

At the same time I addressed a letter in identical language to Charles W. Ervin, Socialist nominee for governor. Mr. Ervin has replied as follows:

NEW YORK CITY October 2, 1918. MY DEAR MRS. SANGER:–- Replying to your letter of September 26th, it is almost needless to state that I think that woman should be mistress of her own life, both economically and physically, and further, I think it is a crime for children to be brought into the world unless there is positive assurance that they can be given the best physical, moral and mental surroundings from birth until they blossom into manhood and womanhood. Believing this, I therefore am certainly in favor of a commission to investigate the necessity of changing the anti-birth control laws. I would, however, be most emphatically opposed to having this commission composed of a majority of men, but, on the contrary, I should just as emphatically favor the appointment of a majority of women on such a commission. Very Very Truly, [Signed] CHARLES W. ERVIN.

Thus far I have received from you no reply to my query in behalf of the women who have written to me asking where the various candidates for governor stand upon the question of Birth Control.

I have noted, however, your interview in the New York American of October 13th. In that interview, you declare yourself in favor of these policies and measures, among others:

LAWS REGULATING HOURS of employment for men, women and children.
Extension of Workingmen's Compensation law to include "occupational diseases."
Extension of labor laws "to take care of women and children forced into new lines of endeavor because of the war."
Minimum wage for women and children.
Widow's pensions.
Maternity insurance.

Under present conditions, these are excellent palliatives, but are you aware, Mr. Smith, that they are only palliatives?

And are you aware that they touch only superficially "the solution of the problems affecting men, women and children?"

If we are to judge a candidate upon a few pleasant sounding superficialities, uttered with the unction born of the necessities of a political campaign, many of the women of New York would doubtless be moved to vote for you. But in these days an awakened womanhood is beginning to pay attention to the fundamentals. We are more interested in the removal of causes than in the application of palliatives. We care less for the multiplication of hospitals than we do for the prevention of sickness and wounds.

Laws regulating the hours of employment for men, women and children are all very well, Mr. Smith, but do you know that most of the women and children now forced into toil in the state of New York would not be there, war or no war, if it were not for the fact that the family of the average workingman is too large for the husband to support?

Are you aware that the high infant death rate is due principally to the family too large to afford proper living quarters, proper food and proper physical attention? Do you know that each year 300,000 children in the United States die of diseases due to poverty and neglect? Are you aware that there are upon the statute books certain "dark age" laws which make it a crime to convey to the over-burdened mothers the knowledge by which she can limit her family to the size which makes it possible to give it proper care, proper food, proper clothing and proper medical attention?

Are you aware that the well-to-do and more highly educated almost universally practice family limitation, more popularly and accurately known as Birth Control, while the wives of workingmen are denied this knowledge?

And are you aware that the cost of the care of the insane alone in New York state last year was $8,320,000, while the economic loss, due to insanity, according to the annual report of the State Hospital Commission, was $35,000,000?

Do you know that most of the 37,069 persons in the state institutions for the mentally defective, came from large families reared in poverty? And do you know that unchecked breeding of these defectives has already overcrowded the state institutions to the extent of 10,000 persons?

Are you aware that the repeal of the statutes prohibiting the dissemination of the knowledge of Birth Control would in a few years rid the state of this burden, to say nothing of freeing women of the most abject of all forms of slavery, that of unwilling motherhood?

And do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of women in New York crying for the knowledge which shall enable them to have smaller but healthier, better-cared for families?

We are not asking you at this time to go on record in favor of Birth Control. But we are asking you to go on record in favor of a commission to ascertain, scientifically, accurately and without prejudice, whether under present economic conditions the unchecked birth rates in certain elements of society is responsible largely for the need of prisons and institutions for the mentally defective. We are asking you to pledge yourself to an impartial commission to ascertain the relation between too large families and the health and death rates. We are asking you to name a commission which shall discover whether the repeal of the anti-Birth Control statutes will in a few years remedy these conditions.

Maternal insurance is, after all, but small relief to women whose lives have been wrecked by too frequent childbearing. Workingmen's compensation does not go far toward the support of a family of five or six or seven. You may find that Birth Control, which prevents the multiplication of children who can not have proper food, proper clothing nor proper shelter will do more to solve the problem than even strict child labor laws and regulation, which we all favor.

I am well aware, as are all women who have devoted their attention to this cause, that it is not the custom of candidates for office to go deep into the fundamental causes of intolerable conditions. But, whatever you may think of it, Mr. Smith, the women of New York know where the trouble lies. They know that legislative palliatives mean little to women, until they are freed form this most degrading servitude. They know whence come the inmates of prisons and reformatories, the inmates of institutions for defectives. And they know whence comes the child labor evil.

Governor Whitman, prior to America's entry into the war, promised a state commission to investigate the need of the repeal of the anti-Birth Control statutes. Charles W. Ervin, Socialist nominee for governor, has gone one step further. He has pledged himself to a commission of which a majority shall be women.

In behalf of the women who have written to me, in behalf of the thousands of New York women who believe in making the knowledge of Birth Control accessible to the wives and mothers of toilers, I ask you again, Mr. Smith, where do you stand upon this matter so vital to the well being of hundreds of thousands of New York women, and therefore so vital to the well being of society?

Very truly yours, [Signed]MARGARET SANGER.

Subject Terms:

Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project