Margaret Sanger, "Should Women Know?," Feb. 1915.
Published article. Source: The Spur, Feb. 1915, pp. 58-59 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:72 .
The article in this British journal was introduced with a brief note about Malthusianism by Guy Aldred which included: "We have much pleasure in directing attention to the activities of the present infamous American counterpart and imitator of the organization that played on human ignorance here a century back. We do not endorse all our contributor's neo-Malthusian reasoning, however."--ed.
When the Constitution of the United States authorized Congress to establish post offices and post roads, it was not intended that the authority should go beyond this. It did not authorize it to censor the matter to be conveyed, nor to sit in judgement upon the moral, or intellectual qualities of the printed matter or parcel entrusted to it to deliver. The post office was, primarily, a mechanical institution, not an ethical one, whose business was efficiency, not religion or morality.
But with the rapid falling away of Church influence among the people in United States within the last half century, it was necessary, if the Church would retain its hold upon the people, to lay its hands upon them in some subtle way, in which they would not be conscious of its power over them. This was done in 1873, by the passing of laws commonly known as the "Comstock laws," which prohibit the sending of any matter through the mails, which, according to the opinion or judgement of Anthony Comstock, the Postal Authorities see fit to call "obscene."
Anthony Comstock was born in 1844, which makes him seventy-one years old next March. He has been Secretary and special agent for the Society for the Suppression of Vice since 1873--forty years--and also Post Office Inspector since the same year. Thus the Church, not daring to come out and to interfere with moral or religious principle openly, hides behind the closed doors of the "Suppression of Vice Society," and works its poisonous way through the Government via its special agent, Comstock.
Comstock records that he has destroyed 160 tons of literature, and brought 3,760 "criminals" to "justice." In 1878, considerable agitation was aroused, and a petition presented to Congress, headed by the name of Robert Green Ingersoll, to which was added those of 70,000 "freemen" to repeal the laws known as the "Comstock laws." The petition measured over two-thousand feet in length, and was placed on file with the >House Committee on the Revision of Laws. It prayed for the " repeal or modification of certain laws executed ostensibly to prevent the passage of obscene literature through the mails of the United States, but which laws have been and are being enforced to destroy the liberty of conscience in the matter of religion, against the freedom of the press, to the great hurt of the people," etc., etc. Some years later the law was revised, removing the interference of religious prejudice, but holding to moral interference and prejudice more strongly than ever. Since that time there have been several attempts by individuals or groups to establish, and agitate for, freedom along moral lines. Persecutions have followed, especially when the agitations assumed printing form. One man in Chicago, well in the seventies, Moses Harmon, edited a paper called Lucifer, which came under the ban of this law. He was sentenced to imprisonment, year after year, but as soon as he came out of prison, he took up the fight again and again, for nearly ten years, until finally his health gave way through his sufferings and imprisonment, and he passed away. Many other writers, editors, and publishers have come into direct conflict with this law. The quality and standard of literature must remain subservient to an old fossilized opinion or die.
Literature is not alone in this fight for its life--for, alas! even art is hampered by this law's existence. It is only a short time ago that the picture "September Morn," made famous through Comstock suppression, was on exhibition in a window in New York City. It was the side-figure of a little girl, seen bathing in a pool of water, and painted in the nude; which so shocked the morals of Comstock that its removal was made necessary. Many other works of art, many magazines whose covers dare to exhibit an unclothed statue, are suppressed and confiscated by the Post Office through its special agent, Comstock.
The latest and most flagrant disregard for the free press, was in the suppression and confiscation of the monthly publication, The Woman Rebel. This was a working woman's paper--the first of its kind ever issued in America. It carried on its banner "no gods, no masters." It had for its motto, "Working women, build up within yourselves a conscious fighting character against all things which enslave you"; and advocated for the working class the knowledge of the means to prevent conception.
Its first number, in March 1914, was suppressed. The May, July, August, September, and October issues were all suppressed and confiscated because of articles in the paper discussing the importance of the workers controlling the size of their families. One article, called "Open Discussion," was suppressed for discussing discussion of the subject. Another article, entitled "The Birth Control League," which announced the organization of the league,org>, and its outline of agitation, was suppressed also.
The Woman Rebel did not advocate this knowledge, or the practice of this knowledge as a "cure all" for the workers from their present economic enslavement, but it did urge the practice of it as the most important immediate step which they should take toward their economic emancipation. Too long have the workers produced slaves for the enemy, children for the mills, soldiers and sailors for Mars. The time has come to cease at the fount of production, and watch the masters produce their own slaves for a while.
At least the working woman should have the right to say if she wishes to become a mother or not. The women of the upper class have that right, for they have that knowledge, and the money with which to purchase such knowledge. But all obstacles are placed in the way for the working man's wife to obtain this, and any means to free herself from constant child-bearing.
The Woman Rebel promised to give this knowledge to all who asked for it, and urged the working women to rally to its support in this just cause. The Federal Grand Jury returned three indictments against the editor on twelve counts, eleven of which were merely a discussion of the subject of birth control. No information was given in the paper's columns, but the very mention of the subject was considered obscene and entitled the editor to twelve years' imprisonment. A year in the Federal penitentiary for every count, with the indictment for the August, September, and October issues still pending.
It is quite natural and consistent with capitalist laws, that there should be a heavy penalty for imparting this particular information among the workers, when we view these laws in the light of our present-day society. Industry in U.S.A. is comparatively new. It is reaching out in foreign lands to capture trade everywhere. To do this, it must undersell its rival competitors, and in order to undersell, it must make cheap goods, which, in turn, can be done only by cheap labor. The cheapest labor is that of women and children. The larger the size of the family, the earlier the children enter the factories.
There is a brilliant example of this in the cotton-mills of the South, where little pale-faced children, nine and ten years of age, wend their weary way to the mills early in the winter mornings, before the sun is up, and return, after twelve hours' toil, after it has set. These little ones are just "helpers" to their mothers, who work in the mills also, while the father remains at home, cares for the younger children, and takes the noonday meal to his wife and children in the mills. The working people, in the cotton belt, average eight and nine children to a family, as they do in other industrial sections where child labor exists and wages run low.
Almost all of the stock-holders of these mills are legislators, congressmen, etc., who have much to do in the making of the laws. So it is to their interest that child slaves be born into the world, and they will enforce the laws to that end. When women have the knowledge of the means to avoid producing hands, then will child-labor cease, and the few children born to the workers will be made welcome by society, and given fields and playgrounds in which to spend a healthful childhood instead of grinding their souls and bodies into profits as is done to-day.
A large family of children is one of the greatest obstacles for the working-man and woman in obtaining economic freedom. It is the greatest burden to them in all ways. No matter how spirited a revolutionary one may feel, or what theories one may hold (it is usually the man without a family who holds the most) the cry of hunger, the piteous pinched look of several little ones, will compel a man to forego the future good of his class for the present urging need of his family. Sentimental, I can hear some of you say. Call it what you will, responsibility is based on sentiment, and if you would do away with it, begin by reducing the workers' responsibility.
It is the man with a large family, who is most often the burden in a strike. It is he who is the most difficult to bring out on strike; for it is he and his who are the greatest sufferers through its duration. One could enumerate various instances where two or three groups of workers have broken a strike, and upon looking for the cause you invariably found the men in these groups or nationalities have many children, and could not withstand their needs. So everywhere, the large family is seen to be one of the multitude of miseries which to-day confront the working-class man and woman.
The Woman Rebel told the working women these things and more. It told her the fewer children she had to cook, wash and toil for, the more leisure she would have to think, read, and develop. That freedom demands leisure. That the first step towards freedom must be in the right of herself over her own body. The right to say what she will do with it in marriage and out of it. The right to become a mother or not, just as she sees fit to do, and certainly no woman should be made to become a mother against her will. These "rights," of course, involve a special knowledge--the knowledge of the means to prevent conception; and it was the discussion of this subject around which the war on The Woman Rebel was waged.
As Editor and Publisher of The Woman Rebel I felt a glow of hope and inspiration in the response which came from the working girls and women all over the U.S.A. For fourteen years I have been in the nursing field, and knew too well the intolerable conditions among the workers. I saw the women, wives of the workers, ask for this knowledge which would keep them from bringing more children into the world, and I saw the entire medical profession shake its head in silence at their demand.
I saw the women of wealth, the masters' wives, obtain the same information with little difficulty.
I saw that if the working-man's wife refused to have more children, she was compelled to resort to abortion. It is a rough estimate that over one hundred and fifty thousand abortions are performed in U.S.A. each year, and twenty-five thousand deaths occur as the result of them.
I saw that it is the working women who fill this death list, for though the master's wife may resort to abortions too, she is given the best care and attention which money can buy. A trained nurse is called in attendance, and every care is taken that there shall be no evil consequences. The worker's wife, on the other hand, must look for the cheapest assistance. The professional abortionist, the filthy midwife, the fake and quack, all feed upon her helplessness, and thrive on her ignorance and misery. I saw that the Comstock laws produce the abortionist, make him a growing and thriving necessity, while the law makers close their Puritan eyes.
I saw that it is the working-class children who fill the factories, mills, sweatshops, orphan asylums, hospitals, reformatories, jails and madhouses, because they have preventive knowledge, and can use it, yet continue to pass laws that the worker should be deprived of the same.
I resolved to give my time and efforts to defy the law, not behind a barricade of law-books and legal technicalities, but by spreading the information among the workers directly in factory and workshop. In order to accomplish this result, I am compelled to flee to a place where I could carry out my work unmolested.
When I have accomplished all that can be gained in this way, I shall return to take up the legal end of the case. But ever delighting in the fact, that, being deprived of my liberty, or the companionship of those I love, the authorities cannot imprison my contempt for their stupidity, nor deprive the workers of the knowledge they have received already.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project