Margaret Sanger, "Woman and Birth Control," Dec 1923.
Published Article. Source: The Thinker (Dec. 1923), pp. 69-72. , MSM C16:206 .
This is the third of a six-article series. For other articles in the series, see Highlights in the History of Birth Control Oct. 1923; A Better Race Through Birth Control Nov.1923; "Birth Control in China and Japan" Feb. 1924 andThe Birth Control Movement in 1923 April 1924
The Birth Control movement has its roots in the history of subjection. In the past women have been brood animals to the state, to industry, to the church. Whenever they have raised their heads and tried to loosen the chains that bound them, they have met with opposition--opposition often cloaked in apparent solicitude for their moral and spiritual well-being, and efforts have been made to keep them in servitude in the sphere that men marked out for them. Today, however, women are rising, even though slowly, in fundamental revolt. Their efforts at superficial reforms are steps in that direction. but more essential is their demand for the right to voluntary motherhood. They are determined to decide for themselves whether they shall become mothers, under what conditions, and when. They are beginning to ask the purposes for which their children will be used; whether as slaves or freemen. This is a fundamental question. This is a fundamental revolt. It is for women the key to the temple of liberty.
For centuries, woman has gone forth with man to till the fields, to feed and clothe the nations. She has sacrificed her life to populate the earth. She has overdone her labors. She now steps forward and declares that she will cease producing in ignorance. To do this she must have the power to control birth. To secure this power--to obtain the knowledge that will give it to her--this is the first immediate step she must take towards the goal of her freedom.
Those who are opposed to giving this power to women are simply those who do not know. Anyone who, like myself, has worked among the people and who has found on the one hand an increasing proletarian class with its ever deepening misery, poverty and ignorance, and on the other hand a stationary or decreasing section of the population with increasing wealth and higher standards of living, greater freedom, greater possibilities of joy and happiness, cannot doubt that Birth Control is the livest issue of the day and one on which depends the future welfare of the race.
Before I turn to the arguments against Birth Control, I should like to tell something of the conditions I met with in my work as a trained nurse, and a little of the experiences that convinced me of the necessity of Birth Control, and led me to jeopardize my liberty in order to place this information in the hands of the women who most need it.
My first clear impression of life was that large families and poverty went hand in hand. I was born and brought up in a glass factory town in the western part of New York State. I was one of eleven children--so I had some personal experience of the struggles and hardships that a large family endures. When I was seventeen years old my mother died form overwork and the strain of too-frequent child-bearing. I was left to care for the younger children and share the burdens of all. When I was old enough I entered a hospital to take up the profession of nursing.
In the hospital I found that seventy-five per cent of the diseases of men and women are the result of ignorance of their sex functions. I found that every department of life was open to investigation and discussion except that shaded valley of sex. The explorer, scientist, inventor may go forth in their various fields of investigation and return to lay their discoveries at the feet of mankind. But woe to him who dares explore that forbidden realm of sex. No matter how pure the motive, no matter what miseries he seeks to remove, slanders, persecution, jail await him who dares bear the light of knowledge into that cave of darkness.
So great was the ignorance of the women and girls whom I met concerning their own bodies, that I decided to specialize in women’s diseases, and took up gynecological and obstetrical nursing.
A few years of this work brought me to a shocking discovery--that knowledge of methods of controlling birth was accessible to women of wealth, while the working women were deliberately kept in ignorance!
I found that the women of the working class were as anxious to obtain this knowledge as their sisters of wealth, but that they were told that there were laws on the statute books against imparting it to them. And the medical profession was most religious in obeying these laws when the patient was a poor woman.
I found that women of the working class had emphatic views on the crime of bringing children into the world to die of hunger. They would rather risk their lives through abortion than give birth to little ones they could not feed or care for.
I found that the laws against imparting this knowledge force thousands of poor women into the hands of the filthiest midwives and quack abortionists, with the consequence that, while abortion is practised among all classes of women, the deaths from abortion are almost entirely among the poor.
No other country in the world has so large a number of abortions, nor so large a number of women dying therefrom as the United States of America. Our law-makers close their virtuous eyes, while they refuse access to safe scientific contraceptive knowledge, and drive these unfortunate women to this abominable crime. A most conservative estimate is that there are 500,000 abortions performed in this country every year.
For millions of babies whose mothers have not resorted to abortion there is no welcome when they arrive. How often have I stood at the bedside of a woman in childbirth and seen the tears flow in gladness and heard the sigh of “Thank God!” when told that her baby was born dead! What can men know of the fear and dread of unwanted pregnancy? What can men know of the agony of carrying beneath one’s heart a little life that tells the mother every instant that there is no room and no chance for it on earth? Even if it should be born alive, the probabilities are that it would perish within a year, after costing its mother untold anguish and suffering.
Do you know that 200,000 babies under one year of age die in the United States every year, chiefly from poverty, neglect and bad antenatal conditions; while four hundred thousand parents are kept in ignorance of how to prevent two hundred thousand more babies from coming into the world next year, again to die because they ought never to have been born?
I found from records concerning women of the under-world that eighty-five per cent of them come from parents averaging nine living children. And that fifty per cent of them are mentally defective.
We know that the birth rate of mentally defective parents is about four times as great as that of normal parents. Is not this a cause for alarm? And yet there are people who raise the objection to Birth Control that it may cause women to be immoral! Solicitude for woman’s morals has ever been the cloak that Authority has worn in its age-long conspiracy to keep woman in bondage.
When I was in Spain some years ago I found that the Spanish women were far behind their European sisters in readiness or even in desire for modern freedom. Upon investigation into the causes of this, I found that there were over five thousand villages and towns in Spain with no facilities for travel, transportation or intercommunication except donkeys, over bridle paths. I was told that all attempts to build roads and railroads in Spain had met with the strongest opposition from the clergy and the government on the ground that roads and railroads would make it easier for the women to leave the country for the cities, and that in the cities they would meet their downfall.
Do we, who have roads and railroads, think that our women are less moral than the Spanish women? Certainly not. But, after all, we in this country are only just emerging from the fight for higher education for women which met with the same kind of opposition only a few years ago.
We now know that education has not done the dreadful things to women and women’s morals that were predicted as certain to result from it. and so we shall find that knowledge to control birth, which has been in the hands of the more fortunate women of wealth for the past twenty-five years, will not tend to lower woman’s standard of morals, but rather to make a woman a more responsible human being.
Statistics show us that the birth rate of any give quarter is in inverse ratio to its wealth, and direct ratio to over-crowdedness and poverty. The figures show that in large cities the birth rate of the rich districts is a third of that of the poor districts. In Paris for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 50, the poor districts yield 116 births and the rich districts 34 births. In Berlin, conditions before the war were approximately the same. For every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 50, the poor districts yielded 157 births, while the rich yielded 47. The same proportion is found in practically all the large cities of the Western world.
It may be inferred form these figures that women of wealth use means to prevent conception which it is not permitted to teach to the poor. But the menace of our civilization, which constitutes the population problem of today, is not so much the stationary birth rate among the upper classes as the tremendous increase among the poor, the diseased and the defective members of the community.
Can it be openly denied that woman has a right to consider her health? Is woman to remain a producing machine? Is she to have no time to think, to study, to care for herself and her own development? Man cannot travel to his goal alone. And until woman has knowledge to control birth she cannot get the time to think and to develop. Until she has the time to think, neither the labor question nor any other social question will interest her. she cannot learn to use aright the vote which woman suffrage has put into her hands. She will merely use it to strengthen the forces of reaction and ignorance; while she herself will remain the drudge she is, and her husband the slave he is, putting their whole strength and energy into continuing to supply the market with cheap labor.
Let me ask you: “Has the State any more right to ravish a woman against her will by keeping her in ignorance than a man has through brute force? Has the State a right to decide when a woman shall bear a child and to refuse to her the right to decline to bear?
Picture a woman with five or six little ones living on the average working man’s wage. The mother is broken in health and spirit, the wornout shadow of the woman she once was. Where is the man or woman who would reproach us for trying to put into this woman’s hands knowledge that will save her from giving birth to any more babies doomed to certain poverty and misery and perhaps to disease and death?
It is to make such knowledge legally and medically accessible to the oppressed mothers of our land that in November 1921 we formed the American Birth Control League--a League that is growing and extending itself across this continent and even reaching into Mexico, Canada, Japan, China and India.(To Be Continued.)
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project