Margaret Sanger, "Early Years of Margaret Sanger's Work in the Birth Control Movement," 1930.
Typed article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , Library of Congress Microfilm 128:0346-034 .
It was in 1914 that I began an open attack on the laws of the United States which would withhold from woman the right to regulate the size of her family. For the four preceding years the battleground had been my own mind and soul.
As a maternity nurse in the slums and tenements of New York I had been brought face to face with conditions that made the so-called sacredness of motherhood a term of unspeakable irony. Pregnant women--drunken husbands--hungry children, children born to a heritage of disease, filth, crime--this was the order of the day. As one pregnancy followed another, a family sank deeper into the mire. And always denied contraceptive knowledge by their doctors, these women were driven to other means. On Saturday evenings before the office of a cheap abortionist they lined up, each waiting her turn. “You would tell us nothing,” they seemed to my guilty conscience to say (I knew nothing to tell them), “and here we are.” All too often wrecked health and death followed.
Weighed down and haunted by the hopeless misery of these lives, ever brooding over the social and economic problems involved, it became clear to me at length that the root of the trouble lay in uncontrolled fertility. Once convinced of this, action became imperative. I had no choice--I had to do something.
Under this compulsion I set about acquiring the information these women needed, a search which was eventually to take me to France, England, and Holland. In the country of my birth I had to give up the search. State and federal laws made the printing or circulation of this knowledge a crime. No doctors whom I approached would give me help, and no group of any kind would sponsor the cause. I was utterly alone. They assured me that any efforts in so dangerous a field would land me in jail, and advised me to let ↑drop↓ it alone. I was utterly alone.
At that time there was not even a language in which to discuss these questions. The subject was considered indecent and vulgar. To openly advocate the prevention of conception--a phrase which the New York Times would not allow in its columns--meant ostracism.
Such was the situation when I began my battle in 1914 in the pages of the Woman Rebel and created the term, 'birth control.' Seventeen years have passed. Three weeks ago the movement for advocacy of which I was arrested by the United States government in 1914 and ridiculed and insulted by individuals was endorsed by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. There is no force in the world, it has been said, like that of an idea whose hour has come.
It was my prosecution by the United States government for articles that appeared in the Woman Rebel (articles advocating birth control, but not giving methods) that started people talking about birth control. A letter from H. G. Wells and other distinguished Englishmen ↑& women↓ to President Wilson in my behalf brought prestige, and the publicity became so great, with letters to the judge and the district attorney pouring in from all parts of the country, that the case was finally dropped. This was in 1916. In the heated period that followed many champions of the cause arose. Organizations were formed, there were meetings, speeches, published articles, pamphlets. Many were arrested, many acquitted; not a few served jail sentences.
My own jail term came in 1917. I had opened a ‘clinic’ in a poor section of Brooklyn to demonstrate the direction which the [page 3 missing] the American Birth Control League, which has branches in many states.
In Europe and the Orient the movement has had fewer obstacles to overcome. Until the post-war period no country had laws prohibiting the giving of contraceptive information. Holland, with its many clinics directed by the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League, has carried on the most consistent education of the poor in birth control, with results already perceptible in maternal health and in the physique of Dutch conscripts. There are now clinics in Germany, Austria, Russia, India, and Japan.
In England it was that the modern birth control movement had its earliest beginning, with Malthus’ “Theory of Population,” published in 1798. And in England it was that I found sympathy and guidance in the early days when I seemed to stand alone. At the time of my first visit there, in 1914, the idea was being kept alive ↑by↓ the Malthusian League, but it hardly touched the masses. When I was invited in 1920 to come over for a series of lectures the working classes were being aroused, and I addressed twenty women’s guilds. The following year two clinics opened, and the movement has grown by leaps and bounds on the foundation laid by such pioneers as Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, the Drysdale family, and Dr. Alice Vickery. Today there are about twenty-five clinics, and the Ministry of Health now allows the giving of contraceptive advice at its Maternity and Child Welfare Centers, of which there are nearly 2500 scattered over the country.
The most imperative need for birth control today exists in the Oriental countries. In 1922 I was invited by a liberal group in Tokyo to come to Japan to present the subject there. The enthusiasm and publicity aroused in both Japan and China was tremendous. Never has my calendar been so crowded with lectures, conferences, interviews and social functions. Organizations were formed, and clinics have since been started, and in 1930 the Japanese government sent an official representative to the international conference at Geneva Zurich.
In Italy, France, and Ireland, Catholic strongholds all, new laws have been passed against birth control. That same France where contraceptive knowledge has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations, where the first international conference on birth control was held in 1900, has now made it a crime even to discuss the subject in the press.
Seven international conferences have been held. A great event for ↑the movement in↓ America was the holding of the sixth conference in New York in 1925, with delegates from twelve countries. A contraceptive session for doctors only was attended by a thousand doctors. An American biologist and college president, Dr. C. C. Little became president of the International ↑Federation of Birth Control↓ League, reorganized at that time.
A significant event was the World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927. While birth control had no direct place on its program, the connection was obvious. A permanent body for the study of population was formed, with Dr. E.M. East of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore at its head. And the doctors who attended that conference brought about the formation of the International Medical Group for the Investigation of Birth Control. This important body correlates and ↑disseminates↓ the results of scientific research on contraception in all countries. It has its headquarters in London ↑where↓ we have also an international information center in London.
The final step for breaking down the barriers in America remains to be taken. The battle is not won while the present laws stand on our state and federal statute books. In 1929 I organized the Federal Committee on Legislation for Birth Control, believing that the time had come to prepare for a vigorous campaign on Congress. Our “doctors bill” was introduced in the last session of the Senate by Sen. Gillett, and a most favorable impression was made at the committee hearing. The bill will be re-introduced, we hope, at the next session. This amendment would open up the mails to doctors for the transportation of contraceptive literature and materials.
There is no question but that there is an overwhelming sentiment in the country for birth control, but until that sentiment becomes more articulate Congress will not act. Once a matter like this is entrenched in law, only an avalanche of public opinion can free it. Negligence, reticence, or mere lack of social consciousness prevents people from speaking out. For many the old taboo of silence and secrecy still prevails and it seems indelicate to lift up one’s voice-–yes, even though on that depends the relief of untold misery and the greatest step forward for freedom and growth that woman has ever taken. If every mother who in her own life has reaped the benefit of this knowledge would do her bit to unseal it for the masses, how speeded ↑it would speed↓ the day would be! If every man and woman who believes in birth control would only become articulate to the extent of writing to a senator or representative, how overwhelming and immediate the victory would be!
Then indeed my vision of a future when motherhood will be really free would seem on its way to fulfillment. For the time will come when the bearing of children, no longer an enforced burden, no longer haphazard and accidental, need only be undertaken as a cherished privilege; and every child will be a wanted child, born to its rightful heritage of love and care and comfort. Then truly will motherhood be the flower of womanhood.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project