Margaret Sanger, "A Victory, A New Year and A New Day," Feb 1919.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Feb. 1919, 3-4 , Library of Congress Microfilm 131:0095B .
The year 1919 is a year of victory. The work for Birth Control is bearing fruit beyond our hopes.
Something more than a mere personal escape from the toils of an outworn legal fiction was involved in the dismissal of "obscenity" charges against Kitty Marion and myself by Magistrate Eilpern in New York City, January 18th. Our arrest on December 31st, marked the end of the old year-- the end of a day that is gone. Our dismissal means it will no longer be so easy for a timorous adherent to wornout dogmas, masking himself safely behind an anonymous communication, to interfere with Birth Control propaganda.
This means a freer sweep for our efforts; it means a wider circulation for THE BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW, more co-operation, new courage, new effectiveness. In itself, it is enough to bring about for the Birth Control movement a new day.
Part of the evidence submitted to show why we should not be held to trial in a higher court consisted of several series of pamphlets on sex matters and venereal disease, issued by the War Department, the Navy Department, the United States Public Health Service, which is a branch of the Treasury Department; the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A. and the American Social Hygiene Association. These pamphlets, distributed by the millions, were designed for soldiers, for young men, for parents, and for young women! And some of them discussed sex matters with far more frankness than did the article which was complained of. Many others looked as if they might have been in large part rewritten from the book, "What Every Girl Should Know," which covers exactly the same ground as the article which caused the arrest of Miss Marion and myself.
"The so-called obscenity statute is of no effect without a standard," Attorney,J.J. Goldstein, told the court," What was called obscene yesterday may in the greater light of today be found to be clean and pure. The United States government's own publications may assuredly be accepted as a standard. Some of these pamphlets are a good deal plainer spoken than is Margaret Sanger's article."
Since it is not in conflict with the principle of the "obscenity" laws for the federal government to print and distribute millions of copies of pamphlets which discuss plainly the physiology of sex in men and women in connection with venereal disease, it can hardly be in conflict with these statutes to discuss the same matters in connection with Birth Control.
Miss Marion and myself were arrested December 31st by Sergeant Mooney of the Thirty-first street police station, New York. He explained that he had received complaints, which he afterwards said were anonymous, against the sale of the magazine on Broadway by Miss Marion and other women, and against its display upon the newsstands. The basis of the formal complaint was the article in the December number entitled "Birth Control or Abortion?"
In that article it was urged that since women limit their families by abortion if by no other means, a free, unhindered spreading of the knowledge of scientific Birth Control would do away with the appalling number of abortions occurring annually in the United States. One authority says there are 1,000,000 each year and another puts the figure even higher.
We were arraigned before Magistrate Eilpern and were released in custody of our attorney. Arguments were heard at our next appearance in court and the case taken under advisement for a few days. At our third appearance, the magistrate announced that he needed more time to consider the case.
January 18th he dismissed us.
"I dismiss the charges upon a strict legal ground" said he "I am not passing upon the merits of Birth Control propaganda. The Appellate Division held in the Mindell case that Margaret Sanger's book, "What Every Girl Should Know" was not obscene, reversing the decision of the Court of Special Sessions, which had convicted. This is the same matter that is involved in the present article. On that ground alone, I dismiss these charges."
The case would seem to dispose of the "obscenity" statute so far as Birth Control propaganda in the state of New York is concerned. The issuance of the "venereal disease" pamphlets by the federal government- - the same pamphlets are also being distributed by the New York state department of health--answers objections of masculine-minded puritans who still believe that women can be kept pure through ignorance. At last the state and the nation have come to a more enlightened standard.
Not only have they come to accept this standard, but, alarmed by the terrible results of ignorance to the individual and the state they are insisting upon the light.
They want the light through pamphlets, magazines, the public schools--through all the means of getting light upon sex matters.
In a pamphlet entitled "The Problem of Sex Education in Schools" issued by the United States Public Health Service, distributed by both that service and the Bureau of Venereal Disease of New York state health department, this statement is made:
"It (sex education) includes the whole process of reproduction and nurture of children, the meaning of marriage, prostitution, venereal diseases, illegitimacy and hygiene of sound recreation. These cannot be taught at any one time or place."
In the same pamphlet, bearing as it does the imprint of the United States government and of the State of New York, this indictment of the ban on sex knowledge is set forth:
"In planning to include sex education in the school curriculum it should be realized that sex in life is not isolated as an experience or as a group of facts. It winds through many kinds of experiences at different ages and is a part of many kinds of facts. Few branches of knowledge or feeling do not touch sex problems. Few subjects can be taught properly with the sex aspects left out. An examination of the curriculum shows that society has had an official censor deleting sex from all classroom work under the orders of a now outworn prudery. We find sex left out of all subjects no matter how much the omission weakens or even falsifies them. In nature study begin with the baby animal and end with the death, giving no account of the renewal process; in anatomy while three bodily cavities are named, the organs in only two are fully enumerated; in contagious diseases venereal diseases are omitted; in the selections from literature the sex motives are suppressed; in history and civics their significance is ignored."
If any word of rebuke to the suppressors of sex knowledge remained to be said, it was contained in "Facts for Young Women," a pamphlet issued by the New York State Department of Health, under the signature of Dr. Hermann M. Biggs, the commissioner. After describing some of the horrors that have resulted from ignorance of sexual functions, the writer says:
"Is it not time, with our knowledge of these facts, that something should be done to change this deplorable condition? Is it not time that women should look the sex problem squarely in the face, devoid of mystery and so-called 'moral issues.' from a practical and common sense point of view? Is it not time that all girls and young women, the future mothers of the race, should know the truth about the reproductive organs and the diseases which may effect them, so as to preserve their health and that of their offspring?
It is the object of this booklet to teach young women some of the facts which they should know about these vital things."
The world moves and America moves with it. Six or seven years ago the post office department held up copies of "What Every Girl Should Know" as unmailable. Only after a considerable difficulty were the department authorities convinced that there was no violation of the federal laws in sending these books through the mails. Now these are court decisions upholding our contention as to the character of such books.
There are still federal laws against the mailing of contraceptive information. Many states have laws too against communicating this information. Reactionaries still use these statutes to prevent the enlightenment of women and the freeing of them from the burden of too frequent child bearing. But the time is coming--perhaps sooner than some of us can believe-- when these mediaeval legal monstrosities will follow others of their kind to the dustbin.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project