Margaret Sanger, "A Public Nuisance," Oct 1931.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Oct. 1931, 277-280. , Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S71:0232. .
The article contains brief header summarizing its contents. Includes and illustration of the flyer announcing America's first birth control clinic, written in English, Yiddish, and Italian.
The selection of a place for the first birth control clinic was of the greatest importance. No one could actually tell how it would be received in any neighborhood. I thought of all the possible difficulties: the indifference of women’s organizations, the ignorance of the workers themselves, the resentment of social agencies, the opposition of the medical profession. Then there was the law--the law of New York State.
Section 1142 was definite. It stated that no one could give information to prevent conception to anyone for any reason. There was, however, Section 1145, which distinctly stated that physicians (only) could give advice to prevent conception for the cure or prevention of disease. I inquired about the section, and was told by two attorneys and several physicians that this clause was an exception to 1142 referring only to venereal disease. But anyway, as I was not a physician, it could not protect me. Dared I risk it?
I began to think of the doctors I knew. Several who had previously promised now refused. I wrote, telephoned, asked friends to ask other friends to help me find a woman doctor to help me demonstrate the need of a birth control clinic in New York. None could be found. Not one wanted to go to jail. No one cared to test out the law. Perhaps it would have to be done without a doctor. But it had to be done; that I knew.
Finally at 46 Amboy Street, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, we found a friendly landlord with a good place vacant a fifty dollars a month rental; and Brownsville was settled on. It was one of the most thickly populated sections. It had a large population of working class Jews, always interested in health measures, always tolerant of new ideas, willing to listen and to accept advice whenever the health of mother and children was involved. I knew that here there would at least be no breaking of windows, no hurling of insults into our teeth; but I was scarcely prepared for the popular support, the sympathy and friendly help given us in that neighborhood from that day to this.
We determined to open a birth control clinic at 46 Amboy Street to disseminate information where it was poignantly required by human beings. Our inspiration was the mothers of the poor; our object, to help them.
With a small bundle of handbills and a large amount of zeal we fared forth each morning in a house-to-house canvas of the district in which the clinic was located. Every family in that great district received a “dodger” printed in English, Yiddish and Italian.
Would the people come? Did they come? Nothing, not even the ghost of Anthony Comstock, could have stopped them from coming! All day long and far into the evening, in ever-increasing numbers they came. A hundred women and a score of men sought our help on that opening day . . .
It was on October 16, 1916, that the three of us-- Fania Mindell, Ethel Byrne and myself-- opened the doors of the first birth control clinic in America. I believed then and do today, that the opening of those doors to the mothers of Brownsville was an event of social significance in the lives of American womanhood.
News of our work spread like wildfire. Within a few days there was not a darkened tenement, hovel or flat but was brightened by the knowledge that motherhood could be voluntary; that children need not be born into the world unless they are wanted and have a place provided for them. For the first time, women talked openly of this terror of unwanted pregnancy which had haunted their lives since time immemorial. The newspapers, in glaring headlines, used the words “birth control” and carried the message that somewhere in Brooklyn there was a place where contraceptive information could be obtained by all overburdened mothers who wanted it.
Ethel Byrne, who is my sister and a trained nurse, assisted me in advising, explaining, and demonstrating to the women how to prevent conception. As all of our 488 records were confiscated by the detectives who later arrested us for violation of the New York State law, it is difficult to tell exactly how many more women came in those few days to seek advice; but we estimated that it was far more than five hundred. As in any new enterprise, false reports were maliciously spread about the clinic; weird stories without the slightest foundation of truth. We talked plain talk and gave plain facts to the women who came there. We kept a record of every applicant. All were mothers; most of them had large families.
It was whispered about that the police were to raid the place for abortions. We had no fear of that accusation. We were trying to spare mothers the necessity of that ordeal by giving them proper contraceptive information. It was well that so many of the women in the neighborhood knew the truth of our doings. Hundreds of them who had witnessed the facts came to the court room afterwards, eager to testify in our behalf.
One day a woman by the name of Margaret Whitehurst came to us. She said that she was the mother of two children and that she had not money to support more. Her story was a pitiful one-- all lies, of course, but the government acts that way. She asked for our literature and preventives, and received both. Then she triumphantly went to the District Attorney’s office and secured a warrant for the arrest of my sister, Mrs. Ethel Byrne, our interpreter, Miss Fania Mindell, and myself.
The crusade was actually under way! It is no exaggeration to call this period in the birth control movement the most stirring period up to that time, perhaps the most stirring of all times, for it was the only period during which we had experienced jail terms, hunger strikes, and intervention of the Chief Executive of the state. It was the first time that there was any number of widespread, popular demonstrations in our behalf.
I refused to close down the clinic, hoping that a court decision would allow us to continue such necessary work. I was to be disappointed. Pressure was brought upon the landlord, and we were dispossessed by the law as a “public nuisance.” In Holland the clinics were calledthe “public utilities.”
When the policewoman entered the clinic with her squad of plain clothes men and announced the arrest of Miss Mindell and myself (Mrs. Byrne was not present at the time and her arrest followed later), the room was crowded to suffocation with women waiting in the outer room. The police began bullying these mothers, asking them questions, writing down their names in order to subpoena them to testify against us at the trial. These women, always afraid of trouble which the very presence of a policeman signifies, screamed and cried aloud. The children on their laps screamed too. It was like a panic for a few minutes until I walked into the room where they were stampeding and begged them to be quiet and not to get excited. I assured them that nothing could happen to them, that I was under arrest but they would be allowed to return home in a few minutes. That quieted them. The men were blocking the door to prevent anyone from leaving, but I finally persuaded them to allow these women to return to their homes, unmolested, though terribly frightened by it all.
Crowds began to gather outside. A long line of women with baby carriages and children had been waiting to get into the clinic. Now the streets were filled, and police had to see that traffic was not blocked. The patrol wagon came rattling through the streets to our door, and at length Miss Mindell and I took our seats within and were taken to the police station.
As I sat in the rear of the car and looked out on that seething mob of humans, I wondered, and asked myself what had gone out of the race. Something had gone from them which silenced them, made them impotent to defend their rights. I thought of the suffragists in England, and pictured the results of a similar arrest there. But as I sat in this mood, the car started to go. I looked out at the mass and heard a scream. It came from a woman wheeling a baby carriage, who had just come around the corner preparing to visit the clinic. She saw the patrol wagon, realized what had happened, left the baby carriage on the walk, rushed through the crowd to the wagon and cried to me: “Come back! Come back and save me!” The woman looked wild. She ran after the car for a dozen yards or so, when some friends caught her weeping form in their arms and led her back to the sidewalk. That was the last thing I saw as the Black Maria dashed off to the station...
Arrested at the same time as my sister, and like her charged with the dissemination of birth control information, I continued my activity as soon as I was released on bail. My first act had been to reopen the clinic in Brownsville. I was promptly rearrested and then charged with “maintaining a public nuisance.” By the time my case came up for trial, I was becoming more and more familiar with legal procedure and courtroom conventions. I must say that I was also more and more puzzled by the stilted language, the circumlocutions, the respect for precedent. I saw the realities, the suffering. All of these statues were being defended while over the whole country women were suffering and sacrificing their lives. I must confess that these legal battles, fought in a curiously unreal world, intensified my defiance to the breaking point. I longed for a battle in the open, in simple, honest terms, without hypocrisy, above board and on real merits.
My trial was as different from my sister’s as day is from night. Although little more than three weeks had elapsed between them, public opinion had changed in a very short time.
The courtroom was packed. Smartly dressed women were present as well as the poor women of Brownsville. Reporters turned out in large numbers. Hundreds of photographs were taken. I went to the courtroom accompanied by a group of prominent women who had entertained me at breakfast. Officially, I had the backing of several organizations: The International Child Welfare League, the Women’s City Club, the Committee of One Hundred, the various State Leagues for Birth Control.
The Court of Special Sessions was seething with a crowded assortment of humanity. About fifty of the poor mothers of the Brownsville section crowded into the courtroom with their children, their nursing babies, their fruit, their bread, their pacifiers and their extra diapers. No less than thirty of these mothers had been subpoenaed by the District Attorney. Their testimony was to be offered in evidence against me; but they, dear things, smiled reassuringly at me, certain that they were going to help free me. Most of them had been in the Amboy Street clinic the day the raid had taken place...
I admitted the charge of giving birth control advice to the poor mothers of Brownsville. The prosecutor had little to prove. I knew I had violated the letter of the law. I was fighting that law. I thought there would be no argument at all. But once again an untrue charge was made. Police Sergeant John Mooney said I had told him that our whole clinic was “a bluff,” run to see if we could “get away with something, to do away with the Jewish people.” As that accusation fell flat, he then tried to make it appear that the clinic was a money-making affair. Our ten-cent fee for the registration of patients did not begin to cover the regular expenses, of course; this was merely one of the stories our opponents had concocted to discredit us, if possible. We were faced with vindictive lies on every hand.
Justices Freschi, Herman, and O’Keefe sat as a tribunal. My brilliant young attorney strongly advised me to accept a suspended sentence, if it were proffered. Owing to my ill health, he wanted me to avoid the prison term. The case was a big one, and to his legal mind, freedom alone meant victory.
I sat listening impatiently to what seemed an interminable discussion between my lawyer, Mr. Goldstein (now Magistrate) and Judge Freschi on the bench... Finally, the decisive question was put to me:
“All we are concerned about is this statute, and as long as it remains the law will this woman promise here and now unqualifiedly to respect it and obey it? Now, is it yes or no? What is your answer, Mrs. Sanger?”
“I cannot respect that law as it stands today,” I answered. Then I was sentenced:
“Margaret Sanger, with the additional evidence submitted by the learned District Attorney after your case reopened last Friday to meet the claim that the proof was insufficient, there is now additional evidence that makes out a strong case that you established and maintained a birth control clinic where you exhibited to various women articles which purported to be for the prevention of conception, and that there you made a determined effort to disseminate birth control information and advice.
“We are not here to applaud nor to condemn your beliefs; but your declarations and public utterances reflect an absolute disregard for law and order. You have challenged the constitutionality of the law under consideration and the jurisdiction of this Court. When this is done in an orderly way, no one can find fault. It is your right as a citizen. Refusal to obey the law becomes an open defiance of the rule of the majority as expressed in this statue. I can see no good reason for all this excitement by some people. They have a perfect right to argue freely about amending the law, but not to advise how to prevent conception.
“While the law is in its present form, defiance provokes anything but reasonable consideration. It is wholesome that we have discussion by citizens on matters that affect the welfare of the citizens.
“People have the right to free speech, but they should not allow it to degenerate into license and defiance of the law. The judgment of the Court is that you be confined to the workhouse for the period of thirty days.”
After the sentence had been pronounced by the presiding judge, there was a moment’s silence, and then a murmur of protest and resentment spread throughout the crowded room.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project