Margaret Sanger, "Breaking into the South--A Contrast," Dec 1919.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Dec. 1919, 7-8 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm, S70:829 .
For a news report of the Elizabeth City speech see "Speech at the Alkrama Hotel," Nov. 2, 1919.
The first public lecture on birth control in the South developed into a series of addresses within twenty-four hours, and was in every way a gratifying surprise to me. I had the feeling that it would be hard to break the ice for the birth control movement in a city in which not even a suffragist had delivered a public lecture. To my delight, however, I found that people, both white and black, in Elizabeth City, N.C., were so eager to know about birth control that every possible moment of my time was given to speaking.
The first lecture, which was the only one I expected to deliver in Elizabeth City, was arranged by Mr. W. O. Saunders, editor of The Independent. It was delivered in a theatre Sunday afternoon, November 2nd. Women in the audience requested an address for women only, and this was given immediately following the general lecture. These meetings were attended by white women of all classes and conditions, some of them being farmer's wives -- mothers of five, six or more children -- some of whom drove fifteen or sixteen miles to hear about birth control.
After the lecture, a number of elderly women lingered to ask further questions and to express their appreciation of the movement. They were singularly unanimous in their expressions. "The message comes too late for me," was the tenor of their words, "but thank God it comes in time to save my daughters from what I have undergone."
A committee of negro women urged a public address for negroes in a negro church for the same evening. This was delivered and was followed the next day by a short talk on "Education" at the negro normal school, and in the afternoon a lecture for negro women only on methods of birth control.
Meanwhile, women who came from near and far were gathering at the hotel where I stopped. Among these were a number of social workers and public-spirited citizens, who asked help in establishing a clinic for the mill workers. A temporary committee was formed, and is going ahead with the work of bringing fundamental, practical help to those women who work in the mills.
All this happened between noon on Sunday and three o'clock Monday afternoon.
Never have I met with more sympathy, more serious attention, more complete understanding than in my addresses to the white and black people of this Southern mill town. Each element in the audience seemed to look at the question from its own standpoint. All in all, these audiences were a striking demonstration of birth control's universal message of freedom and betterment.
Among the white people, the argument which appealed most strongly was that of family betterment and increased happiness in the home, where the size of the family can be kept down to a point in which the father's earnings and the mother's attention are adequate for the care of children. That birth control results in longer life among women and decreases the mortality among infants and children of tender years appealed to representatives of insurance companies, who made it plain that they had got the point. Even a mill-owner, who is perhaps the most powerful citizen of Elizabeth City, was open-minded enough to recognize that birth control, in bettering the condition of the workers in his mills, would tend to increased efficiency.
That the wives of farmers and of other workers recognized the liberty, the mental, physical and spiritual advantages that come with birth control was made plain by their attention, by their questions, and by their expressions of appreciation. They need it most, and doubtless it was they who best understood.
If Elizabeth City is an index of the South, it is ready, waiting, crying for the message of birth control.
It is with somewhat similar pleasure I look back upon a lecture given October 28th before members of the League for Women Voters in New York City. It was an interesting audience. These were workers -- active business women, some in clerical positions, some of them professional women, some of them housewives. They were mostly women who have grappled with practical problems and who have been tasting the first fruits of an expanding freedom. Their attitude was one of intelligent reasoning -- they wanted the message; they wished to weigh it and decide for themselves whether to apply it. There was in this audience but one objector -- a mother of four children, who said she wished she had four more. The rest of the audience joined in the hope that since she desired them, she might have them.
In unhappy contrast to these meetings was the Conference of Social Hygiene, a division of The League for Women Voters, at which I was one of the speakers. This was held at the Park Avenue Hotel, New York, October 20th. At once one could feel hostility in this audience, composed almost entirely of women physicians. One wondered whence such antagonism could come, but when the lecture was over and questions and discussion began, one was not left long in the dark. The antagonism was among the women physicians themselves -- the people whom one would least expect to have that attitude. Yet there it was.
One physician rejected birth control because she believed I claimed too much for it. She did not believe that it can accomplish as much for women as I believe it can -- therefore she dismissed the whole subject!
Another objected to birth control, saying that when a woman's children are arriving so rapidly as to make her lot unendurable, she should leave her husband. Asked what a woman living in the slums, and having four or five children barely supported by her own earnings and those of her husband should do with the children, this physician blandly dismissed the whole matter by saying she should take them with her. This from a woman physician whose practice is, presumably, largely among the poor!
A third woman physician objected to any discussion of the subject, saying that it was "nasty." It is hardly to be supposed, however, that this physician refuses either to give her services or accept fees in maternity cases. Dr. Mary Halton quickly settled this point by her positive assertion of the beauty and cleanliness of all that relates to the sex life. Her defense of birth control was clear, strong, and illuminating.
But let us not deceive ourselves as to the general attitude of either women or men who are attached strongly to institutions -- whether these institutions be professional organizations or something else similar in spirit. Usually their egos have become attached to these institutions -- they have built up the old organizations -- upon those organizations they depend largely for their standing and personal success. Subconsciously these well-meaning people know that their institutions are going to tumble into disuse before the vigorous, fundamental remedies which we propose to apply. The women physicians who follow the old manner of thinking subconsciously know and fear the effect of birth control, which will largely dispense with their services as they are now rendered. These will never take the initiative in freeing the world from its chains. They love their institutions, their prejudices, their own chains, better than they love humanity and the truth.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project