Margaret Sanger, "The Progress of the Birth Control Movement," June 1931.
Published article. Source: Mothers' Aid MessageJune 1931, 7, 18-19. , Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:321 .
For earlier typed version see MSM 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 trained 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 that 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, they lined up before the office of a cheap abortionist, each waiting her turn. “You would tell us nothing,” they seemed to reproach me (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 America I had to give up the search. State and federal laws made the printing and circulation of this knowledge a federal crime. No doctors whom I approached would give me help, and no group of any kind would sponsor the cause. They assured me that any efforts in so dangerous a field would land me in jail, and advised me to drop it.
At that time there was not even a language in which to discuss these questions. The subject was considered indecent and vulgar. Openly to 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 that 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 as well as letters from other distinguished English men and 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 movement should take. In Holland, I had found, there were more than fifty of these birth control centers, which they called clinics, where women were individually examined, fitted, and instructed by nurses or midwives trained for that purpose by doctors. I had returned from Holland convinced that instruction in contraception was the business of the medical profession, and that clinics should be our goal. After my coast-to-coast lecture tour in 1916 advocating clinics in those states where the law permitted, I opened the first birth control clinic in America, in New York City. It was raided by the police; my sister and I were arrested and sentenced to one month in the Workhouse. Wide publicity for the cause and thousands of new supporters resulted. On appeal, we gained an opinion that birth control instruction was legal if given by doctors for the cure or prevention of disease. Accordingly, when, after enforced delay, another clinic was opened in 1923, we secured a woman doctor for a medical director. This clinic is still in operation, with more than 4,000 patients yearly. Today there are fifty-nine clinics in thirteen states. Research for perfected methods is being constantly carried on.
Meantime an unceasing campaign of education for public opinion has been going on, with books, lectures, articles, conferences. My own lecture engagements have taken me to university halls and pulpits. The BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW, of which I was editor until 1929, was started in 1917. Biologists, economists, doctors, clergymen, poets, novelists have contributed to its pages and given active support to the cause. The far-reaching implications of the movement are becoming clearer every day. On the other hand the toiling, overburdened mothers, the victims of our social and economic system, continue pouring in their heartrending letters pleading for help, each with its own tale of too many children, wrecked health and poverty.
In 1921 we held the first national conference and organized the American Birth Control League, which has branches in many states.
In Europe, 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 military 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 allows the giving of contraceptive advice at its Maternity and Child Welfare Centers, of which there are nearly 2,500 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, clinics have since been started, and in 1930 the Japanese government sent an official representative to the international conference at 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 in its program, the connection was obvious. A permanent body for the study of population was formed. 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.
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 Senator 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 distribute it to the masses, how it would speed the victory! If every man and woman who believes in birth control would become articulate to the extent of appealing 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