16 October 1916 – Sanger’s War
“Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty,” Margaret Sanger wrote in The Woman Rebel during 1914. “The Church and the Government deny personal liberty to the women of the United States.” Her war against this establishment is a “fight for free bodies;” the 1873 Comstock laws are shackles on every American woman, while the Post Office has been the chief enforcement agency of their enslavement. “They deny this liberty in the most complete and vital manner that it can be denied. And the federal Government arbitrarily suppresses any woman who dares to assert this right of personal freedom.”
Perhaps more than certain revolutionists, almost as much as the Catholic Church, the Government realizes that once the women of the United States are awakened to the value of birth control, these institutions–Church, State, Big Business–will be struck such a blow that they will be able only to beg for mercy from the workers. Consequently, the Government officials are keenly awake to the necessity of nipping the idea of birth control in the bud. So free speech vanishes, liberty of the press becomes a thing of the past, a joke, personal liberty a mockery.
Her words are infused with the spirit of the era, yet they were mainly an appeal to her natural allies. By giving every woman control of the means of reproduction, Margaret Sanger reasons she can advance the fight over the means of production, too, but she has little interest in a broader radical agenda. Unlike her mentor Emma Goldman, with whom she has parted ways on friendly terms this year, Sanger wants to focus her revolutionary zeal on the issue closest to her heart.
She has seen the horrors of botched abortions and the misery of motherhood in the squalid, teeming tenements. She can cite the statistics on child mortality showing that children born to already-large families are the most likely of all to starve, ail, and die, often by neglect but sometimes from desperation. By design and intention, Sanger’s war of liberation extends to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. She would see them become fewer that they might all thrive.
Today in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Sanger digs in for the next battle of her war against church and state. Having rented a small storefront at at 46 Amboy Street, she passes out multilingual flyers inviting mothers to stop the practice of infanticide with “safe, harmless information.” On the first day, Sanger, her sister, and a translator tell one hundred women about “birth control,” her own chosen term for contraception. There will be thousands more in the next few days.
Although ‘feminine hygiene’ products such as douches, condoms, and pessaries are available in America, information about their use as birth control is considered an obscenity when published in an instructional pamphlet. This very law is what Sanger aims to challenge today by distributing copies of What Every Girl Should Know for ten cents apiece as a membership perk in her new organization. That entity survives her a century later, for while the forces of reaction are enduring and strong, they have never managed to destroy Planned Parenthood.
Just women and children.
One sort of victory is gained over the following days as hundreds of women flock to Sanger’s banner, most of them already mothers. But the government has taken notice, and among this female crowd is an undercover policewoman, who makes Sanger’s greater victory possible. “I admit we did sell to the woman detective,” she later confesses with pride. “We knew who she was. Mrs. Byrne, my sister, is a hot-headed Irish girl and she deliberately urged the detective to buy. We framed the two dollar bill and wrote across the bill. ‘Received from a spy.’” Police raid the clinic on the tenth day of operations, arresting all three women and confiscating their ‘obscene’ materials.
Though the city fathers are able to keep her office shuttered by leaning on the landlord, Sanger exploits the situation for maximum attention to her cause. Next year, she will even write and star in a silent film about the arrest and trial. Her unapologetic pursuit of publicity is a further annoyance to the preening arbiters of public morals, who begin a campaign of smears and character assassination that is still going on today.
For example, Sanger is accused of having favored eugenics in 1916, but critics seldom mention President Woodrow Wilson was also an outspoken adherent of eugenics who actually signed legislation as governor of New Jersey. Indeed, the absurdity of laws against sharing birth control information is all the more stark when contrasted with the mainstream acceptability of eugenics in America at the same time Sanger founded her famous organization. Sanger’s interest in eugenics has no resemblance to the more infamous statist forms of the 20th Century, either. As she explains in the February 1919 edition of The Birth Control Review, ‘family planning’ may be in the interest of the state, but women must be free to serve their own self-interest.
Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother.
“Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment,” Sanger says, referring to the entire human race. She is adamantly opposed to ‘social engineering’: no race or social class should be encouraged to use contraception more than others, nor should any woman be discouraged. Nevertheless, Sanger’s latter-day detractors have managed to convince themselves she was a racist. (Again, they seem to be thinking of Woodrow Wilson.)
Nor was she opposed to any sect or religion in general. On the contrary: in 1916, Margaret Sanger is a devoted Catholic, and in the course of her career she will constantly collaborate with faith leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks. “The minister’s work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach,” Sanger writes of an outreach and engagement program among southern blacks. “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Shorn of context and misleadingly cut off, that sentence is among the most-cited by enemies of female empowerment who want to frame Sanger as a horrible monster because she went on to fund the development of oral contraceptives.
The war against female personal autonomy is older than a single Supreme Court decision or even Sanger’s organization, but since its inception, the century-long war against Planned Parenthood has involved one of the most visible characteristics of the Great War going on in Europe at that same moment in history: mass propaganda, particularly the ‘black’ kind that traffics in fabrication, demonization, and hate-mongering. One hundred years after she opened her store on Amboy Street, internet memes use false quotes and other disinformation to poison public discourse on contraceptive access issues. On the evangelical right, whole ministries seem to exist for the sole purpose of spreading lies about Sanger and her organization on campus, in the streets, outside the clinics, on television, and in blogs. Opinion leaders on the right can rage for days on talk radio to express their displeasure with women who dare to speak up for their human right to control their own bodies.
The war on Planned Parenthood has never abated, nor is the liberating crusade finished. On the contrary: wherever reactionary elements hold absolute political power in America anymore, it seems their very first, last, and constant mission is to destroy Margaret Sanger’s legacy — women and children be damned.