Newsletter #45 (Spring 2007)

Birth Control Comes of Age

We are pleased to announce that Volume II of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939 was published in March by the University of Illinois Press, just in time for the twentieth anniversary of Women’s History Month.

Like Volume I, this second installment of Sanger’s papers includes carefully selected letters and writings, woven together with extensive chapter and document introductions. It combines the thrilling experience of reading primary history with the structural elements of a biography.

Birth Control Comes of Age features intimate moments in Sanger’s stormy personal life as well as highly charged, dramatic scenes in Congress, in the courtroom and on the public stage where Sanger flourished as one of the great social reformers of her time.

For those of you left hanging when Volume I came to a close, Volume II picks right up with Sanger’s resignation from the American Birth Control League and decision to pursue the legalization of birth control through Congressional amendment of the Comstock Law. With the onset of the Great Depression, Sanger shifted her tactical and rhetorical strategies, emphasized the health and socioeconomic benefits of birth control, and steered the movement further away from its radical roots and into the mainstream.

Police Raid

Volume II opens in dramatic fashion. Shortly after Sanger resigned her presidency of the American Birth Control League, she accepted an invitation to appear on stage in Boston with a gag in her mouth to protest the continuing efforts of the government and the Catholic Church to silence her speech. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger read aloud to the audience the words of the silenced reformer:

“As a propagandist, I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk about me, and the cause in which I live.”

Unknown to Sanger at the time, police had just raided her clinic in New York and confiscated hundreds of patient records. In the ensuing weeks birth control itself was put on trial, and Sanger, along with leading First Amendment rights attorney Morris Ernst, masterfully directed a series of prominent physician witnesses who endorsed the health benefits of child-spacing in their testimony. The medical community defended Sanger’s clinic and vehemently protested the seizure of patient records. The incident became a key rallying point for Sanger who had been trying for years to gain medical approval for birth control.

Mrs. Sanger Goes To Washington

The letters, speeches and journal entries selected for Volume II follow Sanger and her lobbying group, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, into the halls of Congress as they attempt to secure passage of a birth control bill. In committee hearings, Sanger confronted legislators with her frank discussion of sexuality and written testimonials from mothers overburdened by incessant pregnancy and childbirth.

“Their faces were scarlet! Poor darlings they wanted to escape but they had to sit & listen to what women endure.”

The scientific and social merits of birth control were discussed in the most public forum in the country. Yet Sanger could not overcome the legislators’ reluctance to be associated with such an explosive issue, or the Catholic Church’s highly organized opposition. The inability to secure passage of a birth control bill marked the greatest single failure in Sanger’s career and prompted internal criticism of her leadership.

Feel the Rhythm

Sanger was blind-sided in 1932 by a popular little book called The Rhythm that presented a calendar for women to predict the “safe” or infertile period of their monthly cycle. A number of prominent Catholic Church leaders endorsed the new method as the only Church-sanctioned means of birth control. Volume II goes behind the scenes in this amusing chapter of Sanger’s cat-and-mouse battle with the Church. Its proponents argued that rhythm was “natural” and the methods Sanger advocated were “artificial.” Infuriated, Sanger called the rhythm method untrustworthy and insisted that she and the Church were now in apparent agreement that sex need not be for procreative purposes only.

A Clinic Grows In Harlem

Sanger’s controversial decision to establish a contraceptive clinic in Harlem has been largely misunderstood by many of her critics. Volume II establishes that Harlem community leaders approached Sanger and encouraged her to seek funding and open a satellite clinic that would cater to African-American patients. Some eugenicists had suggested that black women were not intelligent enough to use a diaphragm. Sanger proved them wrong. She opened the Harlem Clinic in 1930 and found that black women were no different than white women in their desire for reproductive freedom or in their ability to learn contraceptive techniques. As the volume explores Sanger’s controversial understanding and espousal of certain eugenic principles, it puts to rest any notion that she supported racial eugenic policies.

Birth Control Is Made Legal!

In 1933 U. S. Customs seized “one package” of pessaries sent from Japan to Sanger’s clinic in New York. The illegal shipment had been arranged by Sanger in expectation of government interference. This volume recounts in detail how Sanger challenged the seizure and set the stage for a lengthy series of court maneuvers that culminated in a historic 1936 decision. The U. S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling and stated in no uncertain terms that contraceptives could be medically prescribed for the promotion of health and well being. The U. S. v One Package case prepared the way for the landmark reproductive rights decisions in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Supreme Court’s articulation of a sexual right to privacy. The decision also led to a 1937 endorsement from the American Medical Association, which had long resisted this controversial laywoman’s cause.

Love and War

This selection includes highly personal and revelatory letters and journal entries that discuss Sanger’s complicated personal life. Sanger’s long absences and devotion to her cause frustrated her older and ailing husband, the retired business tycoon J. Noah Slee. Slee’s massive financial losses in the stock market crash further stressed their relationship. All the while, Sanger continued to seek companionship and intimacy with other men, including a married designer of library shelving – who also happened to be a great dancer. Weighed down by marital strife, health problems and the impending war, and shut out of a leadership position in the newly formed Birth Control Federation of America, Sanger retreated by 1939 to semi-retirement in Tucson. Her extraordinary reign over the American birth control movement had ended.