Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference

The third UN-sponsored International Conference on Population and Development held this fall in Cairo was marked by, among other things, unusually strong advocacy not only of women's right to make their own reproductive decisions, but their need for greater access to education and health care. As Dr. Nafis Sadik, Secretary General of the Conference, stated in her 1994 report on the state of the world population, "only by improving the status of women through education and health care can we effectively slow population growth" (New York Times, 8/19/94). Women's voices have not always been heard so clearly at world population conferences despite the fact that the first such world conference was organized by Margaret Sanger.

Sanger had argued for the right and the need to provide women with the means to determine whether and when they will have children. But by the 1920s she had concluded that to reach that goal, her message of empowerment and autonomy for women would have to be subsumed into less overtly feminist, more seemingly abstract scientific rationales. Sanger was willing to employ eugenicist and neo-Malthusian justifications for birth control because she believed that aside from the benefit it would provide to women, birth control would build stronger generations of children and would help insure the physical, economic, and political health of a society.

Sanger had participated in the 5th International Neo-Malthusian conference in London in 1922 and organized the 6th Conference in 1925, the first such conference held in the U.S., but to win global acceptance for birth control her message would have to be even more conservatively clothed. Sanger recognized that she would have to win the support of the broader world scientific community, not just those scientists already interested in population control. To do this Sanger sought an international forum that would give prominence and respectability to discussions of the impact of population-related issues. With funds donated by her husband J. Noah Slee and other supporters, as well as a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Sanger spent close to a year organizing a World Population Conference to be held in Geneva, Switzerland on August 31-September 2, 1927.

The conference was composed of six sessions dealing with various aspects of the population question. Each session was set up to include, as Sanger pointed out, "scientific essays by recommended authorities to be followed by critical discussion" (Proceedings of the World Population Conference, London, 1927, p. 5). The conference featured such papers as Raymond Pearl's "Biology of Population Growth," F.A.E. Crew's "Concerning Fertility and Sterility in Relation to Population" and Edward M. East's "Food and Population."

In providing a global arena for discussion of population growth and its impact, the conference was an unparalleled success. Attendees included everyone from Julian Huxley to John Maynard Keynes. However, Sanger's real goal was to push the "population aspects of birth control" and the delegates were not yet ready to reach consensus on the population question. (Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, New York, 1938, p. 385). As Sanger noted "The papers of Professors East and Fairchild came perilously near mentioning the forbidden word Malthusianism, but as for birth control, it was edged about like a bomb which might explode at any minute" (Autobiography, p. 387).

Moreover while she had accepted that women's concerns and a feminist agenda would have to be muted in order to gain broad-based support abroad, Sanger did not realize that this might require that she would be forced to efface herself from the proceedings. Despite almost single-handedly putting the conference together, Sanger was asked by Sir Bernard Mallet, president of Britain's Royal Statistical Society and conference chairman, to remove her name and those of her (female) assistants from the official program on the grounds that "the names of the workers should not be included on scientific programs." (Autobiography, p. 385) Despite Sanger's insistence that all of the women involved were as much participants as the scientists on the program, and even a protest strike by the clerical staff, Sanger realized the intensity of the opposition she faced. To salvage the conference, she convinced her assistants to accept the situation and allowed the program to be printed without mention of the women's names (including her own).

Sanger recalled that their exclusion was glossed over by the conference participants. "Only our young English friends had held out for the recognition of the women," she recalled, "I was not surprised at the Europeans, but it was difficult to comprehend the American attitude on this point" (Autobiography, p. 386). Even more difficult to accept was the fact that during the conference itself Sanger's name was not even mentioned until the closing dinner when Chairman Mallet patronizingly offered:

"I cannot sit down without an expression, perhaps too long delayed, of admiration for Mrs. Sanger... she gave me certain assurances which made the cooperation of myself and some of my friends possible; and she has devoted herself with wholeheartedness to further the interests of the Conference, that the great fundamental question of population should be discussed in a purely scientific spirit." (Proceedings of the World Population Conference, 1927, p. 356.)

Sanger later tried to be fatalistic about the way she had been treated, noting that it was not she but her husband, J. Noah Slee, who was disturbed by the conference events because "he had not realized that [birth control] was not to be to the front in it at all." However, Sanger did admit that she felt that "some of those upon whom I had relied to stand by in the time of war – failed and compromised – and so it goes" (Sanger to Hugh de Selincourt, Sept. 22, 1927, courtesy of Lawrence Lader). Nevertheless, Sanger realized that the conference was a momentous event and agreed to take on the painstaking task of editing the proceedings, which were published in 1927 by Edward Arnold & Co. The volume contains both excerpts of the papers and transcripts of the discussions that followed. With her name appearing as editor on the title page, Sanger finally got some of the recognition she had earned.

Despite the personal humiliation to Sanger, the Geneva Conference can be counted as a success if only because it was the first time scientists were willing to discuss the population problem on a global scale. Unfortunately, it would take 27 years before another World Population Conference was even held (in Rome in 1954 under U.N. auspices). And it was still another 40 years after that before women's issues and concerns were given a full hearing. While Margaret Sanger did not succeed in bringing women's rights to the front of the world's stage in 1927, her lifelong efforts contributed to the fact that these issues were at long last addressed in Cairo in 1994. The Cairo conference was repeatedly described in the press as the first such conference organized by women. Not surprisingly no one mentioned Margaret Sanger.