Newsletter #5 (Spring 1993)

Margaret Sanger and Edith How-Martyn: An Intimate Correspondence

If Margaret Sanger had a British counterpart in her commitment to internationalizing the birth control movement it was undoubtedly Edith How-Martyn (1875-1954), who for two decades worked closely with Sanger in creating a global movement. Last October, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project acquired copies of a large collection of unpublished letters written by Sanger to How-Martyn which had been privately held by Eileen Palmer, How-Martyn's secretary for more than 30 years. The MSPP also acquired How-Martyn's personal scrapbooks from the 1935-36 World Tour for Birth Control. Together, the letters and the scrapbooks provide details about Sanger's travels and activities between 1915-1936 and illuminate the special friendship that developed between the two women.

Born in Cheltenham England in 1875, Edith How married Herbert Martyn in 1899; she shortly after she began acting on her commitment to women's issues by devoting herself to the British suffragette movement. How-Martyn met Sanger in 1915 and by the early 1920s began to direct her considerable energies toward birth control. How-Martyn worked with Sanger on organizing the 1927 World Population Conference in Geneva; and in 1930 the pair established the Birth Control International Information Centre (BCIIC) in London with Sanger as president and How-Martyn as director. How-Martyn traveled extensively in Europe and Asia serving as Sanger's link to the international community of birth control supporters. The two developed an unusually effective working relationship. As Sanger told How-Martyn, "You have a way of winning hearts and its really dangerous!...I love the notes you send & the interesting report & everything you do just like I like it done. We must have ruled a world together once Edith." (July 4, 1926). Between November 1934 and March 1935, How-Martyn traveled through India building support for birth control; the next year she accompanied Sanger on a historic visit to Asia which included Sanger's widely publicized meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. Over the next three years How-Martyn returned to India to continue building an extensive network of birth control providers and activists.

Both Sanger and How-Martyn's international work was interrupted as war spread through Europe. Plagued by lack of funds and staffing problems, the London centre shut down in 1937. When the war spread to England, the How-Martyns fled to Australia. Eileen Palmer, How-Martyn's secretary, rescued her employer's correspondence when the How-Martyn house was bombed. After the war, Edith How-Martyn's recurring health problems prevented her from returning to Britain. She died in a Sydney nursing home on February 4, 1954.

From the earliest surviving examples of the Sanger/How-Martyn correspondence, it is clear that Sanger relied on How-Martyn's advice and opinions, but she also used her friend as a sounding board for her own thoughts and ideas. "I think of you so often, " Sanger wrote, "that I write letters to you in my head & have a hard time realizing you might not be able to reply to them." (October 27,1928)

Because of their close friendship and their commitment to the birth control movement, Sanger's letters to How-Martyn were unusually frank and detailed in their assessment of the movement and her role in it. In one of the earliest letters uncovered, Sanger described her 1916 cross-country tour noting the many women who were drawn to her hotel room. "Oh dear lady if you could hear the tragic stories & hear the heartrending appeal for relief, no one would ask me ever again to respect a piece of paper called a law which kept these women in bondage" (July 18, 1916). After the 1927 World Population Conference, Sanger took a trip to Germany where she received a mixed reception when she spoke for birth control. "The Socialist Women were for b.c.," she wrote How-Martyn, "but the Pres. of the Midwives Assn was the limit. She weighed at least 250 lbs. - a giant of a female - decked out in blue nurses garb, large cross hanging from her neck. She arose & attacked me. It was great!" (December 11, 1927).

Because of the international focus of their work together, birth control could not be separated from politics. "You should see the adorable pessaries sent me from Japan, blue, red, orange, yellow, all colors, delicately blended & aesthetically made. Its worth considering, but Manchuria! This latest butchering of China makes us all hesitate to buy even good pessaries from Japan." (January 10, 1932). Sharing her plans for a conference in the Soviet Union with How-Martyn, Sanger explained her decision to postpone the event fearing the effect it might have on her drive to legalize birth control in the U.S. In proposing instead to hold the conference in Germany, she argued, "If this went over we could then plan for Russia for 1935 for if the laws in the U.S.A. are not changed by that time I'll be ready to live in Europe somewhere & let the U.S.A. go to the dogs in her Puritanical ways." (July 31, 1932). Sanger's letters to How-Martyn also include lively sketches of her meetings with influential supporters. In a February 1, 1928 letter, Sanger describes a London fundraising meeting with Lady Astor: "I went and found her with cold cream all over her face–her windows wide open in a most unAmerican fashion & we started right in to laugh together as if our spirits were old friends."

The friends also shared details of their private lives and exchanged discussions of various physical ailments. When Sanger's ill health in the summer of 1928 forced her to take rest cures in Geneva, St. Moritz, and Berlin, she wrote to How-Martyn on a biweekly basis, confiding details of the cures she sought and the annoyance that inactivity forced upon her.

One of the most unique aspects of the Sanger-How-Martyn correspondence is the ubiquitous presence of Eileen Palmer, who held on tightly to the collection until shortly before her death in 1992. Until she began arrangements to deposit the How-Martyn papers, (along with a collection of Olive M. Johnson papers) in a British repository, Palmer took her role as custodian of the papers very seriously. In fact, portions of a number of Sanger's handwritten letters to Edith How-Martyn were deleted outright by Palmer, who either blacked out key portions or sliced them out with a pair of scissors. Palmer's motive was to preserve the reputations of Sanger and How-Martyn and the passages she excised were those in which Sanger criticized staff members, physicians, or others involved in the birth control movement. Palmer's editorial work obviously leaves much detective work for the MSPP and other historians who must piece together paragraphs and sentences from contextual clues, and from How-Martyn's letters to Sanger which are preserved intact among the Sanger correspondence in the Sophia Smith Collection. Nevertheless, Palmer's recognition of the importance of preserving these documents has provided us with yet another significant glimpse into Sanger' life and work.