Newsletter #19 (Fall 1998)

Margaret Sanger and the Modern School

Supporters and detractors alike have had a difficult time trying to fit Margaret Sanger into a particular school of thought or radical group during her formative years in the pre-World War I Greenwich Village renaissance. She later told friend and biographer Harold Hersey (and he paraphrases here) that her "feeling of strength" came from "certain leaders of the radical movements, not from the radicals as a whole." (Margaret Sanger: The Biography of a Birth Control Pioneer, unpublished mss., 1938, p. 101) And indeed when reflecting on the roots of her activism, Sanger usually referred to specific personalities of that era – Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, Eugene Debs, among many others – rather than Socialists, single tax proponents, feminists, etc. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear to us as we select, transcribe and annotate documents for the first volume of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger that she was more deeply entrenched in leftist activities and especially in the anarchist movement than has generally been thought. This is most clearly evident in her relationship to the Modern School, a small, experimental, educational institution in New York, founded and operated largely by anarchists, which provided Sanger with a greater intellectual training ground and network of radical support for initiating the birth control crusade than, arguably, any other radical element or organization.

Like many aspects of Sanger's early life, her association with the Modern School has received only cursory analyses from birth control movement historians and Sanger biographers. Until historian Paul Avrich's The Modern School Movement was published in 1980, little had been written about the Modern Schools in America. And one important link between Sanger and anarchism, arising from Sanger's affiliation with the school, has only recently been established through the Project's annotation research on Sanger's early writings and correspondence (see "Yeânnis Revisited," ).

Francisco Ferrer established the first "Escuela Moderna" in Barcelona in 1901 in an attempt to liberate education from the controlling interests of the church and state. The school succeeded and led to other branches before the government, in 1906, shut them down and implicated Ferrer in a plot to assassinate the King of Spain. In 1909 the state pressed trumped-up charges of insurrection against Ferrer following violent street uprisings in response to Spain's colonial war in Morocco. After a mock trial in October of 1909, Ferrer was found guilty and executed by firing squad.

Ferrer's death spurred international protests and widespread interest in his work. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman founded what would become the first Modern School in the U.S. in 1910 when they started the Francisco Ferrer Association in honor of the martyred educator. In 1911 the Association established the Ferrer Center and Modern School at St. Mark's Place in New York, where for ten months it conducted small adult classes and Sunday lectures on social issues before moving to a larger space on East 12th Street. There the center created a Day School for children and enlarged its other programs.

Margaret and William Sanger, having moved from the suburbs around 1911, were newly immersed in the Greenwich Village bohemian life and saw in the Modern School the type of progressive education they wanted for their children. It emphasized free-thinking, independence and self-development, and it refrained from imposing structure or discipline on the child, seeking instead to follow the child's lead, his or her natural inclinations and interests. The school also responded to issues related to sexuality, evolution and other topics that the public schools feared and fumbled with. The Sanger's enrolled their eldest child, Stuart, in the Day School in January of 1912. He joined eight other pupils, mostly children of anarchists, in a class led by Will Durant, later to become the famous interpreter of philosophy for the masses. Both Grant and Peggy Sanger would also attend Modern Schools prior to Peggy's death in 1915.

The Ferrer Center and Modern School quickly became an important hub of radical life in New York. Even when it moved to its final New York location at East 107th Street in October of 1912, it continued to attract a cross-section of radical writers, artists, journalists, educators and activists. The writer Jacques Rudome remembered:

Besides the day school . . . there were classes for adults in English, French, German, and Literature led by Leonard D. Abbott, and an art class conducted by Robert Henri and George Bellows.

A galaxy of names famous through the nation were active in their cultural contributions: Harry Kelly, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman; Hyppolyte Havel, who lectured on many subjects; Hutchins Hapgood who lectured on American and Russian literature; Sadakichi Hartman reading his morbid prose; Andre Tridon on Rodin before the Freud libido took possession of him; Lincoln Steffens on muckraking and the golden rule; George Brown, the gentle shoemaker from Arden, and Theodore Schroeder on free thought; Clarence Darrow on Voltaire . . . Bolton Hall and Harry Weinberger on single tax; Herbert Davisson and Edward King on socialism; the fiery Tom Mann on syndicalism; Bill Haywood on industrial unionism; Lucy Parsons on the Heymarket affair; Margaret Sanger and many others whose names now escape me. (Jacques Rudome quoted in Hersey, pp. 103-104)

Others who delivered lectures or were associated with the School and Center included the writers Jack London, Manuel Komroff, Eugene O'Neill, Lola Ridge, Mike Gold and Upton Sinclair; and the artists John Sloan, Max Weber, Man Ray, Rockwell Kent, and Robert Minor.

The anarchist, Harry Kelly, one of the school's founders, wrote "the place seethed with animation and debate of vital issues, and no cause was too poor nor too radical or delicate to be denied a hearing." Opened daily, the Center, writes Avrich, ". . . was a place where radicals could come to hear lectures on social or literary topics, to discuss the burning questions of the day, to see new plays . . . to listen to concerts . . . to study art . . . It was a place to learn the English language, to study French or Spanish or Esperanto, to dance, drink tea, and talk for hours on end." (Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement, Princeton University Press, 1980, p. 111)

The Ferrer Center, Avrich writes, was far more than an educational institution, it became ". . . a center of propaganda for anarchists, socialists, I.W.W.'s [International Workers of the World] and syndicalists." The school raised funds to support anarchist causes around the world, organized protest meetings and helped with strike support. During the Lawrence, Massachusetts strike in 1912, Sanger reached out to families associated with the School and found temporary homes for children of striking workers whom she had escorted on the train to New York. (Avrich, p. 90) For Sanger, who lacked an intensive formal education, the Ferrer Center provided an unconventional liberal arts education paired with a kind of job-training center for leftist activists.

At a time when Sanger met resistance among the patriarchal I.W.W. and Socialist Party to her persistent appeals to include women's sexual liberation in their agenda, she found a welcome audience at the Ferrer Center. She gave lectures on the limitation of offspring and organized "mothers' meetings" to discuss birth control (Avrich, p. 132). She also became associated with a core group of Ferrer School members who later contributed their expertise to her crusade. Bill Shatoff, a printer and Ferrer Center fixture, printed Sanger's Family Limitation "after hours when his shop was supposed to be closed." (MS, Autobiography, 1938, p. 117). Journalist Leonard Abbott, one of the founders of the School, raised money and helped organize legal assistance for Margaret Sanger during her Woman Rebel trial in 1914-1915, and for William Sanger after he was arrested for giving a copy of Family Limitation to one of Comstock's undercover agents in December of 1914. Gilbert Roe, a Free Speech League lawyer and original member of the Ferrer Association, also offered Margaret Sanger legal council on several occasions, most notably following the Woman Rebel indictments. Many others helped, from artist Rockwell Kent who designed a birth control symbol for Sanger (it appears on the back of this newsletter), to Arthur Samuels, the treasurer at the Modern School, who collected radical literature and birth control information while in Europe for Sanger to use in designing the Woman Rebel. The Modern School is also most likely where Sanger met a Greek anarchist and publisher named John Rompapas, who may well have provided Sanger with seed money for launching the Woman Rebel. Their torrid affair accelerated Sanger's separation from William Sanger, and brought her into even closer quarters with New York's anarchist community.

Sanger became intimately associated with the roots of the Spanish Modern School movement when she fled to Europe in the fall of 1914 in an attempt to avoid imprisonment over the Woman Rebel indictments. In Liverpool, where her ship docked, she met Lorenzo Portet, who she described as ". . . once companion to Francisco Ferrer and now heir to his educational work . . ." (Autobiography, p. 123). Portet had worked side-by-side with Ferrer from 1896 to Ferrer's death in 1909, organizing the Modern Schools and leading other republican activities against the state. Portet then taught Spanish at the University of Liverpool and continued to work for educational reform in Spain. Sanger and Portet forged a close friendship that quickly developed into a love affair. They traveled the continent together, and Portet escorted Sanger through Spain and taught her the history of the Modern Schools. After visiting Ferrer's grave, she wrote to her oldest son that she "tho't of you & was proud that my Stuart had attended the first Ferrer School in America." (MS to Stuart Sanger, March 29, 1915, MSM S1:407). Sanger wrote in her journals and later in three published articles about her travels in Spain, including the presence of "shadow-men," secret service agents who stayed a few steps back of Portet and any of his companions. A hindrance to their privacy, the "shadow-men" helped on one occasion to thwart a robbery of Portet and Sanger by a group of young thieves. ("Portet and Ferrer, Part II" MSM C16:105) In 1916 Portet offered to find Sanger employment in Paris where he worked part of the time, but he died the following year of tuberculosis, evidently before Sanger had made a firm decision.

Sanger's association with the Modern School ended even before the tragic death of Portet. In 1914, the Ferrer Center Day School had moved to a new site in Stelton, New Jersey (the Ferrer Center remained in New York until 1918). In November of 1915 her daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia she contracted while attending the Stelton School along with her brother Grant. Soon after Peggy's death, Sanger moved Grant to another school and appears to have cut many of her ties to the Ferrer group, possibly blaming the school's rustic, unheated buildings for Peggy's illness. (Avrich, p. 238)

The Stelton School thrived for a period in the 1920s and had many ups and downs until it finally closed in 1953. The Ferrer Center in New York received a terrible blow, literally, when a bomb exploded in a nearby apartment building in July of 1914. Three anarchists who were regulars at the Center were killed while preparing the bomb that was apparently meant to be set off on John D. Rockefeller's estate in Tarrytown, N.Y. The Center never regained its status as a focal point for New York radicals and was constantly hounded by police before it closed in 1918. But the educational experiment was, on the whole, largely successful. The Modern School movement in America produced close to twenty other schools across the county and established a model for libertarian education that has influenced many other progressive education efforts since.

There are few individuals or events in Sanger's life in the years leading up to World War I that do not intersect with the radical school and cultural center. And as we uncover more information about Sanger's early radicalism, it is becoming ever more apparent that her ties to anarchism, the driving force behind the creation of the Modern School, are far more vital to her understanding of radical history, protest movements, and strategies for achieving radical reform than a majority of scholars have suggested, or that Sanger herself ever admitted.