January 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in the U.S.

17 West 16th Street

17 West 16th Street

On January 2, 1923, Margaret Sanger opened the first legal birth control clinic in America, The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (BCCRB). In 1916, Sanger opened a trial clinic in Brooklyn to challenge New York State law. She was arrested and served a term of 30 days. The case was appealed and in 1918, the Court of Appeals ruled that a licensed physician could provide “information for the cure or prevention of disease.” This decision provided a precedent for physicians in New York State. In accordance with this decision, in 1923, Margaret Sanger financed and organized the BCCRB under the medical direction of a female physician to advise and instruct patients. By the 1930s, the BCCRB served well over 10,000 patients each year and trained thousands of doctors and nurses. In “The Practice of Contraception”(Sanger, M. and Hannah Stone, 1931), Dr. Hannah Stone defined the functions of the BCCRB as,

(1)To advise and instruct women and properly equip them in contraceptive knowledge; (2) To evaluate the worth of various contraceptive methods; (3) To carry on clinical research in contraceptive methods and technique; (4) To instruct physicians who may desire to observe and learn the methods and technique of contraception; (5) To collect and correlate the many data concerning the social, economic, medical and sexual lives of our patients.” (200)

In the 1930s the BCCRB was the most important birth control organization for clinic activists. The first priority of the BCCRB was to treat patients but it also tested and reported effectiveness of contraceptives, analyzed and reported on patients’ experiences, created instructional literature, and provided training for doctors and nurses. The BCCRB also established a nationwide network of affiliated clinics and supervised numerous field projects in the rural south. Clinic staff worked in close association with Sanger’s National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control (NCFLBC), and promoted the inclusion of contraceptive instruction in public health programs throughout the country. The clinic’s detailed follow-up work with patients and careful record-keeping enabled medical researchers, contraceptive manufacturers, and associated clinics to study the effectiveness and safety of particular forms of birth control, including the diaphragm and jelly, condom, and the rhythm method.

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York

The BCCRB sought to operate within the constraints of New York State law, which stated that doctors could prescribe contraceptives only for the prevention or cure of a disease, including tuberculosis, syphilis, and various types of psychoses. The BCCRB broadly interpreted the law to allow parents interested in spacing their children to be eligible for contraceptive information, while treating countless other patients under a catchall of medical indications, such as general debility. The Bureau was challenged on several occasions for illegally dispensing birth control devices and information, most notably in April of 1929 when police raided the clinic, seized records and equipment, and arrested Medical Director Dr. Hannah Stone, along with four other staff members. A judge later dismissed the charges citing insufficient evidence. The raid generated significant publicity for the clinic and helped secure long-sought support from New York’s medical establishment, which emphatically condemned the police action, called for a return of all patient records, and lent credibility to the work of the clinic.

In 1933 the BCCRB participated in a test case to challenge federal obscenity laws. Sanger arranged for a package of pessaries to be sent from Japan to the Bureau’s medical director, Dr. Hannah Stone. The package was seized by customs officials. After an extended trial (U.S. v. One Package) and appeal process, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd District ruled in favor of releasing the package in 1936, stating that physicians could circulate and prescribe contraceptives and contraceptive information in the interests of the health and general well-being of their patients. As founder and director, Sanger managed the internal operations of the BCCRB as well as fund-raising, public relations and the pursuit of new research and testing. She was more intimately involved with the administration of the BCCRB than with any of the other organizations she established or directed during her long career. By the early 1930s, however, she left the daily management of the Bureau largely in the hands of its medical director, Dr. Hannah Stone, while concentrating her efforts on fund-raising activities and her campaign for federal birth control legislation.

The BCCRB was first located at 104 Fifth Avenue (across the hall from the American Birth Control League). In 1926 the clinic moved to 46 West 15th Street. In 1930, the clinic moved to 17 W 16th Street, which is now a  National Historic Landmark. In 1940 the BCCRB became the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, and in 1973 took the name Planned Parenthood of New York City.  In 1991, PPNYC moved to 26 Bleecker Street and in 1997 PPNYC’s Margaret Sanger Center was relocated clinical facilities to 26 Bleecker Street.

For more information see:

The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger Volume 2.


Birth Control on Main Street, Cathy Moran Hajo

“The Visit” by Barbra Frankel

Poet Barbra Frankel sent us this poem, inspired by Margaret Sanger’s work on the Lower East Side:

The Visit

Workers in a sweatshop in the Lower East Side (Lewis W. Hine collection, LC, Prints and Photographs Division, USZ62-51765)

this building breathes
exhales leather
through sewing machine oil
sweatshop hands on wheels
feet peddling time
patchouli and weed
living cheap on L.E.S.
fifty years later
after Mrs. Roosevelt and the war
when free love replaced
the birth control struggles
chants from Hare Krishna tonsures
on Avenue B temple
cafeterias, flower shops, and
haberdasheries all
iron gates now

the 1970 Gringo building 178
strong standing shed
held together with tin ceiling
glory patterns that echoed
the rat stampedes
between floors
2 building souls joined
on the bottom by past Yiddish
storefront theatricals
middle courtyard where wooden
outhouses shared fire escapes

twisted staircases
brought 4 stacked back building
sweatshops alive
replaced later by coded materials
that straightened the stairs
but not the heads
that recited Ginsberg, Brautigan
home to Penny Arcade

Icy winter day 1912
more traffic then on Stanton street
3 woman black coats
fur collars, cuffs, and wool
walk through narrow door
next to the Yiddish theatre
2 pair of shaky stairs up
through courtyard to the back
black small buttoned boots
and opaque black stockings

Margaret Sanger
no longer Hastings-on-Hudson wife now
birth control rebel
just before
No Masters No Gods
Ethel Byrne biological
and visionary sister
Fania Mindell Yiddish homegirl
who spoke the language

Sadie Sachs
eyes raised from her challah lunchpail
time sacrificed to hear
the Woman Rebel speak to the shop
“I hear over and over again of
your desperate efforts at
bringing yourself “around”
drinking various herb teas
taking drops of turpentine on sugar
steaming over a chamber
of boiling coffee or of turpentine water
rolling downstairs
and finally
inserting slippery elm sticks
or knitting needles
or shoe hooks into the uterus”*

Sadie Sachs rises
What can I do to prevent it?
Please tell me the secret
I’ll never breathe it to a soul

Sweat shops turned fashion tenements
I am here and know the secret
exposed it through herbal
punctured it with uterine implants
moon cycled with 30 pills
showed young and old their cervix
guided fingers cupping
rubber domes and caps
we now walk these same streets
and stairs in rebellion
On demand
and without

for Roxane and daughters everywhere
*Sanger, My fight for birth control Pg.49

Margaret Sanger’s The Woman Rebel — 100 Years Old

It was in March 1914 that Margaret Sanger published the first issue of her radical, anarchist monthly, The Woman Rebel.  Edited and published by Sanger, who sought to educate and raise the consciousness of working women through a newspaper the_woman_rebel_march_1914_vol_1_no-_1devoted to their specific needs.  Emblazoned with the slogan, “No Gods, “No Masters,” it was designed as a  call to arms for working-class women.

From its first appearance that March, The Woman Rebel generated controversy, as each issue included discussions of such radical issues as the use of violence as a tool of striking workers to women’s right to sexual freedom. Sanger used the journal to assert that every woman had a right to be “absolute mistress of her own body,” including the right to practice birth control, a term coined for The Woman Rebel.

A statement the first issue of Sanger’s  intention to publish birth control information in the journal quickly drew the attention of postal authorities. They notified Sanger in April 1914 that she had violated obscenity laws. Sanger responded in the May issue by declaring that The Woman Rebel was “not going to be suppressed by the Post Office until it has accomplished the work which it has undertaken.” Three months later Margaret Sanger was formally indicted for violating the Federal Comstock Law. Unwilling to risk spending 20 years in jail, Sanger got on a train to Canada, acquired a false passport and sailed to England under the name “Bertha Watson.”

As her actions garnered attention and support for her fledgling movement, Sanger finally Indictmentreturned to New York to stand trial in 1915. But within a few months, her five-year old daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia. As expressions of sympathy poured in,  notable friends and supporters sent letters and petitions to President Woodrow Wilson  affirming their support for Sanger, while others raised defense funds. With the intensified coverage of The Woman Rebel case and the birth control movement, the government decided to avoid further publicity and decided not press charges.

Only eight issues of The Woman Rebel ever published, it was was one if the first publications to focus specifically on the problems of working women and to articulate a new feminist agenda for the 20th century. And  the attention and controversy it generated helped launch a national birth control movement with Margaret Sanger as its leader.  One hundred years later, it seems the battle has not yet been won!





The International Woman


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Although we at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project like to believe that women are important every day of the year, it is on March 8th that it is socially acceptable to tell this to the world with multiple exclamation points!!!  And so, we wish to say to you, in underlined, bold, capital letters, HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!

Each International Women’s Day is different.  I like to believe that it is because each of us has grown in our own special way since last March 8th, but more literally it is because every International Women’s Day has its own theme declared by the United Nations.  While each one is empowering, the themes give women and men alike a time to reflect on ways in which to make the world around them a better place.  2012 urged Empowerment to Rural Women and ending poverty and hunger, while 2013 called for an end to violence against women.  2014’s theme, however, is especially close to our hearts in that the United Nations urges us this year to Inspire Change.

At the 2009 Winter X Games, Burke of Whistler, British Columbia, poses with her gold medal after winning the women's skiing superpipe at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo.

At the 2009 Winter X Games, Burke of Whistler, British Columbia, poses with her gold medal after winning the women’s skiing superpipe at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo.

While a slightly general topic, inspiring change means something different to everyone with a dream.  Remembering the Sochi Winter Olympics, Sarah Burke comes to mind as a woman who devoted her whole life to change.  She successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee into adding the ski halfpipe event for men and women to the 2014 winter games schedule.  Though she passed away due to an accidental fall during a practice, Burke, a four-time Winter X Games gold medalist, was considered a shoe-in for a medal at Sochi.  Although gone from our physical lives, Burke will always be remembered in her dedication to advocating her passion.

There is no question that Margaret Sanger also had that passionate devotion for her cause of inspiring change.  Sanger risked enormous fines, substantial time in jail, and the separation from her family for extensive periods of time for the chance to give women the information she knew they needed and deserved.  The amount ground Sanger covered is tremendous enough – not only did she travel throughout the United States and Canada, but she also traversed Europe and Asia to reach the most remote pockets of people she could find.  And those people responded to her with open arms and an outpouring of gratitude.

Sanger prepares to speak in front of the Senate, 1934

Sanger prepares to speak in front of the Senate, 1934

But Sanger would be nothing if only a world traveler.  Not only did she speak around the world, but she challenged the American government’s laws that blocked her path in the first place.  Sanger testified often before Senate committees about changing the Comstock Law, section 211 of the U.S. Penal Code, which made it so difficult for women to obtain even the smallest amount of information about contraceptives.  After a so many failed efforts to win legislative change, Sanger and her team turned to the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit for a judicial victory.  In U.S. v. One Package Containing 120, more or less, Rubber Pessaries to Prevent Conception (U.S. v. One Package), Sanger and Hannah Stone, one of her clinic physicians, orchestrated a package delivery of a box of pessaries, another word for diaphragms, to be sent from Japan to Hannah Stone.  Sanger and Stone informed the U.S. government about the delivery, and because at this time not even physicians were allowed to receive contraception by mail a lawsuit was created.  Through years of battles, the suit traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, where Sanger and Stone won the right for physicians to receive contraception information and devices through the mail.  Although the Supreme Court decision was not made until 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut to grant the right to privacy to married couples and their contraceptive uses, Sanger was able to see her dream realized before her death a year later.

Sanger’s influence stayed with women long after her death.  In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that laws limiting contraceptive use to married couples was discriminatory, and that all people should have equal access to birth control.  From Justice Brennan’s majority ruling: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

This International Women’s Day challenges you to do something that inspires change.  Whether it is a small change, like drinking water rather than soda to improve health, or a bigger change, like lobbying for a new Olympic sport or a change in the federal law, each change in the direction of improvement is a change worth working toward.

For more information see:




The Sanger Paper Project Celebrates Women’s History Month

screenshot-msppwebWe are pleased to announce that the Margaret Sanger Papers Project’s website has been primped and updated just in time for Women’s History Month! Thanks to the hard work of our former editorial assistant Angela Wu (NYU 2013), and a University of Michigan intern, Sabarish Raghupathy, the site has a new look that we hope will take us through to the project’s completion. We invite you to explore the site and let us know how you like it.

This March is a very special Women’s History Month, as it also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger’s Woman Rebel, a fiery socialist and feminist journal covered many topics, but is best known for coining the phrase “birth control” and advocating for legalizing contraception. In the first issue Sanger laid out the Woman Rebel’s aims, including:

It will also be the aim of the WOMAN REBEL to advocate the prevention of conception and to impart such knowledge in the columns of this paper. (“The Aim,” Mar. 1914, p. 1)

Margaret Sanger also asked a question still pertinent today in “The Prevention of Conception,” also included in the first issue:

Is there any reason why women should not receive clean, harmless, scientific knowledge on how to prevent conception?

Sanger went on to explain why she was fighting for the working-class woman to get this information, claiming:

The women of the upper middle-class have all available knowledge and implements to prevent conception. The woman of the lower-middle class is struggling for this knowledge. She tries various methods of prevention, and after a few years of experience plus medical advice succeeds in discovering some method, suitable to her individual self. The woman of the people is the only one left in ignorance of this information.

The Woman Rebel was just the beginning of Sanger’s life-long campaign to make birth control available to every woman.  One hundred years after the Woman Rebel screeched its way into the public consciousness, the victories that Margaret Sanger fought so hard for are being challenged once again.

We see it most in a war over how Margaret Sanger should be portrayed, with ahistorical treatments commonly found on blogs and other websites. The Sanger Project’s goal is to make her own words accessible to the broadest possible audience. Margaret Sanger was a complex historical figure, and whether you like or loathe her, her efforts shaped the 20th century by empowering women to  take control of their reproductive lives and to devise a plan to fit childbearing in along with other life goals.

cropped-header4.jpgWhat better way is there than to spend Women’s History Month learning about a true Woman Rebel, Margaret Sanger? Our first three volumes are out and available.

donateAnd if you have the means, please consider supporting the work of the Margaret Sanger Papers.  We are working to finish up Volume 4, and are mounting and proofreading over 1,000 texts to the Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger.  This digital archive is free to the public and contains one copy of all extant Sanger speeches and short-form publications.

Have a Happy Women’s History Month– and don’t feel the need to stop celebrating when April rolls around!


For the complete text of the 100 year old “The Aim” and “The Prevention of Conception,” see our digital edition.


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