Margaret Sanger’s Banned Film

A still from Birth Control

A still from Birth Control

What could Scarface, Monty Python and the Life of Brian, and Margaret Sanger’s 1917 film Birth Control possibly have in common? I’ll give you a minute to think…

The answer is that all three have been censored to some extent in the United States. While we might not think of an informative film about the benefits of birth control as particularly inflammatory today, the censorship of Sanger’s film represents a culmination of the government’s opinion on public discourse of birth control and women’s rights, as well as the proclivity to censor “unsavory” topics. Since March is Women’s History month, let’s look at yet another moment in which Sanger’s passion for educating women and promoting the safe use of birth control was met with censorship and opposition.

1917 can be considered a tumultuous year for Margaret Sanger by anyone’s account. In February, Sanger was sent to jail after opening and running an illegal birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The Brownsville clinic was only open for ten days before the police raided and shut it down, justifying their actions through New York’s Comstock Law which prohibited circulation of obscene literature. Since birth control was considered obscene, the Brownsville clinic was illegal. Sanger served 30 days, and on March 6th was released from the Queens County Penitentiary.

releaseSanger’s stint in jail was only a brief break from her work to promote birth control. She had already begun work on a feature film on the subject of birth control before her imprisonment, and continued work on it directly afterward. Sanger had always been very interested in art, and even dabbled in painting and fiction throughout her life. It was certainly no surprise that she decided to try to combine her work in birth control with a new type of art–film.

The premise of the film, entitled alternatively Birth Control, or The New World, depending on the prospective audience, was rather simple. It dramatized Margaret Sanger’s work, her birth control clinics, and her arrest, as well as Sanger’s hopes for the future with birth control. Birth Control was to be part documentary and part narrative story, starring Sanger as the leading role. An advertisement for the film claimed it to be, “An Honest Birth Control Film At Last!”. Sanger planned to tour the country with the film, donating a large part of the profits directly to the birth control movement.


The New York Times, May 7, 1917

These plans were cut short even more swiftly than the Brownstone clinic was closed. The film was banned by license commissioner George Bell immediately before the New York City screening because he deemed the subject matter to be, “immoral, indecent, and contrary to public welfare”.  Crowds already lined up to see the film at the Park Theatre had to be turned away, unaware of the last-minute decision. Instead, the film was shown at a private screening for roughly 200 members of press and those affiliated with the birth control movement. This was the first and last screening of Birth Control.

Following the confusion surrounding the “premiere”, there was an argument in the New York State Appellate Supreme Court about whether the ban should be lifted. Supreme Court Judge Nathan Bijur defended Sanger’s film, but was met with adverse opinions. Ultimately, Birth Control was the first film to be banned under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision, which ruled that protection of freedom of speech through the First Amendment did not apply to film because they classified it as purely a business, not

art. The court ruled that the film was contrary to, “the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare”, thus it was in society’s best interest to censor it. It is also notable that Birth Control was the first woman-produced film to be banned in the United States. The Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission was eventually overturned in 1952, legally granting film protection as an artistic medium. Despite this, Birth Control was never shown again to the public, and despite many efforts to locate a copy of it, it has not been found.


For More Information of the 1917 Birth Control film, check out:

For legal proceedings, that include some of the screenplay of the film, consult: MESSAGE PHOTO-PLAY CO., INC. v. BELL, 179 App. Div. 13 (N.Y. App. Div. 1917) (Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Collected Documents Series C15:486-490).

 Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990)

Larry Langman, American Film Cycles: The Silent Era (1998)

Manon Parry, Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning (2013)

Sanger Slept Here: The Grace Dodge Hotel, Washington DC

The Grace Dodge Hotel in Washington DC was created to become a haven for women workers during World War I. 121826-2Although the construction of the seven story building was not completed until after the war, in 1921, the hotel was a strongly woman-only space, even if for only a brief part of its history. Nevertheless, it is no surprise that Margaret Sanger chose to stay here overnight on January 3, 1926.

The Grace Dodge Hotel has an interesting and unique history rooted deeply in women and politics. The owner of the hotel, Grace Hoadley Dodge, was a wealthy philanthropist and president of the YWCA.

Grace Hoadley Dodge

In fact, the hotel was run by the YWCA for many years. Dodge committed much of her time and money toward helping employed women. It follows that the hotel, located at North Capitol and E Streets, NW, was targeted toward business women, workers, and tourists. It also accommodated mothers traveling with their young children, offering suites with cribs and “sanitary appliances for heating the milk bottle in a hurry”.

In honor of the grand opening of the hotel, Grace Coolidge, wife of president Calvin Coolidge, visited the Grace Dodge Hotel in October 1921. While there, she remarked on its special ability for holding women’s conventions and its homey atmosphere. The Washington Post commented further that even the layout of the hotel supported strong female discourse,“There’s a parlor on every bedroom floor, where women may hold conclaves undisturbed by any blundering male, for men are absolutely taboo above the street floor”.

The price to stay at the Grace Dodge Hotel ranged from $1.50 to $4.00 per night in 1921, which with inflation is about $20 to $53 today. The Grace Dodge held some historically unusual and progressive rules. The staff was originally exclusively women. Tips were strictly against the hotel’s policies since the staff was paid a fair wage and did not board or take free meals. There was also a ban on the sale of tobacco products in the hotel.

By the time Margaret Sanger stayed here, the Grace Dodge had already been accepting male guests for nearly two years. While she was in DC, Sanger gave a speech at the Baltimore Open Forum, a weekly open forum on topics related to politics, art, and current issues that boasted many other prominent speakers, including W.E.B. Du Bois.

Baltimore Open Forum schedule,  1936

Baltimore Open Forum schedule, 1936

During her speech, Sanger argued that birth control could be a means to avert infantile deaths, and that “Birth Control does not mean no children. It means bringing into the world only such children as are wanted by healthy parents”.

Although the uniquely progressive aspects of the hotel diminished with time, The Grace Dodge Hotel, later shortened to The Dodge Hotel, remained open until its demolition in 1972.

For more information on the Grace Dodge Hotel, visit:

To read Sanger’s full speech at the Baltimore Open Forum, click here.

Click here for our map of Sanger’s travels.

Kitty Marion, Broadway’s Local Suffragette Gets Arrested for Distributing “Obscene” Literature

The-Birth-Control-ReviewBack in 1918 a familiar sight for New Yorkers was German-born Kitty Marion running up and down Broadway clutching a stack of the Birth Control Review and proudly waving them in the air,  most likely with the police directly behind her. Kitty was arrested for the ninth time in 1918 after again violating the law against the sale and distribution of obscene literature. She chose a 30-day sentence over the option of paying a fine of $500, saying “put the Kitty Marion Selling Birth Control Reviewmoney into The Birth Control Review, I’ll stay in jail”.


That sentiment did not stop Kitty’s friend Mary Halton, one of New York’s eminent woman obstetricians, from bringing $500 in bags of pennies collected by the lovely ladies of the east side to the judge. Remember when Samsung allegedly paid a fine to Apple in all pennies? Your neighborhood suffragettes did it first.

Kitty didn’t abstain from her duty of spreading this “illegal” knowledge. Once she was released,  she was back at it the next day.

All types of people stopped to see what the fuss was about, why this woman kept coming back with a bag across her chest and papers in the air. Kitty ran into the types you would expect she described the as the “you oughts”

You ought- to be ashamed,- to be arrested,- to be in jail,- to be shot,- to be hanged, or, maybe what I ought to suffer was just ostracism. According to me good sisters, my action in selling The Review and advocating birth control, was disgraceful, disgusting, scandalous, outrageous, villainous, criminal, and unladylike! The poor dears!

Not everyone that passed by Kitty wished she’d simply just disappear.  The positive feedback she and her sisters received gave them hope to carry on, it inspired them when they met people who had a spark of desire to learn more and make a change for the better. People would shout “good luck!” or commend the women on their courage. Men, women, people of faith, all purchased a copy of this outlawed paper.

Arrested for informing the public on a topic otherwise termed taboo Kitty Marion proved that just one person who believed that she could make a difference, could make women’s lives better, even if it was at the expense of her own. Despite arrests and catcalls, she fought what she saw as the injustice of the Comstock law, quoting Helen Keller, when she said,

The dignity of human nature compels us to resist what we believe wrong and a stumbling block to our fellow man



Not My Sanger

 We recently got a query about where the following quote, attributed to Margaret Sanger, came from:

Margaret Sangster

Margaret Sangster

“The mother memories that are closest to my heart are    the small gentle ones that I have carried over from the days of my childhood. They are not profound, but they have stayed with me through life, and when I am very old, they will still be near . . . Memories of mother drying my tears, reading aloud, cutting cookies and singing as she did, listening to prayers I said as I knelt with my forehead pressed against her knee, tucking me in bed and turning down the light. They have carried me through the years and given my life such a firm foundation that it does not rock beneath flood or tempest.”

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

I got worried. Could she actually have written this?  I haven’t read anything so mawkish, so sentimental, so “unSanger-like” in a long time.   Then the discovery — it was written by Margaret Sangster, late 19th century poet and  writer for the Woman’s Home Companion and Harper’s Bazaar, who often penned pieces  about good manners, the art of homemaking, and “Winsome Womanhood.” She certainly did not write for Socialist journals like the New York The Call on the importance of sex education, how to avoid venereal disease, and ways to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Thank goodness we are working on a different Margaret!

S(anger) Goes Postal in “The Woman Rebel”


, , ,

Margaret Sanger, ca. 1916.

Margaret Sanger, ca. 1916.

“To me it was outrageous that information regarding motherhood, which was so generally called sacred, should be classed with pornography,” Sanger recalled in her 1938 autobiography. The anger displayed in this quotation is the focus of an article by Emily Winderman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, recently published in the Rhetoric & Public Affairs Journal. The article analyzes Sanger’s use of anger as a public emotion in The Woman Rebel.

As Winderman notes, several Sanger scholars have dismissed The Woman Rebel, which turned 100 this year, because of its angry tone. Even scholars who seem more sympathetic to the emotional tone of The Woman Rebel have encouraged those interested in the publication to look past the anger to see its value.

Winderman begins her article by analyzing the use of anger as a “public” emotion. She notes that it has historically been included in the repertoire of public emotions and that it can act as a moralizing emotion, but she also notes that women who dared to demonstrate anger were often diagnosed as “hysterical” and as lacking in sound judgment. Anger has the ability to unite and motivate people who feel strongly about similar injustices, but for those who do not experience an injustice, anger about it seems alienating and inappropriate.


A snippet from the March 1914 issue.

Next, Winderman turns to the role of The Woman Rebel in challenging the accepted virtue of “Republican Motherhood” and the cult of domesticity: the idea that upper- and middle-class Anglo-Saxon women would rear sons who were both moral and politically-minded. This virtue was unavailable to lower-class and non-white women. Comstock’s morality laws – the same laws under which Sanger was prosecuted for attempting to mail The Woman Rebel – were designed, he said, “to protect the morals of the youth and inexperienced.” These morals were the same morals that would be instilled by proper republican mothers.

Winderman then turns to The Woman Rebel itself, studying it through the lens she has laid out previously. Sanger recast the relationship between mothers and the body politic as a parasitic relationship, in which political institutions supported themselves on the backs of unwilling poor mothers. Then, The Woman Rebel calls for women to

recreate the revolutionary spirit of your class, the ardor of which you yourselves have enchained in thousands of cases.

By inverting this traditional relationship, Winderman argues, Sanger creates a space where poor women can feel legitimate moral outrage at their treatment.

Rhetorical devices such as metaphors like the one just described and anaphora (“the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses”) helped to build anger and a sense of solidarity among the working women who were the target audience of The Woman Rebel. Another technique to instill anger and solidarity was the clear demarcation of enemies, including the state, the church, and wealthy suffragettes, who were privileged with knowledge of contraception. Collective identity was also forged through a set of rallying precepts such as:

REBEL WOMEN WANTED: WHO deny the right of the State to deprive women of such knowledge as would enable them to take upon themselves voluntary motherhood…

Finally, the letters from the public which were published in The Woman Rebel substantiated this common sense of anger and moral outrage.

Speaking on the eve of her trial, Sanger told her audience:

They tell me that The Woman Rebel was badly written; that it was crude; that it was emotional, and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty.

In her conclusion, Winderman notes the role that anger played throughout Sanger’s career and in the history of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which has used the phrase “Be Brave and Angry” throughout its history.

For a complete set of the Woman Rebel, see “Margaret Sanger and the Woman Rebel,” a digital edition created in 1997; for searchable versions of Sanger’s Woman Rebel articles, see The Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger. For Sanger’s complete speech, see “Hotel Brevoot Speech,” Jan. 17, 1916.

Emily Winderman, “S(anger) Goes Postal in The Woman Rebel: Angry Rhetoric as a Collectivizing Moral Emotion,”Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2014, pp. 381-420. (Link–must have Project Muse access)

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