Working Class Dirt, Smell, and Sweat: Sanger and the Women’s Suffrage Party

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The first issue of Sanger's The Women Rebel.

The first issue of Sanger’s The Women Rebel.

As one of the loudest voices in the early Birth Control Movement and the founder of what is now Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential champions of women’s rights. Thus, it may come as a surprise to people that she had several issues with the woman’s suffrage movement. Looking at some of Sanger’s earlier publications, one can see why Sanger and other early birth control advocates did not always see eye to eye with the Women’s Suffrage Party.

In her 1911 article “Dirt, Smell and Sweat,” Sanger recounts a meeting of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party. At the time, the organization was seeking a state-wide referendum on women’s suffrage. Anna Ross Weeks, the chairperson of the meeting, spoke of the men who oppose women’s voting because they “would be obliged to bump against the dirty, smelly and sweaty men at the polls.” Mrs. Weeks replied to this objection with the suggestion of removing “the dirty, smelling, sweaty men from the polls.” In response, Sanger writes,

But what about the women who are liable to be just as dirty, smelly and sweaty as their working brothers? Are they, too, to be removed? Dirt is dirt, smell is smell, and sweat is sweat, no matter on whom these unfortunate afflictions happen to be. And if the chairman and her class object to the smell of the workingman, so will they object to the smell of the working woman.

As this quote illustrates, Sanger was distrustful of the Women’s Suffrage Party because they ignored the concerns of working class women far too often. This middle class bias in the suffrage movement existed for years; many suffragists even employed tactics to demonize the poor. For example, in 1894, the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt spoke about the danger she believed immigrants posed to American wealth:

There is but one way to avert the danger. Cut off the vote of the slums and give it to women.

The women's suffrage campaign in New Jersey.

The women’s suffrage campaign in New Jersey, taken from the Library of Congress.

Poor, black, and immigrant women were consequently alienated from the suffrage movement.

Also, unlike many of the wealthy women in the suffrage movement, working class women had more immediate concerns, such as fair wages and access to birth control. In fact, with the extent to which the working class was plagued by infant and maternal mortality rates, access to birth control became a question of life or death. Even when women and children survived childbirth, the problems did not subside. Many working class families had no choice but to send their children to work, exposing them to hazardous conditions and long hours.

For Sanger, all of these issues were intertwined. She called attention to the class issues inherent in the birth control movement when she wrote,

Both physically and mentally the children of the rich are developed to the highest degree. Schools, colleges, universities are built for them. The children of the working class are developed only that profits may be wrung from them as early in life or as soon as the masters dare to.

Thus, birth control provided working class women with agency over their own bodies within a sexual context, as well as within a system that exploited their labor and the labor of their children. For working class women, gaining that level of agency took precedence over the political freedom that came with voting. Margaret Sanger understood that the stakes were high for these women and she was committed to fighting for them. Ultimately, the Women’s Suffrage Party’s lack of an intersectional approach prevented them from understanding the dirt, smell, and sweat of working class women.


Further Reading:

The Early Birth Control Movement and Consent: Marriage Means Yes?

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The Fight for Birth Control, one of Sanger’s many pamphlets, was published in 1916.

During my time at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, I have had the pleasure of reading a variety of texts written by or about Margaret Sanger. Often, the most surprising aspect of reading these texts is the underlying ideology that is revealed. Louis Althusser teaches us that an ideology is a way of thinking that permeates our society so completely, that it simply becomes “the way it is.” By championing for access to birth control, Sanger certainly challenged the ideology that having more children than one can handle is an inevitable part of life. However, looking back from our contemporary vantage point, it is clear that Sanger was at the very beginning of a fight against multiple harmful ideologies, some of which persisted even after Sanger’s death.

One of these ideologies is revealed in the language that Sanger and her contemporaries use to discuss birth control and marriage: the assumption that a woman must submit to her husband’s sexual desires. This topic is rarely discussed in a straightforward manner, but some documents attempt to grapple with it in some form.  For example, Sanger “and other early advocates made it clear that men could not be trusted when it came to contraception and were, generally, unwilling to sacrifice any degree of pleasure.” In fact, in a pamphlet entitled Dutch Methods of Birth Control, Sanger even goes as far as to publish a description by a Dutch writer about how to slip a condom on to one’s drunk husband  in the event that one is forced to have sex with him:

When the husband is drunk, and his wife, fearing that a miserable child will be born, has not other preventative at hand, she can perhaps apply the French Letter as if caressing him, when he does not know what he is doing. At all events, she should always take care that one or two French Letters be ready for use.

To a contemporary reader, the implications of this passage can be alarming, as there seems to be no concept of consent. After my initial reading of this passage, it looked as though Sanger and her contemporaries focused on helping women gain agency over their bodies because they saw this approach as being more fruitful than holding men accountable for their actions. To some extent, women felt the need to arm themselves against their husbands. To better understand this, I looked into the etymology of consent on the Oxford English Dictionary. The first reference to sexual consent appears in the early 1800s, with regards to the age of consent, or the age at which people can agree to marriage and sexual intercourse. What is striking about this discovery is the way in which consent was inherently linked to marriage. Thus, the ideology that marriage was a 24/7 consent pass does not come as a surprise.

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This protester’s sign shows us that we have come a long way in terms of consent.

In the United States, marital rape was exempted from rape laws until the mid-1970s because of the belief that men were entitled to have sex with their wives whenever they wanted. This marital rape exemption was not eradicated from every state until 1993. To this day, a number of states have more lenient penalties for marital rape. 

With this in mind, we can see that Sanger was battling centuries of patriarchal ideology when she said that “no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” Although the language of sexual consent did not exist in Sanger’s time as it does now, Sanger certainly broached the topic in her own way. She often spoke of the importance of open communication in order to maintain a healthy and happy marriage, especially when it came to sex. In “What Margaret Sanger Thinks About Marriage,” she writes:

For marriage built on the shifting sands of fear, shame and ignorance can never lead to happiness, yet if contracted with a frank recognition of the central importance of the beauty of sex in life, alike in its physiological, psychological and spiritual aspects, happiness becomes a glowing possibility. This is a buried treasure to be unearthed by true lovers. It may be imbedded in the rich soil of mutual respect and consideration.

Thus, although Sanger did not talk about consent in the same way that we do now, she preached the importance of mutual respect and understanding, which are ultimately the foundation for consent as we understand it today.

Paired with Sanger’s insistence in a woman’s right to her own body, this emphasis on healthy relationships allowed us to reach a point where yes means yes and no means no, regardless of the circumstances.


Further reading:

The Blue Eagle Vs. The Stork

On January 16, 1934, the Pottstown Mercury reported, “Before a banner which depicted the blue eagle’s lightning bolt warring with numerous storks, Margaret Sanger today launched the first ‘American conference on birth control and national recovery.’” From reading other newspaper articles about speeches that Sanger gave in the 1930s, it seems that this banner became the symbol of the birth control movement. Unfortunately, in searching through all of our photographs from the 1930s here at the Sanger Papers and in the archives of the Library of Congress, I was unsuccessful in finding a picture of the actual banner anywhere. However, the journalists did a pretty good job describing it in detail, and from their descriptions we can still discuss the profound symbolism inherent in this banner.

Most of us are probably familiar with the stork fable¬¬—it is one of the most popular myths about the origin of children in the world. The fable is also well known throughout Europe and the Americas, and even reached some countries in the Far East (like the Phillipines). The origins of the myth can be traced back to the Ancient Mediterranean. Greek mythology portrays the stork as a model of parental devotion, the epitome of filial values. The Greek law called Pelargonia, from the Ancient Greek word pelargos for stork, required citizens to take care of their aging parents. Perhaps for this reason, the Greeks also held that killing a stork could be punished with death. The Romans dedicated the stork to the goddess Juno, the goddess of fertility and protector of women. Women who were barren prayed to her. The Hebrew word for stork, chasida, means “kind” or “merciful” one, apparently because of the positive attributes associated with the stork. This word has been in the Hebrew language since biblical times, thus attesting to the ancient roots of the stork legend.

Supposed filial virtues of the stork Unknown (1831). Descriptive Scenes for Children. Boston: N.S. and S.G. Simpkins. p. 3. OCLC 31373438 – via The Internet Archive.

In discussing the origin for the German word for stork, Grimm states that it reaches back to heathen times, concluding that the choice of meanings of the stem words is either “luck bringer” or “child bringer.” German folklore held that storks found babies in caves or marshes and brought them to households in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. The baby would either be delivered directly to the mother or dropped down the chimney. Households would notify when they wanted children by placing sweets for the stork on the window sill. This version of the fable has spread all over the world, and, of course, became popular in America as well.

Der Klapperstorch (The Stork), a painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885)

The blue eagle has a lot of symbolism of its own. The Blue Eagle was a symbol used in the United States by companies to show compliance with the National Industrial Recovery Act, and was proclaimed the symbol of industrial recovery on July 20, 1933, by Hugh S. Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). In most NRA posters, the bird holds a gear, symbolizing industry, in its right talon, and bolts of lightning in its left talon, symbolizing power.

NRA Blue Eagle

So, the stork, as we have seen, was the nearly universal symbol of childbirth and motherhood, and the blue eagle the icon of industrial/economic recovery in the wake of the Great Depression. The juxtaposition of these two images on the same banner is incredibly significant and very characteristic Margaret Sanger. Sanger famously theorized that most, if not all, of the world’s problems—food shortages, job shortages, even war– can be traced back to overpopulation. She believed that a widespread adoption of birth control would effectively decrease the world’s population and solve many of these issues. Therefore, her banner containing a blue eagle and its lightning bolt fighting off storks represents her belief that economic recovery can only be attained if we fight off the storks– if we can prevent pregnancy and put an end to overpopulation.

In her speech at the conference, Sanger explained the connection between these two birds:

“While the N.R.A. strives through its many codes to increase employment and thus to raise the purchasing power of the people in general, it does not provide for lightening the burden of the parents by reducing the number of mouths that each wage-earner must feed or which the public must feed for him. While the N. R. A. has ↑as↓ its emblem the blue eagle, I am afraid that the six million pauperized children have as their emblem a stork that has the blues.”  (America Needs a Code for Babies, Mar. 27, 1934 – link to digital http://sangerpapers.org/sanger/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=101807.xml)

For Sanger’s opening address at the conference, see “Address of Welcome to the American Conference on Birth Control and National Recovery ,” 15 Jan 1934 (link http://sangerpapers.org/sanger/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=157134.xml)

Poor Women, Big Families

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The Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference

The International Aspects of Birth Control – Volume 1 – edited by Margaret Sanger, contains multiple articles from activists around the world about the struggle in their country for Birth Control rights.

While transcribing the 1925 book edited by Margaret Sanger titled The Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conferences: International Aspects of Birth Control I couldn’t help but be surprised by the amount of opposition faced by the original pioneers for Birth Control. Mrs. H. G. Hill, the president of the Alameda County Birth Control League in 1924, sums up the resistance when she wrote that, “There still exists in the minds of the masses a great deal of prejudice,  misunderstanding and indifference in regard to our work.” As all civil rights movements have shown us, sometimes the ignorance of the public proves to be the hardest obstacle to overcome. In response, Margaret Sanger was avid about publishing articles, pamphlets, and giving lectures.

For example, not everyone understood the need to limit big families. It was preached in Christian churches, which dominated the culture’s popular view, that “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Similar verses were used against the fight for Birth Control to prove that the movement was anti-God and anti-morals.

Jean H. Baker's Biography of Margaret Sanger

Jean H. Baker’s Biography of Margaret Sanger

Sanger was under no illusion that poor women with big families were always blessed. In Jean H. Baker’s autobiography of Sanger, she talks about how Sanger’s mother “had given birth to eleven children in twenty-two years and suffered seven miscarriages. She had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage.” A few years after her last child was born, Sanger’s mother died of tuberculosis.

My mother died at 48,” wrote Sanger in sentences that needed no further explanation to make her point. “My father lived to be 80.’

Despite the toll pregnancy and miscarriages took on women, popular view still held that children were blessings and to prevent one would be to prevent the other. One of the best responses to such a claim comes from Maria Kirstine Dorothea Jensen, known better as Thit Jensen. Jensen was a Danish writer in the early twentieth century who fought for women’s rights and founded an Organization for Sexual Awareness in Denmark. In one of her articles she wrote about a physician who openly bashed the idea of women with the freedom to chose when to have children:

When I first lectured about Birth Control, it happened that a physician for women interfered – I think he was afraid it might spoil his practice, if there were not to be so many sick and half-killed women, when they finished child-bearing in a reasonable time. He had the nerve to go on to my platform and try to take over my audience – of course, he didn’t know me, he talked the most perfect hymn of cheap sentimentality about the poor good mother – the darling mother who gave birth to her sixteenth child and happily took it to her heart and it was wonderful.

And of course, you know an audience; he appealed to their childishness and they applauded him. I could not stand that, exactly at my start, so I got onto the platform and told him just what I happened to know:

‘In your clinic, this very noon, a poor woman died after Thit Jensenhaving borne her ninth child. She had been your patient through several years; you had told her that if she were to bear another child, she would die. You didn’t tell her how to avoid it, you only sent her home to her husband, knowing that the law forbade her not to live with him. She became pregnant, and she died, promptly, as you told her. But…who killed her? You, who had the knowledge, or she who knew nothing. And, tell me please, if she had been a rich woman, belonging to society, and your patient, would she ever have had to die from nine small children? Certainly not, because then she would never have had so many.’

The audience exploded, being poor people most of them.

He never answered a word.

The audience’s opinion changed rather quickly when they heard the truth; women were dying unnecessarily from their excessive pregnancies, particularly women who were poor and didn’t understand their options. Ignorant claims about traditional families and the public’s lack of knowledge kept women like Margaret Sanger and Thit Jensen fighting, lecturing and publishing for as long as they did.


For full article written by Jensen see:

http://beta.birthcontrol-international.org/items/show/14

For full Alameda County Birth Control League article see:

http://beta.birthcontrol-international.org/items/show/196

Sanger and the Ever Elusive Male Birth Control

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From pills, to implants, to patches, Sanger would be awestruck at the variety of birth control methods available to women today. Many women are now able to choose the birth control method that best fits their needs and lifestyles. For Sanger, who believed that “no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body,” this would have been a huge feat, despite the drawbacks of these methods. Birth control can be expensive and comes with an array of side effects, ranging from mood swings to heart attacks. In fact, for many women today, there is still a great deal to be done in terms of access to safe and effective birth control.

One avenue that has been largely unexplored until recent years is male birth control. Early advocates of birth control, including Sanger, were not very enthusiastic about male-controlled methods, which at the time, included condoms and withdrawal. Sanger felt that these methods “placed the burden of responsibility solely upon the husband – a burden which he seldom assumed.” Instead, the women who came to her were seeking “self-protection she could herself use, and there was none.” In other words, women did not feel comfortable trusting their husbands with birth control, and sought a way in which they could, in a sense, arm themselves from unwanted pregnancies. Thus, the emphasis of female birth control methods has its roots in the early years of the birth control movement. Female-controlled methods such as diaphragms became popularized by the birth control movement because they gave women agency in their reproductive lives.

A condom made out of caecal, or animal gut membrane, c. 1910. (Courtesy of the Science Museum, London)

A condom made out of caecal, or animal gut membrane, c. 1910. (Courtesy of the Science Museum, London)

Additionally, there is reason to believe that Sanger’s focus on female-controlled methods was a strategic move on her part. Women who relied on condoms for birth control did not need to visit birth control clinics. Sanger would have seen this as an immeasurable loss, because birth control clinics were often the only way women became adequately educated on their health and sexuality. The need for clinics also helped legitimize birth control as a public concern that was deserving of acceptance and state-sponsored support.

However, now that is has been over a century since Sanger’s first publication of “Family Limitation,” the issues women face when it comes to reproductive rights have evolved. Enter male birth control. Specifically, Vasalgel. According to the Parsemus Foundation‘s website, Vasalgel is a “long-acting, non-hormonal contraceptive similar to vasectomy but with one significant advantage: it is likely to be more reversible.” It involves injecting a gel into the vas deferens in order to stop the flow of sperm. Vasalgel can be flushed out through a second injection if one wishes to restore their sperm flow. Although it could be a while until Vasalgel passes clinical trials and makes it way on to the market, the public’s increasing interest in this type of birth control shows us that we have come a long way since the start of the birth control movement.

Image courtesy of the Parsemus Foundation

Image courtesy of the Parsemus Foundation

The possibility of safe, effective, and long-term male contraception reveals a cultural shift in the way that we see birth control. It is no longer solely the woman’s burden to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Vasalgel shows us that men are starting to be held accountable as well. Although Sanger was against male-controlled contraceptives in the early years of the birth control movement, one could argue that products such as Vasalgel and what they tell us about how far we have come in terms of reproductive rights would certainly impress her.


For more information on Sanger’s stance on male birth control, check out these sources:

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