Brownsville Clinic Open 99 Years Ago


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Today is the 99th anniversary of the day Margaret Sanger opened this nation’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. We thought this was a good opportunity to revisit that event from Sanger’s own reminiscences. In an article entitled, “Why I Went to Jail,” published in February 1960, she recalled,

brownsville exterior

Clinic exterior at 46 Amboy Street

brownsville interior

Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and Yiddish interpreter Fania Mindell counseling clients.

“It was a crisp, bright morning on October 16, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y., that I opened the doors of the first birth-control clinic in the United States. I believed then, and do today, that this was an event of social significance in the lives of American womanhood. ” She wrote. “Three years before, as a professional nurse, I had gone with a doctor on a call in New York’s lower East Side. I had watched a frail mother die from a self-induced abortion. The doctor previously had refused to give her contraceptive information. The mother was one of a thousand such cases; in New   York alone there were over 100,000 abortions a year. That night I knew I could not go on merely nursing, allowing mothers to suffer and die. . . . It was the beginning of my birth-control crusade.”
Sanger’s biggest concern was whether the women would come to clinic. She need not have worried. As she described it,


Sanger and Fania Mindell

“Halfway to the corner they stood in line, shawled, hatless, their red hands          clasping the chapped smaller ones of their children. All day long and far into the evening, in ever-increasing numbers they came, over 100 the opening day. Jews and Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike made their confessions to us. . . .Every day the little waiting room was crowded. The women came in pairs, with friends, married daughters, some with nursing babies clasped in their arms. Women from the far end of Long Island, the press having spread the word, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. They came to learn the ‘secret’ which was possessed by the rich and denied the poor.”
She continued, “My sister and I lectured to eight women at a time on the basic techniques of contraception, referring them to a druggist to purchase the necessary equipment. Records were meticulously kept. It was vital to have complete case histories if our work was to have scientific value. We also gave many of the women copies of What Every Girl Should Know, a brief booklet I had written earlier.”

The stories of the women were indeed tragic. “One woman told of her 15 children. Six were living. ‘I’m 37 years old. Look at me! I might be 50!’ Then there was a reluctantly pregnant Jewish woman who, after bringing eight children to birth, had two abortions and heaven knows how many miscarriages. Worn out, not only from housework but from making hats in a sweatshop, nervous beyond words, she cried morbidly, ‘If you don’t help me, I’m going to chop up a glass and swallow it.’ I comforted her the best I could, but there was nothing I would do to interrupt her pregnancy. We believed in birth control, not abortion.”

But the clinic was not always a tragic scene. Sanger recalled how they were cheered by neighbors. “The grocer’s wife on the corner dropped in to wish us luck, and the jolly old German baker whose wife gave out handbills to everybody passing the door sent us doughnuts. Then Mrs. Rabinowitz would call to us, ‘If I bring some hot tea now, will you stop the people coming?’ The postman delivering his 50 to 100 letters daily had his little pleasantry, ‘Farewell ladies; hope I find you here tomorrow.’”
He was right—their time was growing short. Sanger wrote, “On the ninth day, a well-dressed, hard-faced woman pushed her way past the humble applicants, gave her name, flaunted a $2 bill, payment for What Every Girl Should Know, and demanded immediate attention. My colleague had a hunch she might be a detective, and pinned the bill on the wall and wrote: ‘Received from Mrs. ——— of the Police Department, as her contribution.’” The following afternoon, according to Sanger, on Oct. 26, “the policewoman again pushed her way through the group of patiently waiting women and, striding into my room, snapped peremptorily, ‘You, Margaret Sanger, are under arrest.’”

Sanger was arrested, tried, convicted and spent 30 days in the queens County Penitentiary. But she went on to lead a crusade to make birth control legal, safe, effective, inexpensive and available to all women regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Can we still be struggling to ensure women’s reproductive rights 99 years later?

Again the Question: Was Margaret Sanger a Racist.

Here is Politifact’s  response to the latest charge by Ben Carson.

Margaret Sanger and Modern Art



Bisttram's Sunlight in the Canyon

Bisttram’s Sunlight in the Canyon

During the fall of 1946, Margaret Sanger took an art class by the Modern and abstract artist Emil Bisttram for several weeks in Los Angeles. Bistram was among the first painters from Taos, New Mexico to rebel from the more traditional and studious painting styles. He was a proponent of dynamic symmetry, an art style which relies on mathematical ratios and asymmetrical compositions.

As a social activist, Sanger knew all about rebelling against traditional ideas. She had been well versed in art since her marriage to William Sanger and their years in New York City in the early 1900’s. Their friends had included known modernists and she saw the first major American exhibition of cubist and avant-garde European art at the seminal Armory Show in 1913. These classes, the culture that surrounded her, along with Sanger’s romantic relationship with the artist Hobson Pittman and her friendship with the artist and teacher Ralph Pearson, who she worked with while living in New York, kept her love for art alive. She even did some painting herself, taking a trip to Haiti in 1948, “lured by the island’s magnificent light, spectacular mountains and an artistic awakening,” in order to create her own art.

Juliet Barrett Rublee

Juliet Barrett Rublee

Not everyone was impressed by the Modern art movement. In fact, many people were disgusted by art’s major turn in stylistic form. Juliet Barrett Rublee, close friend of Margaret Sanger, was one of those people. Sanger and Rublee saw eye-to-eye on many issues, but modern art was not one of them. We might expect her to be more appreciative of Modern art, since Rublee, also a Birth Control activist, fought against traditional and conservative thought. Rublee was quite the “eccentric socialite.” She was a screenwriter and producer and was known for her work on the film “The Flame of Mexico.” She was also active in Modern dance in the 20’s and once led a diving expedition for treasure in the Mediterranean. The expedition ended in her kidnapping and being held for ransom. But when it came to Modern paintings, she wasn’t so open minded.

In letters between Rublee and Sanger, Sanger defended the paintings which she thought expressed the “universal spirituality of form.” Rublee disagreed and found the same paintings soulless and lacking in grace and beauty: “I should be looking for Beauty,” Rublee wrote to Sanger, “which touches my heart & soul & mind and inspires & gladdens me, because it is beautiful. You, if I understand you correctly, would be finding beauty in things which to me are hideous & quite lacking in any intellectual or spiritual quality.”

Sanger’s good friend did not stop there. She suggested that Sanger was confused and foolish in thinking that there was any beauty in Modern paintings, paintings which Sanger thought interesting and fascinating. Rublee wrote to Sanger:


Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror

For instance the picture called ‘the Mirror’ – of which you say – ‘He is expressing the whole not a part of the woman – fascinating–’ It seems to me utterly silly to say that those absurdly placed lines showing a head with no brains or back part to it, a huge leaf hanging down instead of an ear, a neck that looks like a pyramid of Egypt, a back side with part of a striped bathing suit on it, and little and big circles scattered around in her belly & breast, an arm that does not connect with the body, is much too long, & has for a hand five fingers & no thumbs – To say that all this badly drawn non-sense & meaninglessness, is ‘the whole of the woman’ is not only silly, but idiotic & certainly shows no capacity to observe what a woman is really like, in whole or in part. Whoopee–

And how about Picasso’s equally famous The Young Ladies of Avignon? Rublee thought they were “hideous creatures deformed, badly drawn, horrible: impossible to say whether they are men or women, one looks like a monkey or baboon, another looks like a monster out of a child’s nightmare.” So, perhaps Rublee didn’t quite understand what Picasso was going for. But Sanger saw something different. According to Rublee, Sanger agreed that, “These are not faces to adore” but also added that “Its all the question of Enlightenment. The men of the Renaissance were enlightened for their period & age but men’s minds of today have gone beyond their idea of form & sweetness.”


Picasso’s The Young Ladies of Avignon

While many see Modern paintings as nothing more than a collection of arbitrary shapes and designs, Sanger found excitement and curiosity in such distortions and a sense of rhythm in broken form. According to Sanger (quoted from Rublee): “The artist of today would be ashamed to portray the form only in color & design without probing inside the form & expressing the truth as he sees it.”

Further reading:
For more on Rublee, see here.
For more on Rublee and her relationship with Sanger see here:
For more about Sanger and Haiti see here.
For more on Bisttram see here.

*quotes from the letter “Juliet Rublee to MS, Nov. 4, 1946 [MSM S26:342]”

When Social Reformers Fall in Love: Milly Witcop and Rudolf Rocker

MillyWitkopYou might have heard of her sister, the anarchist Rose Witcop (also spelled Witkop). You might have heard of her life-long companion, another famous anarchist, Rudolf Rocker. Perhaps you’ve heard of her son, the artist Fermin Rocker. Most likely though, you’ve never heard of her, or of the Rocker family for that matter.

Born to a Jewish Ukrainian-Russian family, Milly Witcop was sent to London when she was seventeen. There she worked in a sweatshop in order to pay for her parents’ and sisters’ passage to England. The hard work and her eventual involvement in a bakers’ strike led to her involvement with the Jewish anarchist newspaper Arbayter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend).

220px-Rudolf_RockerBorn to a German family four years before Milly’s birth, Rudolf Rocker experienced hardship early on with his father’s death in 1877 and his mother’s death ten years later. He ended up in a Catholic orphanage as a teenager. After running away to become a typographer, Rocker read works by Marx, Lasall, Bebel and Bakunin. Rocker became a member of the Union of Independent Socialists and founded a local section in Mainz, which mostly distributed anarchist literature smuggled in from Belgium or the Netherlands. While speaking at a Labor Union meeting, Rocker barely escaped after police came in to break it up. Eventually, Rocker found himself in London, where he met Milly Witcop in 1895.

Though they were in love, they never married. This was a problem when, in 1897, Witcop and Rocker traveled to the United States. America refused to let them in because their union wasn’t made legal.  Rocker said,  “our bond is one of free agreement between my wife and myself. It is a purely private matter that only concerns ourselves, and it needs no confirmation from the law.” Witop added: “Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution.”* The scandal hit the newspapers in America, and the couple received some criticism for their “sinful,” unmarried lifestyle.

December 1906 edition of Germinal

December 1906 edition of Germinal

Back in London, Rocker and Witcop co-edited the Arbeyter Fraynd. In March 1900, the two also started publishing the newspaper Germinal. It was a theoretical paper, applying anarchist thought to the analysis of literature and philosophy.

When WWI broke out, both Witcop and Rocker remained pacifists and didn’t agree with either side of the war. Instead of joining any patriotic movements, the couple opened a soup kitchen to help alleviate the impoverishment that came with the war. After publishing a controversial statement about the war, Rocker was arrested and interned as an enemy alien. Witcop continued her anti-war activities until she was also arrested years later.

In March 1918, Rocker was taken to the Netherlands under an agreement to exchange prisoners through the Red Cross. After her imprisonment, Milly met up with Rocker and their son (famous painter, Fermin Rocker) in the Netherlands.

Milly and Rudolf, in a Berlin park, in the late 20s. (credit to

Milly and Rudolf, in a Berlin park, in the late 20s. (see here)

In November 1918, the couple moved to Berlin were they became members of the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). Because the organization was male-dominated, Milly, with the help of others, founded the Women’s Union in Berlin in 1920. She believed that working class women were not only exploited by capitalism as were proletariat men, but were also exploited by their male counterparts. She therefore reasoned that women should fight for their rights against a patriarchal society in the same way that the working class must fight against capitalism.

After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Witcop and Rocker fled Germany for the United States. In a letter to Margaret Sanger, Edith How-Martyn wrote about a dinner she had with the Rockers and others who fled Germany.

She wrote of the gathering:

Rudolf and Milly at a conference about 1927 (

Rudolf and Milly at a conference about 1927

I found myself in a nest of anarchists, Emma Goldman, the Rockers from Berlin (Milly Rocker being Rose Witcop’s sister). They having escaped from Berlin the day after the Reichstag was burnt. Doris–a Russian, Polly another sister of Rose’s, a young German girl communist. You can imagine the talk…Hirschfeld, Helen Stocker, Adele Schreider have all escaped from Germany. Hodann is in prison. Ruben Wolf, supposed to be in prison – Rocker said at least 100,000 have been thrown into prison. The amazing and, to Goldman and Rocker, disappointing thing is that the communists and social democrats have put up no resistance.

Their fight for social progress didn’t stop after their escape. In the United States, they continued to write and lecture about anarchist topics. During the Spanish Civil War, they educated Americans about the events going on in Spain. Both Rocker and Witcop continued to write, publish and lecture very late into their lives.

Milly Witcop died first on November 23, 1955. Rudolf Rocker died nearly three years later, on September 10, 1958. Their son, Fermin Rocker, went on to become a well-renowned painter and illustrator.

Milly and Rudolf with their son, Fermin. (photographed by Senya Fléchine:

Milly and Rudolf with their son, Fermin. (photographed by Senya Fléchine: see here)

Rocker and Witcop in 1955

An older Rocker and Witcop, 1955

Further Reading:
*Fishman, William J. (1974). Jewish Radicals: From Czarist Stetl to London Ghetto. New York: Pantheon Books.
Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Rudolph Rocker, Milly Witkop-Rocker (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press, 1956).

Non-cited and more Photographs found here.
For the letter between Edith How-Martyn and Margaret Sanger see here.

Margaret Sanger and India’s Philosophers


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Previously on the Sanger Papers blog, we’ve talked about Sanger’s relationship with Gandhi. If you haven’t read Sanger and Gandhi: A Complex Relationship, or any of our other blogs about Sanger’s trips to India, then you might be surprised to hear Sanger and Gandhi didn’t always agree. While both social reformers wanted the best for India, Gandhi believed self-control and abstinence was the only way to fix India’s poverty and over-population. Sanger as you know, understood that most people weren’t as self disciplined as Gandhi. She saw some serious problems in that way of thinking:

mahatma_gandhi21Mr. Gandhi advises the women of India to ‘resist’ or in extreme cases to ‘leave’ their husbands in order to control the size of their families rather than resort to birth control methods…Mr. Gandhi is strangely illogical in his demand that women ‘resist’ the sexual advances of their husbands to avoid frequent pregnancies. A woman might resist 364 days of the year and give in on the three hundred and sixty fifth only to become pregnant. If this practice of resisting the husband every day in the year but one, continued, the woman could have a child every year during her child bearing period.

Sanger understood that women couldn’t just leave their husbands, not without the threat of starvation, poverty, and social rejection. Also, as we better understand today, men are just as capable of controlling their sexual needs as women. It is not the job of women to keep lustful men at bay.

Tagore, Rabindranath

Tagore, Rabindranath

Sanger wasn’t alone in India with her convictions. She found a different philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, who agreed with her.

Tagore was a renowned poet for his time, particularly in the United States and England. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, despite the fact that that his disagreements with Gandhi brought on some unpopularity. He wrote many genres of literature and involved himself in music and painting. He denounced the British rule in India, opposed imperialism, believed in the power of education for the people, worked to spread artistic inspiration, and was a supporter of Sanger’s Birth Control movement.

In a radio talk given in 1935, Sanger quoted Tagore:

Your great philosopher-poet, Rabindranath Tagore, has wisely said, ‘In a hunger-stricken country like India it is a cruel crime thoughtlessly to bring more children into existence than can properly be taken care of, causing endless suffering to them and imposing a degrading condition upon the whole family.'(11/30/1935)

Tagore and Sanger continued to exchange letters after Sanger visited him on her tour of India. She also wrote and asked him for a statement on birth control to be published in the Birth Control Review. His statement was published in the December 1925 issue. Tagore sent Margaret Sanger a subscription to the Visvabharati Quarterly, a literary journal produced by Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, founded in 1921 as a meeting-place between modern Western ideas and the ancient and traditional culture of Asia.* Tagore and Sanger’s vision for a better India and a better world stayed strong.

In a letter from Tagore to Sanger, he wrote:

I am of the opinion that the Birth Control movement is a great movement not only because it will save women from enforced and undesirable maternity, but because it will help the cause of peace by lessening the number of su[rp]lus population of a country, scrambling for food and space outside its own rightful limits. In a hunger stricken country like India it is a cruel crime thoughtlessly to bring more children to existence than could prop[erly] be taken care of, causing endless sufferings to them and imposing a degrading condition upon the whole family…. (Tagore to MS 09/30/1925 [C03:639])

Poverty is a vast and complicated matter which can’t be solved only with the legalization of birth control. But Gandhi’s belief that resisting sex to prevent starvation and over population was too idealistic. At the very least, birth control would alleviate financial pressures of families with little means. The issue of poverty put aside, at least Tagore understood that birth control can “save women from enforced and undesired maternity.” Because, as we like to quote here at the Sanger Papers, “no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.”

Gandhi never fully supported Sanger and Tagore in their push for Birth Control, but the three reformers respected each other. While there were disagreements, there’s no doubt each one was dedicated to helping the people of India.

Gandhi and Tagore

Gandhi and Tagore

Further reading:
*Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man: London, 1995. 220-223.
For the radio talk by Sanger see here.
For more about Sanger on Gandhi see here.
For more about Gandhi and birth control, see our Sanger digital edition here.


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