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:


For full Alameda County Birth Control League article see:


Sanger and the Ever Elusive Male Birth Control


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:

Esther Katz Wins the Lyman H. Butterfield Award!


At the recent annual meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing and Society for Textual Scholarship, held in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sanger Project Editor and Director Esther Katz was awarded the Lyman H. Butterfield Award, given annually by the Association since 1985 “to an individual, project, or institution for recent contributions in the areas of documentary publication, teaching, and service.”

The award was presented last month by Elaine W. Pascu, last year’s recipient, On June 19, 2015. Her comments follow:

Tonight’s recipient is a very experienced practitioner of documentary editing, with a career beginning in 1975. Ten years later, she established one of the principle projects in documenting women’s history. She collected, published, and indexed 83 reels of microfilm on her internationally prominent figure.The fourth and final volume of the selected Edition, now at the press, highlights her subject’s international presence.

She has also been a leader in digital editions taking part in the Model Editions Partnership in the 1990s. She is now at work on a Digital edition of her controversial figures speeches and articles from 1911 to 1959 that will be freely available to the public.

She is a leader in mentoring and training new professionals in the field. She has taught at the Institute for Editing Historical Documents on multiple occasions and has for many years taught a graduate course in Archival Management and Historical Editing. A recent course focused on Digital Historical Editions. The project has also offered summer internships for undergraduates.

She is a past president of ADE and has served on various committees and as a member of the ADE Council.

As acknowledged in one letter of support, few have had to face the kind of relentless attacks on their subject that she has. She had made a lasting and profound contribution “in helping to undermine historical misinformation and distortion.”  With her work, she is “setting a foundation of historical accuracy and integrity in an area beset by myth and manipulation.” “Through an avid pursuit and presentation of the documentary record from archives and private collections around the world and through impeccable scholarship she is ‘setting the record straight.’”

I am proud to announce that for enhancing historical understanding through superb editorial scholarship and for meritorious service to the Association for Documentary Editing , the recipient of this year’s Lyman H. Butterfield Award is the Editor and Director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Esther Katz.

The award is granted in memory of Lyman Henry Butterfield, whose editing prestigious career included contributions to The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the editing of the Adams Family Papers, and publishing The Letters of Benjamin Rush.


Margaret Sanger Jail Interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle


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If there is one thing I have learned during my time here at the Sanger Papers, it is that Sanger was not afraid to go to extreme lengths for her cause. This level of dedication and devotion to the birth control movement inevitably landed her in jail multiple times, as birth control was not effectively legalized until 1965.

I recently came across an interview of Sanger during one of her first stints in jail, after the raid of her Brownsville Clinic in 1916, and found it to be incredibly inspiring. The reporter started off the article by noting how “remarkably fresh” she appeared, despite having spent the night in horrible prison conditions. Sanger truly could withstand anything.

Mothers with carriages stand outside the Brownsville Clinic, Brooklyn

Sanger started off the interview by describing the horrible conditions of her prison cell.

“I’m glad you came,” she said, “but before we begin to discuss my arrest I wish to tell you something. Please- for my sake and for the sakes of the other women detained here- let me describe the horrible conditions of this jail. I do not see how the people of Kings County can tolerate such conditions. The blanket which covers my iron cot is dirty. Creatures of all manners and kinds invaded my cell. They came in vast numbers. There is no soap with which to wash my hands. I am only mentioning a few of the defects. Put me on record, please, as saying the women of Kings County should invade this place and clean it out.”

Then, she discussed her actual imprisonment and expressed her conviction to keep fighting.

Sanger dramatized her Brownsville Clinic arrest in a film she produced in 1917. Named “Birth Control,” it was banned by New York City’s Commissioner of Licenses, George Bell. Unfortunately, no copies of the film have been found.

“Now I can talk of my arrest. How do I regard it? As an invasion of my personal rights. It is an outrage and the day will come when this community will realize that Margaret Sanger long ago tried to show it the light. I shall continue in my work. After my trial and the final disposition of my case I am going back to my clinic.”

“They cannot stop me by placing me under arrest. Some time or other I will have regained my liberty. Then Margaret Sanger is going back to violate that law all over again. The charge in the newspapers that I was exhibiting and offering for sale a box of pills is a vicious lie.”

Sanger also referred to the way in which she was caught—by selling birth control devices (probably a diaphragm) to a female detective.

“I admit we did sell to the woman detective. We knew who she was. Mrs. Byrne, my sister, is a hot-headed Irish girl and she deliberately urged the detective to buy. We framed the two dollar bill and wrote across the bill. ‘Received from a spy.’ It was laughable to see the woman’s face when she returned and saw how she had been tricked.”

“That woman detective is beyond me. Perhaps she did only her duty, but personally I would rather scrub floors for my bread than earn it by fighting my sisters.”

For the full article, see http://sangerpapers.org/sanger/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=422082.xml

For a related article, see:
Why I Went to Jail, Feb. 1960

Margaret Sanger: The Real Wonder Woman?

In a book released last year, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf 2014), Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore explores the connection between Wonder Woman and Margaret Sanger. Through impeccable historical analysis and detection, she shows us that the most well-known comic icon of 1940s feminism was actually largely inspired by another feminist icon of the first half of the twentieth century: Margaret Sanger.

In doing research for this book, Lepore uncovered a never-before-seen collection of documents, including William Moulton Marston’s private documents. She discovered that in creating Wonder Woman, Marston was profoundly influenced by early twentieth century suffragists, feminists, and birth control advocates, including Margaret Sanger, who was secretly a member of his family.

Dr. William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman

Marston entered Harvard College as a freshman in 1911, the same year that Emmeline Pankhurst was barred from speaking on campus and gave a fiery speech in Harvard Square instead. He married Elizabeth Holloway, a feminist alumna Mount Holyoke, in 1915. He received a law degree and a PhD in Psychology from Harvard, and she from Boston University and Radcliffe, and they launched their academic careers in psychology. In 1925, while teaching at Tufts, Marston fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne: Ethel Byrne’s daughter and Margaret Sanger’s niece.

In 1926, Olive Byrne moved in with Marston and Hollaway; they lived as a threesome, with, in Holloway’s words, “love-making for all.” Byrne is the mother of two of Marston’s four children, and Holloway the mother of the other two. The children effectively had three parents. This domestic set-up was no doubt unconventional, and it cost him his academic career.


Marston, center, surrounded by his unconventional family.

In 1928, it became clear to Marston that his academic career was doomed, so he began a career in the burgeoning industry of cinema. However, he was not as successful as he would have hoped, and he spent most of the 1930s unemployed, supported by Holloway who worked for Met Life insurance, while Byrne raised the children. The unconventional family maintained close ties with Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger, who was rather unfazed by the “family intrigue.”

In 1937, the year the American Medical Association finally endorsed contraception, Marston held a press conference in which he predicted that women would one day rule the world. He also offered a list, “in the order of the importance of their contributions to humanity,” of six surpassingly happy and influential people: Margaret Sanger was No. 2, just after Henry Ford and just before F.D.R. The story was picked up by the Associated Press, wired across the continent, and printed in newspapers from Topeka to Tallahassee. “Women Will Rule 1,000 Years Hence!” the Chicago Tribune announced. The Los Angeles Times reported, “FEMININE RULE DECLARED FACT.”

In 1940, Marston was hired by M.C. Gaines, who published Superman, as a consultant. He convinced him that the Justice Society of America needed a female superhero. Thus, Wonder Woman debuted in 1941. A press release explained, “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” And as shown by his list of influential people, Margaret Sanger was just that type of woman.

For a reason unbeknownst to the author, Margaret Sanger wanted to keep well-hidden her ties to the comic-book superhero created by Marston. Maybe it was because she found the association embarrassing, or because she wanted to keep Olive Byrne’s family situation a secret. Whatever the reason, Margaret Sanger never mentioned Wonder Woman.

Marston died suddenly in 1947, but Holloway and Byrne stayed together for the rest of their lives, taking care of Sanger in her old age in Tucson. In 1965, when the Supreme Court effectively legalized contraception, in Griswold v. Connecticut, Byrne wrote to Justice William O. Douglas, who had written the opinion for the 7-2 majority, “I am sure Mrs. Sanger, who is very ill, would rejoice in this pronouncement which crowns her 50 years of dedication to the liberation of women.” Sanger died the next year.


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