Melodramatic Margaret: Her Crazy Fiction

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Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Margaret Sanger did plenty of writing over the span of her approximately fifty-year career as a birth control activist. In 1912 she began writing her sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know” in the New York Call, and just two years later published the first issue of The Woman Rebel. Right around this time, however, she was also doing some writing of a very different kind.

Between 1911 and 1913 she made at least three attempts at fiction-writing, producing the short stories, “Does Youth Win the Race?”, “The Unrecorded Battle”, and “The Soul-less Maid.” These stories deal with common themes of love, betrayal, purity, and deception, and, while certainly not autobiographical by any means, may be inspired to some degree by Sanger’s own experiences and feelings.

“Does Youth Win the Race?”, the first of the three pieces to be written, tells the story of a man named George who is torn between his love for two women- a music teacher, Helen, and her beautiful but lazy adopted daughter, Dorothy. George, a composer, falls in love with Helen’s mind, and is inspired by her musical knowledge and abilities. At the same time, he is struck by Dora’s incredible physical beauty. At first, he has no need to choose between the two, as he is already married to someone else. When news arrives that his wife has passed away, however, George is overcome by his physical desires and rushes to marry Dora. Their marriage is kept a secret until Dora becomes pregnant, and Helen, furious, rejects the pair. The marriage ultimately falls apart within a year and George is left with the realization that, “only brains make for real & lasting Beauty.”

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Sanger as a nursing student ca. 1900 (Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

The next story, “The Unrecorded Battle,” features Peggy Taylor, a young nurse working in New York City during a particularly slow summer season. Peggy is overjoyed when she is called to the home of a doctor who claims to need an assistant nurse and offers her generous pay in exchange for her help. Despite warnings from others that the arrangement proposed to her by this stranger may be too good to be true, she quickly gathers her things, writes to both her mother and a suitor back home to tell them the news of her good fortune, and makes her way to the doctor’s residence for her first day on the job. Not long after she arrives, however, it becomes clear that the warnings she received had been correct; the doctor has brought her into his home under false pretenses. The doctor tells Peggy that she is to be the mistress of his home, but the young nurse resists his advances. A verbal and physical battle ensues between the two. The doctor, realizing Peggy is “not the ordinary girl,” lets her leave, but only after questioning her purity and making her swear out loud to him that she is a virgin. Peggy quickly flees to her hometown, defeated and ashamed, and is consoled by her mother, who praises her as the victor in this “unrecorded battle.” The story ends with Peggy’s father pacing through their house at night, until he retrieves his rifle and reveals to her mother, “I’m going to New York wife to take that man’s blood.”

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

The third and last of Sanger’s attempts at fiction that we know of is “The Soul-less Maid.” This piece, written in 1913, opens with a description of a nameless girl in a flower shop, purchasing an arrangement of peonies which she hopes will help her to win the forgiveness of her lover, Juan. Sanger discusses the girl’s beauty in great detail, from, “her golden hair… coiled about her head like a halo,” to her “soft clinging cream white silk gown,” showing off the “faintest outline of two perfectly formed limbs.” In her head the girl recalls her past successes in using her beauty to win back her lover’s affection, although the nature of her transgressions is never revealed. She arrives at the man’s room, where she presents him with the flowers and asks that he forgive her. Juan is drawn in by her beauty and the smell of the peonies. However, when he looks into her eyes, he realizes that she has no soul. The pair engage in an embrace, until the man sends, “one thrust of the dagger through the peony which lay upon her heart,” and “she lay quite still—and was forgiven.”

The above stories are the only of their kind written by Sanger, and all three went unpublished during her lifetime. The stories are peculiar, and Sanger’s intentions in writing them are difficult to decipher. We know that she herself was working as a nurse around the time that they were created and also that she was engaged in an affair with the Greek anarchist writer, John Rompapas, on whom Juan’s character in “The Soul-less Maid,” may be loosely based. Aside from these minor links between Sanger’s life and her stories, however, it would appear that their plotlines are almost entirely invented. Why Margaret Sanger never pursued her fiction writing further is a mystery. The most likely explanation might be that not long after these three stories were written, her time was entirely consumed by the birth control movement. Regardless of what her reasons were for neglecting this type of writing later on, the hectic and often melodramatic manner in which these stories were written leads one to believe the literary world likely not suffer too terribly for their loss.

To read these stories, visit the digital edition of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project: Does Youth Win the Race?, The Unrecorded Battle, and The Soul-less Maid.

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.

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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.

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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:

http://www.streetsofwashington.com/2011/04/dcs-progressive-past-grace-dodge-hotel.htm

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!
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