This weekend marks the 89th anniversary (November 11th – 13th 1921) of the First American Birth Control Conference, organized by Margaret Sanger. The conference took place at the Plaza Hotel, known as the Hotel Plaza then, in New York City. Over the course of the three day conference prominent scientists, physicians, demographers, and eugenicists, as well as social workers, birth control advocates and socialites gathered to discuss the global ramifications of birth control and its potential to lessen the major social ills of the world. The conference also launched the American Birth Control League (ABCL) to promote birth control through education and lobbying.
In her opening speech at the Conference, Sanger made some interesting points about the importance of exchanging ideas, the diverse perspectives of the crowd, and about the necessity of birth control:
“The idea in calling this Conference was to bring together not our old friends, the advocates of Birth Control, whose worth we know and whose courage has stood the test of opposition; but rather to bring together new people, with other ideas, the people who have been working in social agencies and in other groups for the same results as we, namely a better nation and the banishment of disease, misery, poverty, delinquency and crime.”
“There are two instincts which have ever guided the destiny of mankind. These instincts are hunger and sex. The instinct of hunger has received consideration in practically every civilized country and man has adapted his institutions to meet its needs. But the instinct of sex has been ignored. Not I claim, and most of us who make a study of the subject know, that this instinct is just as deep, just as fundamental, as the instinct of hunger. It cannot be crushed. It cannot be denied. But we must understand it. We will then utilize it, as we utilize music and prayer for out highest powers and for higher illumination.”
“Our definite aim is to repeal the laws so that the medical profession may give women at their request knowledge to prevent conception. We believe that with the assistance of the intelligent members of the community we can bring this about in a very short time, but we need your help. We need your courage. We need you to come out and stand with us on out platform. We also want your guidance, your assistance, your suggestions.”
On the last day of the conference Margaret Sanger was arrested alongside Mary Windsor for attempting to prevent police from shutting down the closing event, a public birth control meeting at the Town Hall Theater in Manhattan. The meeting, which was titled “Birth Control – Is It Moral?” was going to feature a speech by Dr. Karl Reiland, a Rector at Saint George’s Church in New York City followed by a discussion lead by Margaret Sanger and Mr. Harold Cox, a British economist and former Conservative Member of Parliament.
Police Captain Thomas Donahue ordered the doors to the Town Hall theater locked just minutes before the meeting was to begin. When police were forced to unlock the doors a short time later to let out the crowd that had already gathered in the hall, many outside, including Sanger, burst in.
Sanger quickly took the podium, and when she began to speak, Donahue ordered her arrest. Other activists then sought the stage, and one of them, Mary Winsor, a member of the new ABCL National Council, was also arrested.
They were arrested under charges of disorderly conduct and taken to the 47th Street Police Station, where a riot broke out among the crowd of supporters that followed them there. According to an article in The World: “A great crowd followed the prisoners from the Town Hall when police reserves were called in the clear the hall and marched to the station. Down 43rd street to Broadway, 3,000 strong, they went, singing loudly, ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of No Liberty.’ ” (“Arrest Break Up Town Hall Rally for Birth Control.” November 14th, 1921.)
Both were discharged soon after for lack of evidence. “I consider my arrest,” Sanger said upon leaving the police station, “in violation of every principle of liberty that America stands for, and I shall take this case to the highest courts, if necessary, to preclude the possibility of it ever happening again.”
Click here for a Paper’s Project Newsletter article with more information about the event.