October 16th, 1916: The Brownsville Clinic opened its doors to the public, staffed by Sanger, Ethel Byrne (her sister and a registered nurse), and an interpreter to facilitate communication with the residents of the multi-ethnic neighborhood. Ten days later, after providing information about contraception and the female reproductive system to roughly 400 women, the clinic was raided by the police and shut down. Although Sanger opened the clinic twice more, on November 14th and 16th, it was finally closed after the staff were evicted by the building’s landlord.
Under the Comstock Laws of the time, distributing information about birth control was obscene and therefore illegal. Rather than opening the clinic secretly and quietly, Sanger courted political and media attention in order to draw the public eye to her campaign. After the arrests and during the subsequent trial, Sanger used the sensation around the opening of the clinic and her struggle to disseminate information about contraception to her advantage, ultimately opening a legal birth control clinic three years later and eventually founding both the organization that became Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
This past Thursday, the BBC aired an interview with Alex Sanger (Margaret Sanger’s grandson) and Esther Katz (Editor and Director of the MSPP). During the interview, Alex Sanger mentions that despite her many successes, the first clinic, opened exactly 95 years ago, was one of his grandmother’s proudest achievements. It seems fitting, at a time in which women’s reproductive rights are increasingly under attack, to commemorate the bravery, spirit, and dedication shown by Sanger and the other staff members of the Brownsville clinic in their fight to make contraception accessible to women from all walks of life.
For more on the Brownsville clinic and Sanger’s work in the early years of the birth control movement, consult Volume I of the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928.