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It can be helpful to count the owners of the New York Times among your personal friends. Margaret Sanger did! Thanks to her friendship with Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, daughter and wife of New York Times publishers, Sanger’s gripes about her indignation at the hands of a rude diplomat nearly became international news!

    In late 1955, Sanger was visiting Japan for the 5th International Conference of Planned Parenthood, and was the official guest of Senator Shidzue Ishimoto Kato, one of the first women elected to the Japanese Diet.  The highlight of the conference was to be a meeting between Sanger and the Emperor of Japan. Protocol required that the American Ambassador to Japan, John M. Allison, facilitate the meeting.  Mrs. Sulzberger, in a memo to her husband Arthur, recounted a conversation she had with Sanger, saying that “Sanger made several calls to arrange for an appointment and each time was told that the Ambassador was too busy to see her.”

Infuriated, Senator Kato made the appointment herself, and when the two birth control advocates went to the Embassy, “the Ambassador received them in a very rude and ill-tempered way and said he couldn’t be bothered getting all dressed up just to present her to the Emperor, and that the wife of every Congressman who came to Japan was demanding this.”  Mrs. Sulzberger explained that, “naturally, Mrs. Sanger was very embarrassed and the Japanese Senator quite furious.”

Nevertheless, Sanger felt like she got the best of the Ambassador when, a few days later, she was invited to the Emperor’s Garden Party and met  the Emperor and Empress right away. The Imperial Family expressed their interest in her work, and best of all, “the American Ambassador was there and Mrs. Sanger said he looked thoroughly uncomfortable and she hoped he was properly embarrassed.”

Mr. Sulzberger followed up on the memo from his wife by forwarding it to the New York Times correspondent based in Japan, asking his opinion of the matter. The correspondent pointed out
while this unpleasant encounter may have resulted from the meeting of two very strong personalities, there were also delicate political issues at play: “Mr. Allison sought to dodge presenting Mrs. Sanger to the Emperor because, by doing so, he would appear in Japanese eyes as giving official American endorsement to the cause for which Mrs. Sanger stands — namely, birth control.”

In the end, it seems the Sulzbergers decided not to publish anything about Sanger’s encounter with Ambassador Allison. But the incident suggests how deeply overlapping the personal and the political were in the life of this pioneering individual!

[The letters mentioned in this post are from the Kitty Marion Papers, New York Public Library.]