Now that I’ve been working in New York City for a few weeks, I’ve settled into my morning commute routine–one part in particular: As I approach the top of the subway escalator by Grand Central Station, I silently accept a copy of the free publication Metro from the man handing them out.
This man and I, though we encounter each other every day, have never exchanged any real words, save my mumbled “thank you.”
This was hardly the case with Kitty Marion–the vociferous and highly effective birth control activist who stood on the streets of New York almost every day for thirteen years (1917-1929) selling copies of the Birth Control Review. Passersby couldn’t ignore her energy and verve for the movement, much less her bright blue eyes and fiery red hair. It seemed as if everyone who passed her–whether on a Times Square corner or a Coney Island boardwalk–had an opinion about her. Many cursed and spat at Marion; others applauded her efforts and donated money to the publication. A particularly desperate group desperately attempted to silence Kitty Marion and the Birth Control Review for good: the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, started by Anthony Comstock.
Ninety-four years ago this August, Marion was arrested and jailed for thirty days for her work on the streets. Margaret Sanger, editor of the Birth Control Review and admirer of her good friend Marion’s efforts, recounted the arrest in her article “Trapped!”:
“It was upon the first day of August that the agent provocateur called upon Kitty Marion. He came, as his kind always comes, with a story of misfortune, with a plea to save a woman, his wife, from the hardships unendurable. He came again, a week later. Still again he came, on the fifteenth day of August, repeating his tale of misery and appealing for aid for his wife. And then, having procured with great difficulty the information desired for the fictitious woman, Kitty Marion imparted the information. Her arrested followed–on the nineteenth day of August.” (“Trapped!” Birth Control Review [Oct. 1918], 3. [C16:119].)
Who was behind the arrest? Unsurprisingly, Charles Bamberger–the “agent provocateur” in this episode–was an active member of Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He arrested Marion for violating New York Comstock Act, which banned public dissemination of birth control information. (Three years earlier, Bamberger had also deceived and subsequently arrested William Sanger in 1915 for the distributing copies of “Family Limitation.” Margaret Sanger’s first step to winning support for birth control was revising this law, which she finally did via a judicial decision in 1936.)
This arrest was far from Marion’s first. Before she moved to America in 1914, Marion was a prominent–and notorious–suffragette in England; there, she was repeatedly imprisoned for her radical tactics. And the imprisonments continued across the pond, this time for a new cause: during her career as a dedicated birth control activist, she was arrested nine times–on top of receiving daily harassments from passersby. “I have been subjected to every expression of disapproval, contempt, and scorn imaginable, including ‘making faces,’ expectoration and ‘crossing themselves,’” Marion wrote in an article for the Birth Control Review. “Some will say, ‘Pity your mother didn’t do it instead of having you!’” (“More Memories,” Birth Control Review [May 1923], 119.)
But amidst the constant verbal–and sometimes physical–attacks, Marion saw an opportunity in her job to convince people of the benefits of birth control, often in front of an audience. One man, for instance, accosted Marion asking, “Aren’t you advocating murder?”
“No, there is no one to murder,” she replied, explaining her beliefs about birth control.
“I told him he interfered with nature when he shaved, had his hair cut, and put clothes on…that to live according to nature he should run around naked and live in a cave or up a tree,” Marion recounted. “He said he had never heard a woman speak so plainly and bluntly before, and he thanked and respected me for it. He left wishing success to the cause.” (“Ye That Pass By,” Birth Control Review [Feb. 1923], 45.)
Of course, Marion’s work did not merely change the views of some of those with whom she interacted; her constant presence on the city streets–rain or shine–forced people to at least consider the issue, if not act. Oftentimes, Marion said, when one person came up to her, several others who had been ‘hanging around’ would rush up and buy a paper, or at least ask questions about birth control. Moreover, since many newsstands refused to carry the magazine throughout the 1920s, much of the BCR’s sales came single-handedly from Marion’s street hawking. In a 1936 article in The New Yorker, Marion estimated that she alone sold over 99,000 copies of the Review. (“More Memories,” Birth Control Review [May 1923]; “Biographical Note,” Kitty Marion Papers.)
For this, Margaret Sanger was deeply grateful. Street hawking was not for everyone, she acknowledged, including herself. Sanger admitted that “street selling was torture for me, but I sometimes did it for self-discipline and because only in this way could I have complete knowledge of what I was asking others to do.” (Margaret Sanger, Autobiography, 257).
And so, when Marion got arrested that August day, Sanger rallied behind her cause. She boldly asked her readers of the Birth Control Review, “Kitty Marion gives up freedom–what will you give?” (Birth Control Review [Oct. 1918], 4. [C16:120].)
On October 14, Marion was brought to trial at the Court of Special Sessions. She did not deny that she distributed information, nor did she apologize for her actions, nor did she promise to never again do so. Similarly, Sanger wrote, “We have no apology to make for the act of Kitty Marion. We glory in her deed.” (“Trapped!” Birth Control Review [Oct. 1918], 3. [C16:119].)
When Marion was sentenced to a $500 fine or to 30 days of jail, she chose the latter, understanding how the money saved could contribute to the birth control cause. Even in jail, Marion greeted prisoners with, “Three cheers for birth control!” Her spirit was unbreakable.
For every arrest, for ever umbrella attack, for every curse–Marion received compliments on her courage and support for her perseverance. The criticism, she said, “is water on a duck’s back” compared to the encouragement she got just as often. Passersby even called her a “hero” of the movement.
For just twenty dollars a week, Kitty Marion made an enormous impact. By 1929, Marion had become a public figure in New York, just by selling copies of a newspaper.
Today, we take it for granted that disseminating information about birth control is perfectly legal and widely done. But we must still channel Marion’s spirit to fight against attacks on reproductive rights. We need them not only in newspapers, on television and on the internet, but in the streets.