Ninety-one years ago, Margaret Sanger and the newborn American Birth Control League scored a publicity coup when, on the request of New York’s archbishop Patrick Hayes, the New York City police department suppressed a public meeting on birth control. This event put the birth control movement and its leader on the front pages of New York papers and won the support of many of New York’s liberal elite. The Town Hall raid serves as an example of how Sanger’s media prowess turned what could have been a crushing blow for the new organization into a public relations triumph that featured the hubris of a Roman Catholic Archbishop.
The Town Hall, at 123 West 43rd Street, was opened in January 1921 by the League for Political Action, a pro-suffrage group, as a venue for educational meetings, lectures, concerts, and poetry readings. Sanger had booked the hall for the final session of the First American Birth Control Conference (held November 10-13), an historic gathering of prominent scientists, physicians, demographers and eugenicists, as well as social workers, birth control advocates and socialites. During the first two days of sessions, the attendees discussed the global ramifications of birth control and its potential to lessen the major social ills of the world at the Hotel McAlpin. The conference also launched the American Birth Control League (ABCL) to promote birth control through education and lobbying.
In 1944, Sanger looked back at the Town Hall Raid when asked by a high school girl “What do you find to do with yourself these days, Mrs. Sanger, now that your fight for birth control has been won?”
After I’d assured her that the “fight” was still very much in progress I thought back to the days when it had been just that. Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic. Issues were clear cut and direct. The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature” in the legislative ban against it. Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”
This final keynote address was to be open to the public. However, as Sanger told it:
With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group even after his death, with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years, 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country.
Sanger managed to get inside Town Hall when the doors were opened to let members of the audience leave.
I wedged my way in a side entrance under the arm of a protecting officer who mistook me for one of the “press.” Harold Cox had by this time managed to reach the platform. An officer barred the platform steps to me. Harold hauled me up beside the steps, grabbed a bunch of flowers from a bewildered messenger boy and shouted to the audience, ‘Don’t leave! Here’s Mrs. Sanger,’ thrusting the flowers which were to have been presented as a grand finale into my hand.
The vast audience, many of them important doctors and scientists, who had begun to leave their seats, returned. I began to talk but could not be heard. Ten times I tried to speak forcing the police finally to do what I wanted, deny me the right of free speech by arresting me.
The incident escalated when the press reported that New York Archdiocese had pressured the police to shut the meeting down. A representative of Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes telephoned police headquarters shortly before the meeting, and the Archbishop sent his secretary, Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, to meet with Captain Donahue. Sanger had invited Hayes to the meeting, hoping that a Church official would rebut her claim and provide good fodder for the press. She may even have hoped that her invitation would stimulate Church interference.
Dineen defended the suppression in the daily papers: “Decent and clean-minded people would not discuss a subject such as birth control in public before children [he claimed four children were present at the meeting; they turned out to be four Barnard College students with “bobbed hair and short skirts”] or at all.” The police action was necessary, he added, because birth control “attacks the very foundations of human society.” (New York Times, Nov. 15, 1921) Archbishop Hayes issued a statement a week later claiming that “The laws of God and man, science, public policy, human experience are all condemnatory of birth control as preached by a few irresponsible individuals. . . .” He then referred to the recent Eugenics conference in New York as evidence of a scientific repudiation of birth control, as it promoted the fertility of the “better born.” He even went so far as to recite a startling anti-Christian, eugenic directive that “more children from the well-to-do” was a “moral duty.” (New York Times, Nov. 21, 1921) Although Dineen and Hayes admitted that a call was placed to the police in opposition to the meeting, they refused to acknowledge their power to guide or manipulate the police department.
The mass meeting to discuss “Birth Control – Is It Moral?” was rescheduled for November 18 at the Park Theater. Once again Sanger invited Archbishop Hayes, along with Catholic University sociologist, Monsignor John A. Ryan, and John Sumner, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Only Hayes sent a representative. The meeting took place without incident.
What did Sanger take from her victory?
We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in, even climbing up the fire escapes. Orators were haranguing from soapboxes, men were pounding each other with their fists. Paulist fathers sold anti-birth control pamphlets.
The press kept the birth control publicity alive for weeks, the New York Times going so far as to headline the fact that Archbishop Hayes had closed the meeting. The most conservative papers were placed in the trying situation of defending birth control advocates or endorsing a violation of the principle of free speech, which ‘must always find defenders if democracy is to survive.’”
The hierarchy had turned a simple unheralded meeting into a cause celebre, giving our movement more publicity than it could have acquired in years of proceeding simply and scientifically on its way impeded.
For more details on the incident, see The Town Hall Raid, published in the MSPP Newsletter Spring 2001. For the complete text of Sanger’s recollections of the raid from 1944, see “Birth Control Then and Now.”