On June 30 and July 1, 1916, newspapers across the country publicized Margaret Sanger’s arrest in Portland on June 29. Along with Sanger, Dr. Marie Equi, Mrs. Florence A. Greatwood, and Maude Bonner were also arrested, and the papers noted that “several other women clamored to be arrested on the same charge.” The meeting itself had attracted a substantial crowd. Bail was set at $25, but Mrs. Greatwood was the only one who accepted it. The other three women spent the night in jail and remained there on June 30, pending a hearing. After conferring with a lawyer, the women decided to demand a jury trial.
Sanger had held a protest meeting on June 29 because three workers, Carl Rave, Ralph Chervin, and E. L. Jenkins, had been arrested for selling her birth control pamphlet, Family Limitation, on June 19. As a result, the City Council declared on June 23 that Family Limitation was obscene in order to prohibit further distribution. The trial of the three men was postponed in order to allow Sanger to finish her speaking tour before going back to Portland to act as an expert witness. She returned to find her pamphlet outlawed and Portland women passing out leaflets saying, “Shall five men legislate in secret against ten thousand women?”
The two cases — that of the three men and that of the four women — were tried together on July 1. The Deputy City Attorney argued for the prosecution that “the evidence shows that these circulars, or pamphlets, were distributed promiscuously at the meetings held… These pamphlets should not be circulated here or anywhere else!”
The attorney for the defense, Isaac Swett, compared Family Limitation to another book purchased that very morning at a bookstore, stating that in that book, there was “language much clearer, much more shocking, to persons unaccustomed to it, than can be found in the pamphlet!” He argued that the language of Sanger’s pamphlet was specifically chosen to avoid misunderstandings by women unaccustomed to reading about such topics and was in “the best interests of humanity.” The article about the trial in the Sunday Oregonian on July 2 noted that, following Swett’s defense, “the clerk’s gavel abruptly checked the impetuous patter of feminine hand-clapping.”
Swett was assisted by Colonel C. E. S. Wood, who argued that the definition of “obscenity” in literature was utterly arbitrary. If Sanger’s pamphlet was to be banned as obscene, he said, parts of the Old Testament were also obscene and thus the Bible would need to be banned, and so would the works of Rabelais, both of which he could go and buy at any bookstore. He closed on an impassioned statement: “I say it with regret, we’re a backwoods town. We’re the only town in the country that’s doing this thing. I know, and your honor knows, that this has come to stay!”
Judge Langguth postponed his decision until Friday, July 7. On July 5, the Morning Oregonian invited the public to a “Margaret Sanger rally” to be held at the Spiritualist Temple, with several speakers, including Sanger herself. The following day, a lengthy article covered the meeting, at which Dr. Chapman bemoaned Portland’s “medieval, inquisitorial, petty-minded mediocrities” of city officials. Sanger argued that “if two people behave at all in the marriage relation, they must have knowledge of the methods of preventive of conception.” And, of course, before the police “moral squad” arrived, copies of Family Limitation were for sale to attendees.
On July 7, Judge Langguth found the defendants guilty of distributing obscene and indecent material. His decision rested on the “assumption that matter not necessarily obscene when offered for sale in bookstores, or for use in medical clinics, becomes obscene when circulated publicly if it is of a nature calculated to excite lascivious thought in youthful minds,” according to the Morning Oregonian’s coverage. The men were fined $10 each but not required to pay, and the women were not fined at all.
Margaret Sanger responded to the decision:
“I consider it a cowardly decision. It was painful, really, to listen to a man of his intelligence crawling verbally, and he crawled. It’s practically the same old story, that knowledge, if it’s hidden away on musty bookshelves or in the narrow confines of the medical profession, is moral; but as soon as it is distributed among the working people the same book becomes obscene. It is the same decision that has been handed down from the days of witchcraft. It is disappointing that in this 20th century, in the day of electricity and modern scientific triumphs, the judicial mind is in the same groove.”
Later, in her 1938 Autobiography, Sanger noted that “the papers made a great to-do about the affair but it was not a type of publicity of my choosing and did little to bring the goal nearer.” However, the publicity did lead to an increase in demand for copies of Family Limitation.
Dr. Marie Equi, who was also arrested, met Sanger in Portland earlier in 1916 and helped her to revise Family Limitation. In addition to her work as a physician and providing abortions, she was active in the radical labor movement and the women’s suffrage movement, as well as fighting for protective legislation for women and children.
For news coverage of the events of June and July 1916, see, among others, “Book Sale Stopped: Council Act Brands Mrs. Sanger’s Pamphlet as Obscene, Criticism Induces Action,” The Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, June 24, 1916; “Mrs. Sanger Arrested, Three Other Women Also Held for Holding Meeting of Protest,” Altoona Mirror, June 30, 1916; “Mrs. Sanger Arrested,” The Morning Echo, Bakersfield, CA, July 1, 1916;“Sanger Cases are Now Up to Court: Concluding Arguments Compare Book with Others to be Found on Sale, Law Declared Absurd,” The Sunday Oregonian, July 2, 1916; “Margaret Sanger Rally is Tonight,” The Morning Oregonian, July 5, 1916; “Officials are Hit: Sanger Protest Meeting Brings Roast for Mayor, Others Called Names,” The Morning Oregonian, July 6, 1916; and “Mrs. Sanger’s Book Declared Obscene,” The Morning Oregonian, July 8, 1916. On Dr. Marie Equi, see “Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Marie Diana Equi,” at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Also see MS’ article in The Malthusian, September 1916, pp. 83-84, MSM S1:638-640, and MS’ Autobiography. For a summary of Sanger’s eventful 1916 tour, see Sanger, “A Birth Control Lecture Tour,” Aug. 6, 1916.