The Fourth of July calls to mind fireworks, apple pie, cookouts, and the stars and stripes flying everywhere. It hardly makes us think of rallies and lectures, but on July 4, 1920, Margaret Sanger found herself in Glasgow, Scotland, speaking to a mass rally of shipyard workers on Glasgow Green, and later that night to a socialist group.
Sanger began her visit in London, delivering a series of lectures. She noted in her Autobiography that the Neo-Malthusian League had invited her to lecture there because they had few lecturers of their own who could speak to an audience of women. Sanger also noted that, since her exile to England in 1915 after she was indicted for Woman Rebel, public opinion in Britain on birth control had improved. Marie Stopes, a paleontologist, had discussed her book, Married Love, with Sanger in 1915; the book dealt with how knowledge about birth control affected marital happiness and success. First published in 1918 and dedicated “to young husbands and all those who are betrothed in love,” the book gained a fairly wide circulation in the post-World War I years. Sanger also noted that Harold Cox, a Liberal MP, had pointed out that the groups who most loudly condemned birth control, especially doctors and Anglican clergymen, had some of the lowest birth rates in the country. As a result of this raised awareness of and desire for birth control, Sanger was also able to speak in Brighton and Cambridge.
Guy Aldred (1886-1963), a socialist and communist printer, had met Sanger in 1914, and he arranged a three-week tour in Scotland. It began on July 4, on Glasgow Green, where Sanger spoke to “nearly two thousand shipyard workers in caps and baggy corduroys” who “stood close together listening in utter, dead stillness without cough or whisper.”
Later that evening, Sanger spoke to a gathered group of socialists with Aldred acting as chairman. One unnamed “old-timer” said that he had been attending Sunday night lectures regularly for over a decade, but this was the first time that he had convinced his wife to attend with him; he was not the only one to do so:
the women have crowded the men out of this hall.
Sanger recognized that part of the reason behind the high attendance rate was the socialists’ readiness “to fight the ancient battle of Marx against Malthus,” since Marx thought that a family with fewer children was less likely to be concerned about the revolution than one with many children to feed and support. Sanger says that she combated this view by knowing that socialists had the freedom of women as a part of their platform, and by pointing out that women could have the sort of freedom they desired right here and now through birth control.
In fact, a few months earlier, on May 16, Sanger had an article published in Lloyd’s Sunday News called “Women Enslaved by Maternity,” which discussed the benefits of birth control for the working class in Britain. While the second part of the article dealt with the health benefits, the first argument that Sanger presented for making birth control a national issue in Britain was an economic one.
Organised labour is very strong in Britain, and has a programme which should achieve success if birth control is included in its scope. But the labour movement cannot possibly attain the state of society which it is aiming at while those within it continue to bring hordes of human beings into the world which no system that man has so far devised can assimilate. On the other hand, if the workers will begin at once to bring forth only those children which are wanted by the women and can be maintained by the father’s labour, the working class of this country may realise their dreams of a better state of society within a generation, and be the first among the nation to attain their goal.
A few days later, on July 7th, Sanger wrote to Juliet Barrett Rublee, a close friend and fellow birth control advocate. Although Sanger doesn’t specifically discuss the July 4 meetings, she mentions that
meetings here overcrowded oh Juliet never was there such a cause — Poor pale faced wretched wives — men beat them they cringe before their blows but pick up the baby — dirty, & illkempt & return to serve him. ‘It’s the biby I’m thinking of’ She says to explain why she has to endure his blows–
The remainder of Sanger’s trip took her to Dunfermline and the surrounding area, before she traveled on to Ireland to research her own genealogy, and then to Germany to research contraception methods being practiced there.
For more on Sanger’s 1920 trip to Europe, see her Autobiography. For the benefits of birth control for the British working class, see MS, “Women Enslaved by Maternity,” Lloyd’s Sunday News, London, May 16, 1920.