Much of my time at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has been spent thinking about 1914. It was a busy year for Sanger, not least due to her work on the Woman Rebel. Its slogan, “No Gods, No Masters,” first appeared in print, on “eight pages on cheap paper, copied from the French style, mailed first class in the city and expressed outside,” in March of 1914. Sanger defined a woman’s duty:
To look the world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an idea; to speak and act in defiance of convention.
The New York Post Office quickly sent her a letter stating:
Dear Madam: In accordance with the advice from the Assistant Attorney General for the Post Office Department, you are informed that the publication entitled “The Woman Rebel”, for March 1914, is unmailable under the provisions of Section 211 of the Criminal Code as amended by the Act of March 4, 1911.
The law prohibiting the mailing of the paper was the Comstock Law, a moral law intended to prevent the mailing of “obscene” material. Since she had mentioned that the Woman Rebel planned to discuss birth control and provide advice in future issues. Sanger commented in her Autobiography that, “To me it was outrageous that information regarding motherhood, which was so generally called sacred, should be classed with pornography.”
Nevertheless, Sanger decided to continue publishing and attempting to mail Woman Rebel, and this led to her indictment. When she learned that she was likely to receive the severest sentence possible if found guilty, she fled the country for England in November, where she remained until October of 1915. The trial was eventually scheduled to begin on January 18, 1916, but was postponed several times for various reasons. Ultimately, the case ended a month later, on February 18, when it was dismissed by the United States District Court of New York.
The story of Woman Rebel is only partially illustrated by the events that occurred after its publication, however. Sanger’s Autobiography provides one window on the start of the paper. She says that the idea came to her on the ship back to New York from Paris on New Year’s Eve, the idea “of a magazine to be called the Woman Rebel, dedicated to the interests of working women.” Sanger was conscious that she had to limit the paper to claims on which she could follow through. One of the primary concerns was, of course, money, but moral support was also an issue. The feminists, led by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, provided neither, but the socialists and trade union organizations turned out to be more helpful in terms of support and subscriptions.
Sanger also told the story of Queen Vashti, wife of King Ahasuerus, which appears in the Book of Esther. Ahasuerus had been showing off all the fine decorations and possessions in his palace, and then commanded his wife to appear. She refused, not wanting to be viewed as a possession like the rest of the king’s riches. He cast her aside and married the meek Esther instead. Sanger said:
Often I had thought of Vashti as the first woman rebel in history… I wanted each woman to be a rebellious Vashti, not an Esther.
William Sanger’s letters in February of 1914 to Margaret are another interesting source for the planning stages of Woman Rebel. Unfortunately, her letters to him outlining these early stages of preparing the paper do not survive. In a letter written on February 5, he said,
now dear love its great that you are going to start that paper… Now I think we ought to make the paper have an international character — Im going to work Victor Dave to write a short article and the leading women agitation here you know. I can reach Miss Pankhurst going to try & get her too — You ought to have the England exchanges — that is all the English sufferget radical & Red Papers to keep — touch — I shall write at once to get them & will forward as soon as I receive them… perhaps I can act as your Paris correspondant how often will the paper come out.
William did send the promised foreign papers to his wife a few days later, and also discussed the topic with Victor Dave, who thought that the title (presumably Woman Rebel) was “a good name.” He mentioned that he was still trying to convince Victor Dave to write an article, and would call on Mrs. Pankhurst, if she was in Paris, and try to convince her to write something as well. He also wonders if Margaret has considered “better paper and better printing.”
About a week later, William Sanger provided some extremely detailed advice on the Woman Rebel, which was by this point known by that name:
I am particularly anxious that you get the Exchanges in all the English Radical & Revolutionary papers, that is you to send on the Woman Rebel & they will exchange theirs. This will keep you in touch with the movement in England, the same [?] for France & Germany… I have given the question of the weekly issue of the paper a great deal of thought… the work on getting out a weekly paper now would be too much for you. Why not a semi monthly — this would insure the cooperation of regular correspondents who would be willing to contribute. This will give the paper some class. Especially if the contributors came from England, France, Germany… I would like to see the paper have distinction — if you name is to be associated with it… I will be glad to see it rise than flare up so to speak but a paper that fills a want & fills it well. Perhaps a monthly with good illustrations good paper something on the order of The Forerunner.
It does seem as though William hoped to get some of his own “good illustrations” published in his wife’s paper! He certainly had quite a catalog of opinions about the paper; Margaret Sanger expressed very different ideas in her Autobiography:
I was solely responsible for the magazine financially, legally, and morally; I was editor, manager, circulation department, bookkeeper, and I paid the printer’s bill.