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Margaret Sanger, c. 1915

Margaret Sanger, c. 1915 (Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection)

As we move into the year 2014, we also come across a slew of new anniversaries to celebrate, and a look at the history of Margaret Sanger is no exception.  1914, the month of March to be exact, marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Woman Rebel, a radical feminist monthly published by Margaret Sanger publicizing what would be called “birth control” in just a few months.  The journal published the first use of the term “birth control,” a term that Sanger built into one of the most significant reform movements in the 20th century.

This apartment building replaced Sanger's original apartment in 1920.

This apartment building replaced Sanger’s original apartment in 1920.

The humble beginnings of Woman Rebel took place in New York City during January of 2014.  After leaving her husband, William Sanger, to paint in Paris, Margaret Sanger rented a “dingy” apartment at 34 Post Avenue in Upper Manhattan and moved in with her and the children.  From there, she and a group of anarchists developed the Woman Rebel and the early arguments of the birth control movement.  Who were these mysterious, unnamed men who helped Sanger get started?  Although often referred to as “secretaries,” Edward Mylius, Robert Parker, and Otto Bobsien were not only part of Sanger’s inner circle, but played an integral role in the creation of Woman Rebel.

Scarce documentation survives about these three men.  Edward Mylius was a British citizen who fled to the United States after publishing an libelous, anarchist paper in Paris “declaring that the King of England had once contracted a morganatic marriage” (My Fight).  He wrote one credited article in Woman Rebel (“Freedom in America, Union Square, April 4, 1914,” Woman Rebel, Apr. 1914, 11), but was dedicated to the feminist monthly.

A failed playwright, Robert Parker often served as Sanger’s ghost writer and editor.  Although Margaret Sanger claimed she invented the term “birth control”, it was actually Parker who suggested the term after connecting the importance of control with their goal of contraception.

“Margaret invited these men to her apartment for an emergency conference.  They decided that the first thing she needed was a catchier name for contraception than the delicate ‘preventative means.’  They considered ‘conscious generation,’ ‘Neo-Malthusianism,’ and several others.  Robert Parker offered the final suggestion.  He was a polio victim who was studying Yoga, in which control is an essential feature, hoping that control might help him with his partly paralyzed hand.  It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well.  ‘Birth control,’ he mused.  ‘Birth Control … I think I like it.’  They all liked it.  As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement.” – Margaret Sanger, Madeline Gray, p. 72

The name obviously stuck, as we use it a century after its coinage.

Woman RebelThe first to use the term “birth control” in print was actually Otto Bobsien.  Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League, formed in 1915 after Sanger fled the U.S.  He used Sanger’s list of subscribers and friends of Woman Rebel for the new league, and Sanger felt betrayed, especially when its president, Mary Ware Dennett, refused to support her case when she returned.

It is not surprising that Sanger kept her helpers in the background.  The birth control movement was considered a special cause of women and Sanger would build it into her life’s work.  But these were the people that Sanger trusted most, and turned to when she needed help getting her paper off the ground.  Although the monthly had only seven issues, Woman Rebel helped express her beliefs and distribute them to a larger audience than her speeches alone.  Now exposed to new ideas and people, Sanger felt better equipped to continue on her path to social awareness.

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For a digital collection of the Woman Rebel issues and documents surrounding its publication and suppression, see http://wyatt.elasticbeanstalk.com/mep/MS/docs/ms-table.html.

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