There is never an easy path to becoming a national icon, and Margaret Sanger’s was no different. While many would say that “no press is bad press,” it was probably not in Sanger’s best interests to be jailed just as her birth control movement was taking shape. While her famous monthly, Woman Rebel, was first published in March of 1914 and was then banned from public mailing, her trial concerning the publication was continuously postponed until January of 1916. The day before her trial, a large crowd of people was privileged enough to hear Sanger deliver a short but powerful speech at the Hotel Brevoort.
Once a farm property, the Hotel Brevoort was erected in 1845 across from the Brevoort family mansion. In business for over 100 years, the hotel was home to many colorful people, including “Congressmen, Senators, Mexican and Turkish heads of state, past U.S. presidents, army generals, and even Prince Arthur”. Even Mark Twain, who lived nearby the hotel, frequented its barber shop run by long-time barber Henri Grechen.
Sanger gave her speech at a dinner held in her support. Although the speech was short, it had a powerful impact on the hundreds of people, men and women, who came to show their support for the original Woman Rebel. It had the air of a proud woman, ready to become a martyr for her cause as a way of extending her voice to those she had not yet reached in her travels. She praises her supporters, saying that “all our great and modern thinkers have advocated it! It is an idea that must appeal to any mature intelligence”2, placing them on a pedestal of higher society. Sanger understood that some of her audience members did not fully agree with the method she was using to spread the information of safe birth control, and addressed this in her address:
I know that physicians and scientists have a great technical fund of information–greater than I had on the subject of family limitation – Margaret Sanger, Hotel Brevoort Speech
and goes on to ask her audience members to carry on her work in the way they saw fit. Not because, I believe, she anticipated never returning from prison or exile, but because she wished, upon her eminent return, that there would still be a movement in the United States fighting for the freedom and safety of women’s bodies.
In the end, the government dropped the charges against Sanger. The death of her daughter, Peggy, just a few weeks before her trial date led prosecutors to believe that jailing Sanger would brand her as martyr, and decided to avoid the bad press that came with prosecuting a grieving mother. By not being jailed, Sanger was able to start a birth control clinic in October of 1916 in Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. Sanger was jailed for 30 days for opening the clinic, but her jailing led to a court ruling in the reformation of the law that prohibited the dispensing of contraceptive information, and restricted it to allow professional doctors to become legal distributers. This culminated in Sanger opening the first legal birth control clinic in 1923 at 104, 5th Avenue, and the beginning of mass distribution of information to women in need of a family planning strategy.
The complete Hotel Brevoort Speech:
New York Times on the Hotel Brevoort Speech:
History of the Hotel Brevoort: