While transcribing the 1925 book edited by Margaret Sanger titled The Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conferences: International Aspects of Birth Control I couldn’t help but be surprised by the amount of opposition faced by the original pioneers for Birth Control. Mrs. H. G. Hill, the president of the Alameda County Birth Control League in 1924, sums up the resistance when she wrote that, “There still exists in the minds of the masses a great deal of prejudice, misunderstanding and indifference in regard to our work.” As all civil rights movements have shown us, sometimes the ignorance of the public proves to be the hardest obstacle to overcome. In response, Margaret Sanger was avid about publishing articles, pamphlets, and giving lectures.
For example, not everyone understood the need to limit big families. It was preached in Christian churches, which dominated the culture’s popular view, that “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Similar verses were used against the fight for Birth Control to prove that the movement was anti-God and anti-morals.
Sanger was under no illusion that poor women with big families were always blessed. In Jean H. Baker’s autobiography of Sanger, she talks about how Sanger’s mother “had given birth to eleven children in twenty-two years and suffered seven miscarriages. She had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage.” A few years after her last child was born, Sanger’s mother died of tuberculosis.
My mother died at 48,” wrote Sanger in sentences that needed no further explanation to make her point. “My father lived to be 80.’
Despite the toll pregnancy and miscarriages took on women, popular view still held that children were blessings and to prevent one would be to prevent the other. One of the best responses to such a claim comes from Maria Kirstine Dorothea Jensen, known better as Thit Jensen. Jensen was a Danish writer in the early twentieth century who fought for women’s rights and founded an Organization for Sexual Awareness in Denmark. In one of her articles she wrote about a physician who openly bashed the idea of women with the freedom to chose when to have children:
When I first lectured about Birth Control, it happened that a physician for women interfered – I think he was afraid it might spoil his practice, if there were not to be so many sick and half-killed women, when they finished child-bearing in a reasonable time. He had the nerve to go on to my platform and try to take over my audience – of course, he didn’t know me, he talked the most perfect hymn of cheap sentimentality about the poor good mother – the darling mother who gave birth to her sixteenth child and happily took it to her heart and it was wonderful.
And of course, you know an audience; he appealed to their childishness and they applauded him. I could not stand that, exactly at my start, so I got onto the platform and told him just what I happened to know:
‘In your clinic, this very noon, a poor woman died after having borne her ninth child. She had been your patient through several years; you had told her that if she were to bear another child, she would die. You didn’t tell her how to avoid it, you only sent her home to her husband, knowing that the law forbade her not to live with him. She became pregnant, and she died, promptly, as you told her. But…who killed her? You, who had the knowledge, or she who knew nothing. And, tell me please, if she had been a rich woman, belonging to society, and your patient, would she ever have had to die from nine small children? Certainly not, because then she would never have had so many.’
The audience exploded, being poor people most of them.
He never answered a word.
The audience’s opinion changed rather quickly when they heard the truth; women were dying unnecessarily from their excessive pregnancies, particularly women who were poor and didn’t understand their options. Ignorant claims about traditional families and the public’s lack of knowledge kept women like Margaret Sanger and Thit Jensen fighting, lecturing and publishing for as long as they did.
For full article written by Jensen see:
For full Alameda County Birth Control League article see: