, , ,

Today is the 99th anniversary of the day Margaret Sanger opened this nation’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. We thought this was a good opportunity to revisit that event from Sanger’s own reminiscences. In an article entitled, “Why I Went to Jail,” published in February 1960, she recalled,

brownsville exterior

Clinic exterior at 46 Amboy Street

brownsville interior

Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and Yiddish interpreter Fania Mindell counseling clients.

“It was a crisp, bright morning on October 16, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y., that I opened the doors of the first birth-control clinic in the United States. I believed then, and do today, that this was an event of social significance in the lives of American womanhood. ” She wrote. “Three years before, as a professional nurse, I had gone with a doctor on a call in New York’s lower East Side. I had watched a frail mother die from a self-induced abortion. The doctor previously had refused to give her contraceptive information. The mother was one of a thousand such cases; in New   York alone there were over 100,000 abortions a year. That night I knew I could not go on merely nursing, allowing mothers to suffer and die. . . . It was the beginning of my birth-control crusade.”
Sanger’s biggest concern was whether the women would come to clinic. She need not have worried. As she described it,


Sanger and Fania Mindell

“Halfway to the corner they stood in line, shawled, hatless, their red hands          clasping the chapped smaller ones of their children. All day long and far into the evening, in ever-increasing numbers they came, over 100 the opening day. Jews and Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike made their confessions to us. . . .Every day the little waiting room was crowded. The women came in pairs, with friends, married daughters, some with nursing babies clasped in their arms. Women from the far end of Long Island, the press having spread the word, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. They came to learn the ‘secret’ which was possessed by the rich and denied the poor.”
She continued, “My sister and I lectured to eight women at a time on the basic techniques of contraception, referring them to a druggist to purchase the necessary equipment. Records were meticulously kept. It was vital to have complete case histories if our work was to have scientific value. We also gave many of the women copies of What Every Girl Should Know, a brief booklet I had written earlier.”

The stories of the women were indeed tragic. “One woman told of her 15 children. Six were living. ‘I’m 37 years old. Look at me! I might be 50!’ Then there was a reluctantly pregnant Jewish woman who, after bringing eight children to birth, had two abortions and heaven knows how many miscarriages. Worn out, not only from housework but from making hats in a sweatshop, nervous beyond words, she cried morbidly, ‘If you don’t help me, I’m going to chop up a glass and swallow it.’ I comforted her the best I could, but there was nothing I would do to interrupt her pregnancy. We believed in birth control, not abortion.”

But the clinic was not always a tragic scene. Sanger recalled how they were cheered by neighbors. “The grocer’s wife on the corner dropped in to wish us luck, and the jolly old German baker whose wife gave out handbills to everybody passing the door sent us doughnuts. Then Mrs. Rabinowitz would call to us, ‘If I bring some hot tea now, will you stop the people coming?’ The postman delivering his 50 to 100 letters daily had his little pleasantry, ‘Farewell ladies; hope I find you here tomorrow.’”
He was right—their time was growing short. Sanger wrote, “On the ninth day, a well-dressed, hard-faced woman pushed her way past the humble applicants, gave her name, flaunted a $2 bill, payment for What Every Girl Should Know, and demanded immediate attention. My colleague had a hunch she might be a detective, and pinned the bill on the wall and wrote: ‘Received from Mrs. ——— of the Police Department, as her contribution.’” The following afternoon, according to Sanger, on Oct. 26, “the policewoman again pushed her way through the group of patiently waiting women and, striding into my room, snapped peremptorily, ‘You, Margaret Sanger, are under arrest.’”

Sanger was arrested, tried, convicted and spent 30 days in the queens County Penitentiary. But she went on to lead a crusade to make birth control legal, safe, effective, inexpensive and available to all women regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Can we still be struggling to ensure women’s reproductive rights 99 years later?