On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

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New Podcast Episode: A ‘Light’ That Obscures: The Misrepresentation of Secular Thought in Pope Francis’s First Encyclical

foot-washing-255x212Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Like many, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed by many of the sayings and doings of the new Pope. He emphasizes helping the needy and is critical of over-judgmentalism and of hyper-materialism (he practices what he preaches by driving a cheap car and living in a simple apartment). He also goes out of his way to spend time with ordinary people, be it in a correctional facility, in processions, or on the phone. Often dubbed ‘The People’s Pope’, he’s making the most of his promotion, on a mission to do real good in the world. Catholic or not, most people are thrilled that such an influential person is providing such an excellent example of how to live a life of service and of mercy.

But I wasn’t quite as pleased the author of an article in the Huffington Post about Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) co-authored with the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. The author says that the encyclical ‘…reflects Francis’ subtle outreach to nonbelievers’. While I consider myself an atheist, I’m a cultural Catholic, brought up with that religion. Since so many of my loved ones are observant Catholics and the Catholic church is so influential in the world, I’m very interested in what goes on in it. The first encyclical of a new Pope is a big deal, and this encyclical does a good job of promoting Catholic teaching with inspirational language and metaphors. However, the authors also resort to bad arguments to make their point… Read the written essay here:

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Should We Act on our Beliefs? The Vexing Nature of Responsibility, by Rik Peels

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some people think that voting for Donald Trump was a detestable thing to do, whereas others are convinced that we had an obligation to vote for him in order to get rid of the political elite. Of course, in explaining why they voted the way they did, people will appeal to their beliefs. Some of those will be factive: beliefs about such things as whether someone paid his taxes or whether someone gave full disclosure of certain emails. Other beliefs will be normative: beliefs about such things as whether America should pursue international political leadership or about whether it is permissible to use water-boarding techniques to extract information from prisoners.

People act on their beliefs. Obviously, that, as such, does not get them off the hook for the ensuing actions. Those who voted for Clinton believe that adherents of Trump should know better and vice versa—when it comes to the facts, when it comes to certain moral norms, or, more likely, both. Or, to give a few examples on which most Westerners agree: we believe that ISIS fighters also act on their beliefs, but that they should know better, and we believe that climate skeptics act on their beliefs, but that they should know better. If people were not responsible for their beliefs, it would seem improper to blame them for the actions they perform on the basis of those beliefs.

However, the idea of responsibility for our beliefs faces two big challenges. First, how can we be responsible for our beliefs at all? I am responsible for whether I treat my neighbor kindly or rudely, because I can choose or decide to treat her kindly or rudely. But I do not choose or decide to hold a belief. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Today, let me form this or that belief.” Beliefs are things that are not under the control of our will. How, then, are we responsible for them? This is a controversial issue in contemporary analytic philosophy. One way to think of it is this: we are responsible for our beliefs, because they are the consequences of things over which we do have control, such as whether we gather more evidence, whether we are humble and pay attention to our prejudices and biases, and whether we try to become more open-minded.

Second, assuming that the first challenge can be met and that we are indeed responsible for our beliefs, we still face a deep puzzle about responsibility. As I said, people normally act in accordance with their beliefs. And that, it seems, is the right thing to do. One should not act contrary to what one believes to be the facts or contrary to what one believes one ought to do. Philosophers have even come up with a name for situations in which one succumbs and acts against one’s better judgment. Ever since Aristotle, they call it akrasia. One is akratic, for instance, if one believes that eating an entire bag of chips is bad, but one still does it. We don’t want people to be akratic. Rather, they should act in accordance with their beliefs.

Now, here’s the problem. If we are to hold people responsible for their beliefs, then, given that belief is not under the control of the will, it must issue from an earlier culpable act: one neglected evidence, one failed to enter into conversation with certain people, one was not open-minded, or some such thing. But, presumably, at that earlier time, one believed it was alright to neglect that evidence, fail to enter into conversation, or not be open-minded on that occasion. Thus, how can we ever hold people responsible for their beliefs and the actions performed on the basis of those beliefs? We are unwilling to give up holding people accountable for their beliefs. But it seems we are equally unwilling to give up the principle that people should not act contrary to their beliefs.

I am not entirely sure how this challenge can be met. But here are at least a few things we ought to note that can help in solving the problem.

First, it seems that if people act on their beliefs and there was no way they could have changed those beliefs – for instance, because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated or they suffer from a psychosis – we cannot blame them for holding those beliefs and for the actions based on those beliefs. Maybe we should take protective measures and perhaps even incarcerate them, but they are not morally responsible for what they believe or what they do.

Second, intellectual virtues or, as philosopher Linda Zagzebski calls them, ‘virtues of the mind’, steadily grow over long periods of time: open-mindedness, curiosity, thoroughness. And so do intellectual vices, such as dogmatism, conformity, and sloppiness. They gradually arise out of choices we make on particular occasions, such as whether we listen to someone and try to understand what things would look like from their point of view. These intellectual virtues and vices heavily influence our beliefs and, consequently, our actions. Thus, the more evidence we have that someone has had enough opportunity to develop these virtues, the more we can hold them responsible for their beliefs.

Third, the flat-out principle that we should act on our beliefs might be too simplistic: it may need substantial qualification by taking into account serious doubts that one might have, whether or not one’s belief matches one’s emotions and desires, and whether or not there is substantial disagreement with others about the belief in question. This, as such, will not solve the problem, but such qualifications seem needed to do full justice to our intuitions about the plausibility of the akrasia principle.

The responsibility we bear for our beliefs is crucial for individual well-being and the flourishing of our societies. And yet, like so many things that are crucial in our lives, it is vexing and raises deep philosophical questions. We will need joint work by ethicists, epistemologists, psychologists, and sociologists to find satisfactory answers.

~ Originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, on November 19th, 2016

~ Rik Peels is Assistant Professor in Ethics and Epistemology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is the author of Responsible Belief: A Theory in Ethics and Epistemology (OUP, 2016), editor of Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (Routledge, 2016), and co-editor of The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (CUP, 2016). You can read more on his personal website www.rikpeels.nl. (Bio credit: OUP Blog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 2

79 and 71 W. 12th Street, New York City. 77 woy

79 and 71 W. 12th Street, New York City. There’s no longer a building with that address; the person in the blue shirt is passing by where it would have been. A NYC city atlas from the era seems to show that it was a residential building.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, continued

The next site I seek is right across the street from the New School on W. 12th St near 6th Ave. The address was number 77, but as you can see, there’s no building with that number here anymore. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Sanger made her first public appearance here on January 6th, 1916 after returning from her self-imposed exile in Europe to escape obscenity charges. She eventually decided to return and face them, however: her husband had already done so on behalf of her cause the month before, and her chances in court were better now since birth control had become a much more regular topic in the press. I find no record of her talk nor a history of a public venue here. I do find a listing for 77 W 12th St in the Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Volume 1, published in 1917. It’s the address of Caroline Speare, who has two pieces of art pictured in the catalogue. Looking through it for more about Speare, which I don’t find, I stumble across an early charcoal work by Georgia O’Keeffe, which is a delightful find. Perhaps talks were held at Speare’s place as well as displays of her art, but I can find no evidence of this at this time.

Margaret Higgins Sanger, Jan 1916 by Bain News Service, public domain via LOC

Margaret Higgins Sanger, Jan 1916 by Bain News Service, public domain via LOC

I do find a form letter which Sanger had written the previous day, on Jan. 5th, 1916, to send out to friends. In it, she writes about the indictments against her over her distribution the year before of her magazine The Woman Rebel and its so-called obscene subject matters: the sexual liberty of women and birth control.

She also shared the news in the letter, briefly, of the death of her ‘little daughter’ from pneumonia two months before. Five-year-old Peggy’s death was very hard on Sanger, and the brevity of her announcement in this letter betrays her feelings. She mourned her daughter for the rest of her life, sometimes in the shape of panicked dreams that her little girl needed her help but couldn’t be found, sometimes by looking into systems of spirituality that might put Sanger in touch with little Peggy somehow, be it Rosicrucianism or spiritualism. Sanger likely felt some degree of guilt that she left her daughter behind for so long, though Peggy was well cared for by family and friends. Her young son Grant also blamed Peggy’s illness on Sanger’s being away. This was a sore spot in their relationship for years to come, as were Sanger’s frequent and long absences from the lives of her children generally.

246 W. 14th Street, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

246 W. 14th Street, New York City, is on the right-hand side of the building with the chevron-patterned facade, where Up & Down and Stash night clubs are now. It used to be one nightclub called Nell’s, then Darby’s.

I head two blocks north on 6th Ave and turn left (west) on W 14th to number 246. Sanger lived here in December of 1916. The building I find here now, with a nightclub with a marquee and theater style doors painted a deep glossy black on its ground floor, is numbered 244, and the beer and burger shop next door is numbered 248. It appears 246 and 248 W. 14th St. used to be one address not too long ago before it split into two smaller spaces. There are apartments above the burger shop. It’s a five-story building with a store on the ground floor as a contemporary atlas indicates was there, but if it is original to Sanger’s time, it’s hard to tell given the changes to the exterior over the years.

Gotham shoot on 15th St in NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Gotham shoot on W. 15th St in NYC

Then I turn back east, then north, towards 46 W. 15th St. between 5th and 6th Aves. This stretch of 15th turns out to be the set for a scene from Gotham, as a sign taped to a lamppost says, which is presumably the TV show of that name. I’m allowed to pass by quickly but not stop at my destination until the scene is shot. So I watch the action while I wait. There’s a man of middle age, handsome, wearing slicked-back gray hair, a long black coat, and a serious expression, who stoops to attend to something near the rear driver’s side tire of a black car as the cameras record. Then, next take, he’s behind the wheel, parked, and he ‘flings’ a man aside who’s just leaned into the driver’s side window by shoving open the door, then leaps out and ‘punches’ another man who runs at him from the rear of the car. As I wait, the actors take breaks while they ready the car for another take. I find myself standing next to the actor who plays the protagonist of the scene. He looks on, bored, but smiles pleasantly when he catches my eye.

 42 and 50 15th St, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Numbers 42 and 50, 15th St, Manhattan, NYC. They’re taping scenes from Gotham on this street. Number 46 would have been about where the glassy building next to the tile company is now

I return to take my photos in a pause between takes when they allow people to pass by. Again, the address I seek no longer belongs to any building. The tile company numbered 42 is next to a large, sleek, glassy building numbered 50. The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau opened its third, expanded location here at 46 W. 15th Street in early 1929. (Pokorski gives the year of the move as 1930, but this photo and other evidence I find place it in the year before.) I find an image of the BCCRB, but it’s owned by Getty Images. The licensing fee is expensive so I won’t use it to illustrate this account, but you can see it online. In the background of that photo, you can see a W. 15th St address printed on an awning, so we know what’s happening in the foreground was at this location: the police raid of the BCCRB on April 15th, 1929.

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau raid 4-15-1929, photo of photo in Chesler's Sanger biography, 2016 Amy Cools

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau raid at 46 W. 15th St, April 15th 1929, photo of photo in Chesler’s biography of Sanger

An undercover policewoman, Ann McNamara, posing as a patient, gave her medical history, received a pelvic exam, and was fitted with a diaphragm at the BCCRB. She reported the details of her visit to Mary Sullivan, administrator of the New York Police Department Women’s Bureau who led the raid, on the assumption that the clinic’s practices which McNamara observed were illegal. The police officers rounded up the clinic’s medical director Dr. Hannah Stone, assistant medical director Dr. Elizabeth Pissort, and nurses Antoinette Field, Marcella Sideri, and Sigrid H. Brestwell. The raid ended up garnering a lot of support for the BCCRB and for the birth control cause in general. As it turned out, the clinic was operating in accordance with state laws since it was run by physicians, and the police had overstepped their legal bounds by improperly seizing and reading confidential medical records. Physicians all over the United States and beyond were outraged at this violation of doctor-patient confidentiality and public support flooded in. The case was dropped, the five women were vindicated, and detective Sullivan was demoted.

It looks like they’re about to film another action scene here: the car is rigged with cameras and a machine nearby is dramatically pumping out steam. I have too many places to go today to stay and see what happens. But if you’re watching Gotham one day and see a woman in the background wandering with a red-covered tablet and a brightly printed Thai cotton shirt, that’s me. I wasn’t exactly good about staying put the whole time.

104 Fifth Ave, the first location of the American Birth Control League and the BCCRB, photo 2016 Amy Cools

104 Fifth Ave, the first location of the American Birth Control League, first opened here in 1921, and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which opened across the fall from the ABCL on Jan 1st, 1923.

Stuyvesant Building, 100 Fifth Ave, at East 15th Street ca. 1910, photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Stuyvesant Building, 100 Fifth Ave, at East 15th Street ca. 1910, photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

I walk just around the corner and a little ways north on Fifth Ave to number 104 between 16th and 15th Streets. 104 Fifth Ave was added to the already existing Stuyvesant Building at 100 Fifth Ave, built in 1906, in a style to match.

This was the first home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, founded here on January 1st, 1923 across the hall from the first offices of the American Birth Control League. The ABCL, as you may remember, was conceived of in Juliet Rublee’s home in 1921, then instituted here later that same year. The American Birth Control League would join forces, or in a sense, reunite, with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and become Planned Parenthood in 1942. More on Planned Parenthood to follow in an upcoming account.

And just around the corner from 104 park Ave, north and then left at W. 16th St, at number 17 between 5th and 6th Aves, is the Margaret Sanger Clinic House. The actor’s trailers and equipment trucks from the Gotham shoot I just passed through a block over on W 15th are parked along this street, and one is so placed that it blocks a clear shot of the front of the building. So I take some closeup photos and one at a sharp angle which shows its location next to the Center for Jewish History. This seems fitting, since Sanger’s early work as a nurse in the Lower East Side and her birth control clinics served so many Jewish immigrant women struggling to make a new start in the United States.

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St next to the Center for Jewish Studies, 2016 Amy Cools

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St, next to the Center for Jewish History

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W 16th St, New York City, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W 16th St, Manhattan, New York City

The Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St, originally the second home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, was the first legal birth control clinic to open in the United States. That’s because, as discussed above, Sanger took care to run this one within the parameters of the law by placing it under the direction of physicians. Sanger was ambivalent about legally limiting all birth control services to physician-run clinics. For one thing, physicians were not yet in general agreement about the medical and moral effectiveness and desirability of birth control, for many reasons. Many physicians opposed it on religious grounds, others on positive eugenics grounds. And many more simply recognized that there was far too little known as yet about the processes of reproduction and how to control it.

Sanger knew the latter all too well, so often frustrated by her inability to help women control their fertility as much as she would like too. Most birth control methods had a fairly high failure rate even when used correctly, but using them correctly was time-consuming and awkward, especially, of course, in times of passion, so the failure rates overall were very high. Many of the best contraceptive devices were expensive and many other women, the very ones who needed birth control the most, could not afford doctor’s visits. And because the supply of artificial contraception was driven into the black market, all manner of dubious, ridiculous, and even outright dangerous methods proliferated. Sanger and the BCCRB staff knew this all too well and kept a curio cabinet full of these junk devices and potions at the clinic as examples of what not to use (which the police seized in the raid as well, in their ignorance). However dangerous, however dubious, women still continued to use them, as they were often safer than the other alternatives: self-inflicted or illegal abortions, or carrying a pregnancy to term. Maternal and infant mortality rates were very high at the time, especially among the poor.

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York, photo via the Margaret Sanger Papers, no known restrictions on use

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York, photo via the Margaret Sanger Papers

But Sanger’s more pressing doubts about restricting birth control services to physicians sprung from her feminist concerns over women’s right to control their own bodies and destinies. Many physicians believed that women should have as many babies as their bodies conceived, whether or not their patients believed this too. This subordinated women’s decisions about sex, reproduction, and family planning to those of their doctors, whose opinions on the matter often had nothing to do with medical concerns. And even more concerning since the ramifications were wider, much of the ignorance about reproduction stemmed from the indifference or squeamishness of the male-dominated medical and research science professions. Most were simply unwilling to risk their reputations and professional careers in the search for knowledge about human reproduction, still considered a distasteful, messy side of humanity best kept under a discreet veil of sentimentality and ignorance.

Nurse's uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC

Nurse’s uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC. Sanger likely wore a uniform very like this.

I take the subway north and return to the New York City Public Library. First, I consult Ellen Chesler’s excellent Sanger biography for more details of discoveries I’ve made and to refresh my memory on some other things. As I read page 62 of Woman of Valor, I’m reminded that Sanger worked for awhile as a nurse with Lilian Wald’s Visiting Nurses Association. I first learned about Lilian Wald’s nursing service at the Henry Street Settlement House site when I visited the Lower East Side for my Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton series in 2014. It was right around the corner from the former site of Rose’s 1836 home at 484 Grand Street and the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue.henry-street-settlement-and-lilian-wald-display-activist-new-york-exhibit-2014-amy-cools


Henry Street Settlement and Playhouse, Lilian Wald Site, New York City, 2014 Amy Cools

Henry Street Settlement and Playhouse, Lilian Wald Site, New York City

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library

Coincidentally, I’m reminded of Ernestine Rose here in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. I love this library. I read and make notes, my feet grateful for the rest, then I head down to the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117, where I confirm the location of some sites that are no longer there. Some of the maps are original paper ones, and you’ll find photos of these throughout this series. Others are scanned into the online system, and the librarian helps familiarize me with the website’s digital collection.

Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117 of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

Another gorgeous room in the NYPL: Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117

69 West 46th Street, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

69 West 46th Street, NYC. The Gamut Club would have been about where the Dress Barn is now

Women seated at tables in the dining room at the Gamut Club at 69 West 46th Street ca. 1914, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Women seated at tables in the dining room at the Gamut Club at 69 West 46th Street ca. 1914, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

I walk north on 5th Ave then turn left at 46th, to 69 W. 46th St, just east of 6th Ave near Times Square. Again, there is no longer a building with that address here, but in the 1920’s it was the site of the Gamut Club, founded by feminist actress Mary Shaw in 1913. She thought other women’s clubs she belonged to had become little more than sessions of ‘tea table tattle, bridge, and banalities’. Her Gamut Club would devote itself instead to intelligent discussion and the support of socially conscious arts. The club hosted dinner discussions, guest speakers, and feminist-themed plays. There are two occasions which lead me to follow Sanger here. On January 21st, 1920, as recorded in the February edition of The Birth Control Review of that year, Sanger was a speaker at one of the weekly Tuesday dinner meetings. As the Review tells it, these women-only events were intimate enough to allow the attendees to discuss the issues much more fully and freely than they might have in mixed company. And on March 26, 1924, she lectured with Dr. Dorothy Bocker on the topic ‘Should All Women be Mothers?’ As of the time I write this, I find no record of the lecture, but my guess is that their answer to that questions was ‘no’.

Hotel Astor behind row of lighted billboards on Times Square, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Hotel Astor behind row of lighted billboards on Times Square, NYC

The Capital Times, Thu Oct 3, 1929, ABCL National Convention clipping, from Newspapers.com

Clipping from The Capital Times of Oct 3, 1929 announcing ABCL’s National Birth Control Convention. Click to read in full.

Then I head to Hotel Astor at One Astor Plaza at the intersection of 44th St and 7th Ave. The Astor faces onto Times Square. It’s a weekday rush hour and the throng is thick. I take a deep breath and plunge in.

According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which included ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’

I see there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal in the collections of the University of California. This now gives me two topics to research there for this series. I’ll return to fill in the details of this story as soon as I can.

The Town Hall Building, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Town Hall Building, New York City

The Town Hall Building historical plaque, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Town Hall Building historical plaque

The last Sanger site I visit for the day is at 123 W. 43rd St between 6th and 7th Aves. It’s now early evening but I have just enough light left to photograph the Town Hall Building. It’s an attractive red brick building in a federal revival style, with modest decorations in pale stone and its name and humanitarian purposes carved into a huge pale stone placed horizontally and prominently along its façade. It was built in 1921, earlier in the same year of the event that brings me here.

On, Nov 13, 1921, a meeting was scheduled here to close the First American Birth Control Conference which saw the public launch of the American Birth Control League, which, in turn, was to become Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s friend Harold Cox was to deliver a speech called ‘The Morality of Birth Control‘, which Sanger authored. He was scheduled to speak after Mary Shaw, founder of the aforementioned Gamut Club. However, to their surprise (though perhaps not total surprise) a squadron of police officers blocked their entrance at the door.  After some wrangling, Sanger, Cox, and attendees managed to make their way inside. The police, however, would not allow Cox to speak, dragging him from the stage.

As it turns out, the police claimed to be there at the request of Archbishop Patrick Hayes. They carried Cox and Sanger off to the station followed by a crowd of protesting attendees. As a generator of publicity for her cause, Sanger couldn’t have planned it better. She had long opposed the Catholic church as backward, unscientific, and oppressive of women’s rights, and this debacle, in the eyes of many, proved her point. The American Civil Liberties Union, prominent New Yorkers, and newspapers from all over roundly criticized this trespass on free speech rights. While Hayes was ultimately never found officially responsible, we’ll likely never know for certain whether he did request police intervention. Who knows, it may have been a simple case of ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ except, of course, the other way around. Hayes’ friends and sympathizers may have just wanted to help him out by putting a stop to this turbulent woman, at least in his city.

But Sanger triumphed in public opinion in this case not once, but twice. On Jan 15th, 1937, Sanger was presented here at the Town Hall with the Award of Honor by the Town Hall Club in honor of her bravery and contributions to society.

Thus ends another fascinating day’s journey in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger. Stay tuned for my adventures on Day Three!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~ Special thanks to the Museum of the City of New York, a wonderful institution with an extensive collection of photographs and documents which tell the story of New York City and its people


Sources and Inspiration:

100 Fifth Avenue‘, from 42Floors website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies‘. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct 01, 1999. From the Center for Disease Control website

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 32 and Plate 37. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Volume 1, published 1917

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Diversity of the Desirable‘, The Evening Journal, Nov 21, 1929 page 6, Wilmington, Delaware

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Johnson, Ben. ‘Thomas Becket.’ Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accomodation Guide

Krich Chinoy, Helen and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre, 1981, 1987, 2006. New York: Theatre Communications Group

Lepore, Jill. ‘Birthright: What’s Next for Planned Parenthood?‘, Nov 14, 2011. The New Yorker – American Chronicles

Margaret Sanger Is Dead at 82; Led Campaign for Birth Control‘. The New York Times: On This Day, Obituary Sep 7, 1966

Miller, Tom. ‘The 1847 “Margaret Sanger Clinic” House – 17 West 16th Street‘, Sep 18, 2010, Daytonian in Manhattan blog

National Birth Control Parley Nov 18 in N.Y.The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, Oct 3, 1929

Nell’s‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Raid Sanger Clinic on Birth Control‘. New York Times Apr 16, 1929

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth-Control Raid‘, May 1, 1929, The New Republic, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret (ed.) The Birth Control Review, Volumes 1-3, 1917,  Volume 2; Volumes 4-5, 1920, and Vol 5, 1921

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Form Letter to Friend(s)‘, from Samples from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for the Model Editions Partnership

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Morality of Birth Control,’ Nov 18, 1921. Published Speech. Source: The Morality of Birth Control, (New York, 1921)The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

The Town Hall Raid‘, Newsletter #27 (Spring 2001) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Troublemakers!‘ Nov 28, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

New Podcast Episode: Why So Much Hatred for Margaret Sanger?

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

There’s been a widespread and concerted effort to vilify Margaret Sanger and remove her name from the public roll of great contributors to human rights history. In my research for the Sanger project I’m working on, I find scores of examples of this effort every single time I do an internet search using her name.

Last year, for example, Ted Cruz and other conservative senators called for her portrait to be removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where her portrait bust is included in the Struggle for Justice exhibition. In justification of his campaign, Cruz used part of a quote lifted from its original context and presented it as saying something nearly opposite of what it was originally meant to say. In a letter to a friend, Sanger expressed her worry that her birth control clinic project in the South might be misperceived and misrepresented as racist; Cruz lifted a few words from this letter to ‘prove’ that it was. He may have borrowed this idea from Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican Party, and Ben Carson and Herman Cain, one-time Republican presidential hopefuls. These three influential conservative men, in turn, received this bit of distorted wisdom from Angela Davis and some others in the black power movement who, concerned that the reproductive justice movement might have ill effects in the long run on the empowerment of black people, (mis)represented Sanger’s words, works, and character in the worst possible light…

….So let’s first consider Margaret Sanger’s [actual] beliefs and whether they justify her inclusion among the great freedom leaders. Then, let’s consider her beliefs in the light of her own time and whether they deserve admiration today, on the whole, or are at least understandable given the circumstances of her time…. Read the written version here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

APA Member Interview: Amy Cools

Amy Cools, Portrait by Alex Black, 2014October 21, 2016 by Skye Cleary for the American Philosophical Association Blog

What excites you about philosophy?

There’s something about discovering or realizing a truth about the world and about our inner experiences of it that’s more thrilling to me than anything else. When I first read Wilfred Seller’s definition of philosophy, the “aim…to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”, I recognized that his conception of philosophy is closest to my own. I believe philosophy is something that all human beings engage in, to one degree or another, and to feel that I’m part of this great human endeavor to understand and appreciate the world is also deeply satisfying…

Read the rest of this interview at the APA Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!