Friday, October 21st, 2016
It’s cold and rainy, so I spend a long morning with my coffee as I do more research. Try as I might, I just can’t identify, with any certainty, the exact site of the Queens County Penitentiary, Long Island City, where Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for thirty days in 1917 for operating her Brownsville birth control clinic. Nor do I locate the site of the original White Plains Hospital where Sanger trained as a nurse. I had pored over the atlases of that town, from that time, in the New York Public Library map division, and I searched assiduously in their digitized records this morning. No luck.
So I finish my account of the first site I visited on Tuesday and publish it, then head out. It keeps raining, but oh well, it’s not a terribly long walk and besides, I welcome a walk in the rain, under my umbrella, of course. The drought back home had been mostly unrelenting for ages and it’s nice to experience a good rain again.
My first destination is Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center at Mott and Bleecker Streets. The rain is really coming down and I’m fairly wet by the time I get here, so I hurriedly enter the lobby. Immediately, a man approaches me and asks what I’m looking for, while another man at the desk trains his eye on me. Not unfriendly, but alert. I explain my mission and present my driver’s license and business card. He makes a call upstairs to see if the director of the center has a moment to meet with me, but she’s heading out for a meeting. I ask if I can take a photo of the colorful mural on the lobby wall, but they say no: for security reasons, no photos are allowed inside the building. I express my understanding: after all, such establishments are under constant threats of terrorism and negative, often distorted and falsified media. I’m content with taking photos of the outside, and note the array of security cameras.
New York City has a long history as a place where a woman can more readily obtain an abortion than just about anywhere else. In his detailed article on the subject, Robert Nizza wrote for New York magazine:
‘In many ways, the story of abortion in the United States is the story of abortion in New York. There were no laws against the procedure until the 1820s. Before that, British common law allowed abortions before “quickening,” or the moment when the fetus first moved. It was in New York in 1828 that America’s first real abortion law was passed. The debate of the day wasn’t driven by religious concerns about when life begins. Instead, as James C. Mohr’s classic history of the subject, Abortion in America, explains, Albany responded to pressure from doctors who were aghast at quacks’ butchering women and scamming them with phony abortifacient potions. The law was really about medical regulation, and, according to Mohr, it went completely unenforced.’
Sanger opposed abortion on the same health and safety grounds as the medical community Nizza refers to. We can only guess what her stance would be on abortion today, though based on her stated reasons for opposition to the practice as well as her refusal to condemn the women who sought abortions, I think her position would echo Bill Clinton’s: that abortion should be safe, legal, and through the ready availability of safe, legal, and affordable birth control, rare.
I take the subway to my next destination, which is close enough so that I’d ordinarily walk but I don’t want to spend the day in soaking wet pants; I’m already very damp from my first long walk. On my way from the station, just around the corner from where I’m headed, I’m amused to see a sex shop storefront that’s vibrantly painted with the words ‘Free Pleasure’ surrounded by cartoon-like images of pleasure devices. It’s apropos to the birth control debate that I’ve been considering throughout this journey. Each side might find it illustrates their views: those who share Sanger’s view that sex and reproduction are not and should not be necessarily linked, and those that oppose all forms of artificial birth control on the grounds that they’re contrary to nature and to God’s will. The latter also find the idea of sex unmoored from reproduction repellent because they believe it will lead to irresponsible and extramarital sex, and corrode family values and ideals of sexual purity. They might interpret the colorful shop window as a negative demonstration of the cheapening of sex from permissive birth control laws and secular sexual mores. Sanger, like her fellow sex-positivists, believed instead that unmooring sex from reproduction leads to happier, more romantic and less stressful marriages, and to healthier and more prosperous families while providing a broader scope for women to enjoy and explore their sexual natures. They would likely interpret this painting as a positive demonstration of sexual freedom.
Just around the corner, I arrive at 4 Perry Street, where according to Robin Pokorski of NYU’s Mapping Margaret Sanger project, Sanger lived for a short while in 1914, between Waverly Place and Greenwich Ave in Greenwich Village. A couple of other sources mention this as well. Yet aside from brief statements of this fact in those secondary and tertiary sources, I’m unable to discover anything else about her time here with online research alone, including the exact stretch of time she lived here, but there’s plenty of readily available evidence that shows where Sanger lived elsewhere that same year. Sanger’s correspondence, both to and from, were addressed ’34 Post Ave’ from March to October of that year, and her journal The Woman Rebel directs all inquiries be sent there. She arrived in New York City from Paris in early January 1914. According to her autobiography, she rented the apartment on Post St ‘as soon as possible’ after she arrived, and she left New York for Europe again in late October to flee another obscenity trial for her Woman Rebel publications. That pretty much leaves January and February of 1914 as the time frame in which she could have lived here on Perry St. In these first two months of the year, she was reestablishing herself as an activist, now for birth control. As you many remember, she had just left her husband William behind in Paris to do so.
I duck into an inviting establishment right down the way on Greenwich Ave at Perry, lured by the promise of handmade meatballs and a tasty ale. This is my last day in NYC this trip, and I’m going to slow down and take it easier today. I write notes and linger over my meal, hoping the rain will stop. I like the rain, but it’s very difficult to take photos I require for this project since that requires both hands. I balance my umbrella over my head with the handle tucked under my arm, but it tends to flop over as I move to get the best shots. So I linger until the rainfall lightens, though it doesn’t really stop for awhile.
My next destination is another landmark I’ve been wanting to visit: Carnegie Hall. There are three particular Sanger-related occasions which bring me here to 881 Seventh Ave at 56th St.
On the afternoon of Jan 29th, 1917, there was a protest rally and mass meeting here at Carnegie Hall. Sanger’s sister Ethel Byrne had been sentenced to 30 days in jail the week before for running the Brownsville birth control clinic with Sanger. Sanger and nurse Fania Mandeil went on trial on the day of the Carnegie Hall protest; Sanger was certain she would be convicted and imprisoned, outcomes she did nothing to avoid. Byrne and Sanger were both determined to attract as much attention as possible to their cause, be it fame, notoriety, or otherwise. Byrne, tried, convicted, and imprisoned first, went on a hunger strike. She was forcibly fed after several days without food and water left her in terrible shape, even close to death. Sanger, initially supportive of her sister’s decision to hunger strike, changed her mind when she observed its awful toll on her health. She decided not to go on her own planned hunger strike after all, as she was determined to fight tirelessly for her cause. Instead, Sanger passed out copies of the first edition of the Birth Control Review to the attendees of the protest at Carnegie Hall, and announced to the press that there would be five hundred babies and their mothers present to demonstrate that their work was, in fact, pro-baby and pro-family. Sanger, Byrne, and Mandeil certainly had the support of very many mothers, as well as non-mothers, in the Brownsville community they served.
The New York Times published a transcript of the brief speech she delivered here that day. It goes:
‘I come to you tonight from a crowded courtroom, from a vortex of persecution. I come not from the stake at Salem, where women were burned for blasphemy, but from the shadow of Blackwell’s Island, where women are tortured for “obscenity.”
Birth control is the one means by which the working man shall find emancipation. I was one of eleven children. My mother died when I was 17 because she had had too many children and had worked herself to death. I became a nurse to help support my family, and I soon discovered that 75 per cent of the diseases of men and women are due to sex ignorance. I determined that when I was able I would do what I could to solve that problem. I found that the average person was as ignorant of sex matters as our most primitive ancestors. There has been progress in every department of our lives except in the most important–creation. So I came to the conclusion that the greatest good I could do was to help poor women to have fewer children to be brought up in want and poverty. I threw my nurse’s bag away and swore I would take it up no more. I went to Europe and studied the birth control clinics there and came back to America to do what I could.
Colonel Roosevelt goes all about the country telling people to have large families and he is neither arrested nor molested. But can he tell me why I got sixty-three letters in one week from poor mothers in Oyster Bay asking me for birth control information? No woman can call herself free until she can choose the time she will become a mother.
My purpose in life is to arouse sentiment for the repeal of the law, State and Federal. It is we women who have paid for the folly of this law, and it is up to us to repeal it. It is only by birth control that woman can prepare with man, her brother, for the emancipation of the race.’
Some years later, on October 11th, 1922, the American Birth Control League hosted a ‘Welcome Back’ event for Sanger here. She had returned in August from a tour of Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Yemen, and London that year. She commenced her journey in Japan, setting sail in late February and arriving on March 10th. The Japanese government initially denied her a visa on the grounds that her birth control message was contrary to their official position: strong population growth was necessary for the military and political strength of Japan. But Sanger, ever energetic, and persuasive, forceful, and charming as the circumstances called for, bought passage on a ship bound for China via Japan. During the voyage, she finagled a way in, prevailing upon Japanese officials she met on board to use their influence to get her a visa. Upon arrival, she was welcomed by a large crowd of citizens, reporters, police, and other government officials, many welcoming but some not. In the end, she was able to speak, travel, and tour Japan’s fledgling community of birth control providers as planned, and continued in like vein throughout Asia. While in Japan, she stayed with Shidzue Ishimoto, a fellow feminist, activist, and proponent of birth control, and they would work together throughout the years. While on this world tour, she also attended the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference at Kingsway Hall in London, from July 11th-14th.
Sanger also spoke at a birth control meeting held here at Carnegie Hall on December 6th, 1924, introducing many of her friends and fellow activists in the birth control movement. One of the speakers she introduced was her colleague Dr. Dorothy Bocker, who worked with her at the first iteration of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, founded almost two years before. As Sanger often pointed out, much of the opposition to birth control stemmed from ignorance, especially on the part of the medical and scientific community. Strange as it may seem today, this ignorance was mostly born of squeamishness and a fear of offending prevailing views of sexual propriety. Now, we’d think of a physician or scientist’s interest in sex and reproduction as worthy examples of proper scientific and humanitarian interest, but this was rarely the case in Sanger’s time. So she decided that her second birth control clinic needed to be staffed by a licensed physician and that this physician would gather clinical data so thoroughly and systematically that it could be accepted as evidence by the medical and scientific community. Over time, Bocker and Sanger differed in their methods of evidence gathering sufficiently that, according to Sanger, she and Dr. Bocker ‘agreed to part company in December of the second year’, which is the very month this conference was held here at Carnegie Hall. Sanger pushed for far more rigorous record keeping and longer-term patient follow-up than Bocker was willing to undertake. However much they were disagreeing at the time of this Carnegie Hall meeting, Sanger introduced Dr. Bocker warmly, if succinctly. Dr. Hannah Stone, who was rounded up in the raid on the 46 W. 15th Street location in 1929, replaced Dr. Bocker as medical director early the next year.
I have one site left on my list to visit for my Margaret Sanger journey here in NYC: the former location of the American Women’s Association Clubhouse. There are two occasions which bring me here. The first is an event on November 12, 1931, when Sanger received the Medal of Achievement from the American Women’s Association. According to Pokorski of the Mapping Margaret Sanger project, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at this event. Roosevelt was a supporter of birth control, and along with her husband Franklin, was a friend of Sanger’s. But when Franklin Roosevelt was running for the presidency and then, once he had won it, neither he nor Eleanor would publicly endorse birth control on the advice of his staff and political supporters. This AWA event was, then, was one of the last occasions where Eleanor would publicly endorse this movement until the Roosevelt presidency was far behind her.
Almost half a year later, on April 20, 1932, the AWA also gave a testimonial dinner here in Sanger’s honor. Sanger was deeply moved as so many of her friends and colleagues extolled her hard work and thanked her for it; her great friend and occasional lover H.G. Wells extolled her as ‘the greatest revolutionary bacteriologist the world has ever known.’
I have now completed this particular journey following the life and ideas of Margaret Sanger in New York City. But I am not done with her life and ideas by any means. Please stay tuned as I continued to explore her ideas and the ways in which they change the world! And thank you for accompanying me thus far…
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Sources and inspiration:
‘Advice to Married Ladies‘, Madame Restell abortion ad in The New York Times, Nov 9th, 1865, via Newspapers.com
Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate*** and Plate***. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.
Buhle, Mari Jo. ‘Women & the Socialist Party’ Radical America, Feb 1970, Vol, IV, 4F2, via National Progressive Review
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
Engelman, Peter C., ““Dangerous Thoughts”? Margaret Sanger’s World Trip Journal, Japan, 1922” (2010). Documentary Editing: Journal of the Association for Documentary Editing (1979-2011). Paper 28.
Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.
Gray, Christopher. ‘Streetscapes/The Henry Hudson Hotel, 353 West 57th Street; From Women’s Clubhouse to WNET to $75 a Night.’ The New York Times, Jan. 4, 1998
Lizza, Ryan. ‘The Abortion Capital of America: As the Pro-Life Movement Intensifies Nationwide, New York Contemplates its History and Future as a Refuge‘. New York magazine, June 2014
‘Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #11 (Winter 1995)
‘Margaret Sanger On Trial – Will Hunger Strike‘. The Day Book, Chicago, Jan 29, 1917, last edition, Image 29, via LOC’s Chronicling America
Moran Hajo, Cathy. ‘What Happened Next? A Look at Birth Control Organizing in China Following Margaret Sanger’s 1922 visit’. Jan 9, 2014, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
‘Mrs. Byrne to Have a Feeding Schedule‘, The New York Times, Jan 29th 1917, pp 1, 3, via Newspapers.com
Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
‘Sanger on Trial: The Brownsville Clinic Testimony‘. Newsletter #25 (Fall 2000) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret. ‘American Women’s Association Testimonial Dinner Address,’ April 20th, 1932. Margaret Sanger Papers, L.O.C., LCM 128:0237B-243A, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Carnegie Hall Address,’ Jan 29, 1917. Source: Mrs. Sanger Defies Courts Before 3,0000, New York Times, Jan. 30, 1917, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Individual and Family Aspects of Birth Control‘, Report of the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, July 11-14, 1922. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Remarks at Carnegie Hall Meeting‘, Dec 6th, 1924. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Microfilm 130:701, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
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
Samples from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for the Model Editions Partnership, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)
‘What Every Girl Should Know About Nursing‘. The Truth About Nursing, Oct 15, 2006