Happy Birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft!

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, April 27, 1759, I share two works about this great feminist thinker which I’ve published here at Ordinary Philosophy.

One is the Traveling Philosophy series in which I followed the life and ideas of Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson in Revolution-era Paris, France in 2015.

The second is the following essay:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

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!


Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974

O.P. Recommends: Why Radio’s Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship with Guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why Radio Podcast website

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why? Radio podcast website

I was recently thrilled to discover Why? Radio‘s podcast. It’s about time I did, since it’s eight years and more than 100 episodes in. Thanks for the share, Laura of Bismarck, ND!

For the 100th episode this February, host and creator Jack Russell Weinstein interviews Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, journalist, writer, and feminist extraordinaire; and Suzanne Braun Levine, first editor of Ms. magazine, author, and authority on feminism and gender issues. The topics covered in this episode are summarized in the title ‘Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship‘. Weinstein is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and created the IPPL radio show and podcast Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life for very similar reasons I created Ordinary Philosophy, as you can see from the subtitle.

My readers may often wonder why my philosophy/history of ideas blog and podcast are at least as devoted to the life and ideas of activists and civil rights leaders as they are to philosophers and theorists. Steinem sums up a conviction I share near the beginning of the interview: ‘To be part of any social justice movement is probably to be on the forefront of philosophy’. Social justice movements are founded on ideas that have not yet been understood and accepted widely enough to be embodied in law and social practice. Many activists, then, can be understood as philosophers in the public square, and activism as philosophy in action. They are part of the same noble tradition, forcing us to consider uncomfortable questions and raising our consciousness, as Socrates’ gadfly questions, awakening his fellow citizens from their ‘dogmatic slumbers‘. I’m also gratified to hear Steinem cite Louisa May Alcott as one of her earliest influences, as she was for me; the story of Alcott’s principled stand at Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass’ wedding is among my favorite examples of philosophy in action, a perfect demonstration of the right way to think and act towards our fellow human beings.

Steinem also challenges the way that second-wave feminism is often characterized as a middle-class white movement. She points out that polls revealed that black women, especially in the early days of the movement, shared feminist and civil rights convictions in far greater proportions than any other group, and were more likely to demonstrate their convictions through action; it’s just that they were not recognized in the media nor did they have the opportunities that white women, as well as white and black men, had to rise to leadership positions. Steinem shares an anecdote from her participation in the March on Washington, in which a black woman in the crowd angrily points out that not a single black woman was chosen to address the crowd from the stage, which illustrates this paradox.

Women are still expected to wear ‘feminine’ clothing that pushes, pulls, and presses their bodies into fashionable shapes, sometimes painfully, and to wear heavy makeup and crippling and uncomfortable shoes in order to be considered well-dressed and sexy, especially for public figures. The problem is not necessarily these fashions themselves, it’s that women are generally required to adorn themselves this way in order to achieve their goals. Photo exhibit at Women’s Rights Historical Park, Seneca Falls, NY.

I also love what Braun Levine says about being a ‘tomboy’ as a young girl; she says it shows she was on the ‘wrong path’. She wasn’t saying that she was wrong to want to play with the boys and wear pants, to the contrary. I interpret her statement as her commentary on how we’ve long divided healthy, active pursuits such as sports and wanting to wear clothing that permits bodily freedom into the category ‘boy’, and daintiness constrained in clothing and shoes that limit bodily freedom into the category ‘girl’. It was only with the hindsight and wisdom made possible by her own evolving consciousness, which she, in turn, awoke in her readers, which made her realize that these ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ qualities, instincts, and preferences, are universal human ones. People of all genders, or of none depending on how you describe it, love to be very physically active or they don’t, like to wear constrictive and elaborate clothing, makeup, and shoes or don’t, and so on.

This wonderful discussion about the history and evolution of feminism, as Steinem and Braun Levine experience it, wraps up with an exchange with two budding activists, eleven-year old Faith and Adina. What a great way to show just how influential these two women are and how the young are moving their cause forward and applying it to the modern world!

*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!

Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites.

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Regency Center, at Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, CA

Stairway and elevator at the Regency Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Temple at Sutter and Van Ness, San Francisco

I: Sanger in Oakland and San Francisco

Friday, March 31st, 2017

I head first to San Francisco, a quick and easy trip on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System, our subway/ell) across the Bay, and take a pleasant walk on this spring day from Montgomery Street station east, first along Post through Union Square, then on Sutter. December 16th, 1928, Sanger spoke at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco, at Sutter and Van Ness. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple moved into its new quarters in the early 1960’s, and this building became the Regency Center, a multi-purpose venue. In fact, I was here just a few years ago when I saw John Cale, one of my very favorite musical artists of all time, perform in the ballroom, but Sanger likely spoke in the Social Hall. It’s also likely she delivered more or less the same speech she delivered at Oakland Civic Auditorium three days later, the story of that speech will follow below. Perhaps the speeches and corrections she scribbled onto the speech, which I link to here, constitute the differences between her addresses at the San Francisco and Oakland venues.

Small upper room in the Scottish Rite Temple, now the Regency Center, San Francisco

I write to people who manage and organize events at the Regency Center but am unable to line up a day to meet soon that will work with all of our schedules.

But since I have this free afternoon on a glorious spring day, I head over anyway, in case I luck out and end up there at a good time. Turns out, the very helpful man I find here, who’s in charge of setting up events, regretfully tells me there’s just too much going on for me to head upstairs and poke around to the rooms where she may have spoken; various contemporary sources designate the venue as the Scottish Rite ‘Hall’ and ‘Auditorium’, so the exact site is unclear. So I take photos in the places he allows me to wander: the hallway, the main stairway, and a meeting room just off the main landing now converted into a small bar.

About 22 years earlier, in August of 1916, Sanger wrote to her friends Charles and Bessie Drysdale, ‘In San Francisco [on a birth control lecture tour] I had a collapse, and was three days in bed under medical care, but recovered sufficiently to hold six meetings.’ As you may recall, Sanger suffered from recurrent tubercular infections, and from time to time they made her quite ill and exhausted. I have yet to find a record of specific locations she visited or stayed in San Francisco on that trip. Sanger didn’t mention her time in Oakland in this letter, though she may have meant to include the greater Bay Area when she said ‘San Francisco’, as visitors often do. Since she delivered her Oakland speech only three days after this San Francisco tour, this may have been one of the six meetings she spoke of.

So I return to Oakland to follow in Sanger’s footsteps there.

Margaret Sanger Hotel Oakland appearance, Oakland Tribune, Thu Jun 15, 1916, evening edition, front page. For the full article, click here. The drawing looks nothing like Sanger, and what’s up with the silhouette of celery? Yes, I know it’s meant to be a vase…

Hotel Oakland Ballroom, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

On June 15, 1916, Sanger gave a speech in the ballroom of the Hotel Oakland at 270 13th St. I don’t find a transcript of this speech, but I do find a newspaper article about this event, which includes a summary of its main points as well as a review. The speech was well received by the audience, according to Gene Baker, writing for the Oakland Tribune. He compared Sanger favorably to Emma Goldman, Sanger’s one-time friend and ally from whom, truth be told, Sanger co-opted the mantle of birth control advocate-in-chief. As Baker commented in his article, Sanger was much more traditionally ‘feminine’ than Goldman in appearance, ‘slight’ and prettily dressed. Sanger was both a committed sex-positivist and a straight woman and saw no contradictions between her feminist convictions and in making herself attractive to men. Baker also described Sanger as speaking with intensity (which indicates she was feeling better since her collapse in San Francisco) and with scientific coldness. Perhaps she did convey a sense of scientific detachment, given her habit of buttressing her calls for action with a barrage of facts and statistics, or perhaps he perceived her keen grasp of the issues and her memory for detail as unfeminine and therefore ‘cold.’

Baker also wrote of her outspoken opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s beliefs about childbearing in this speech; she frequently published rebukes and rebuttals to the President’s public stances against birth control and in favor of large families. (Baker mentioned that she spoke out against Roosevelt in San Francisco as well.) Both Sanger and Roosevelt were eugenicists but of different types: Sanger believed in negative eugenics, in curing human ills through having less children, especially if the parents were ill, disabled, or too poor to bring up well-nourished, well-educated, and well-housed children, and Roosevelt believed in positive eugenics, improving the human race through intelligent and hardworking people having as many children as possible.

Hotel Oakland, now Hotel Oakland Village senior citizen community


Hotel Oakland Village main lounge, Oakland, CA

Hotel Oakland, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

Hotel Oakland Historical Plaque, Oakland, CA

The Hotel Oakland, which opened as a luxury hotel on December 23rd, 1912, is now a senior community residence. Its grand edifice is little changed, but its garden is no longer so sumptuous and much of its interior is much plainer, having been stripped of its chandeliers and fancy furniture and painted plain white, though the lounge ceiling is painted a lovely antique-gold color. I sign in at the desk and walk around the first floor, greeting each person I see with a hello, a smile, and a nod, everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no one questions my presence. I take photos freely on the ground floor except in the large back room converted into an activity and physical therapy area, which, it so happens, appears to be the former ballroom I seek. I ask the person who works there if I may take pictures; she’s a Spanish speaker, and I ask in that language (unforgivably clumsily, given that I’m a California native and I should be more adept) if I may take pictures. She explains that the person that could authorize this won’t be back in until Monday, so I depart. As much as I am historically nosy, I make it my practice never to infringe on the territory of working people. They have enough to worry about without wondering if they could get in trouble on my behalf.

I do, however, take photos of the front lobby, in full view of everyone there who appears not the least concerned with my presence except to return my smile when they happen to catch my eye. Most of the residents are Chinese. This is no surprise since the Hotel Oakland Village, as it’s now named, borders Chinatown, and like the neighborhood in general, it is family-oriented, with visitors of all ages coming and going, often taking the elderly residents for local outings, such infirmities as they have lovingly supported by wheelchairs, walkers, arms, and hands. The parks in this neighborhood often contain large groups, sometimes very large, of older people going through the graceful, slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi. It’s likely they include many of the residents of this hotel. The sight of these people, something like colorful wildflowers waving in the wind, something like windmills if windmills were endowed with personalities, intention, and rich history and could move deliberately to music, warms my heart on my morning walks.

Oakland’s Chinatown at the time of the Hotel Oakland’s heyday; many of these old houses stand today. This photo is on the wall of the Oakland Hotel Village main hallway

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Next, I visit the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later called the Kaiser Convention Center, also just a few blocks from my house, near Lake Merritt. On December 19th, 1928, Sanger delivered the speech ‘The Necessity for Birth Control‘ here. It was a least as dedicated to eugenics-based arguments about the ill effects of ‘feeble-minded’, ill, disabled, and poor people having children to whom they passed down these traits and which they could not care for properly, as it was about preventing suffering.

The eugenics arguments and opinions she used in this speech are hard to take now, just as they were for many then. Yet to be fair to Sanger, we must remember that her arguments were informed by her experiences working as a visiting nurse in the slums where the poorest of the working poor lived in NYC, where the best efforts of public charities often seemed to hardly make a dent in relieving suffering, especially when, as Sanger believed, so much of it was preventable:

In her speech, Sanger said:

To define Birth Control, we say it is the conscious control of the birth-rate by scientific means that prevent the conception of human life. Prevent, remember. Prevent does not mean to interfere. It does not mean to destroy. There is no more interference with life through birth control than there is to remain unmarried or to live a celibate life. We also say “to control.” Control does not mean that you limit. When you control your furnace you do not have to put the fire out. When you control your motor you do not necessarily stop your car. To control the birth rate means that there shall be the same right for those who do not wish to have children as for those who do wish to have them. There are no objections to those who wish to increase the size of their families, but on the other side there seems to be a great deal of question and controversy as to the right of those who wish to limit or control the number of their children. ~ Margaret Sanger, ‘The Necessity for Birth Control’

Booklet for the Oakland Civic Auditorium and Opera House, now Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland Public Library

Oakland Civic Auditorium as it appears today

The Oakland Civic Auditorium had stood for 14 years when Sanger spoke here in 1928 and she had become very well known indeed in the dozen intervening years since she spoke at the Hotel Oakland. The Auditorium is a huge venue, as we can see in historical photos: it held Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Barnum and Bailey circus, symphony orchestras, and other large-scale entertainments. The history of this place is wonderful, with so many other amazing activists, artists, speakers, and performers appearing here over the years: Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Grateful Dead… It’s no longer in use, standing empty since just before the turn of this century, but I hope this beautiful Beaux-Arts edifice is reclaimed, restored, and put to as good a use as it once was.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, photo from booklet at Oakland Public Library

II: More About Sanger in NYC at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library

Research & photos: gathered on various dates from November 2016 to March 2017

And now, here’s my follow-up on two sites associated with Sanger in NYC:

Margaret Sanger Letter to Noah Slee on Barclay Hotel Stationery, excerpt, from the Sophia Smith Microfilm Collection

From Day 1, Part 3‘I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy’

I finally get around to tracking down the microfilm collection, stored deep in the archives at the Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley, with the assistance of the ever- kind and helpful Nancy Oanh Tran. In looking through the microfilms of documents dated around the time of Sanger’s stay at the Barclay Hotel, I find a phone message for Sanger and many chatty letters to her husband Noah Slee written on Barclay Hotel stationery. The letters discussed visits to and from friends, a visit from her son Grant, how much less pleasant it was to drive a car in New York City than in Tucson, how disorganized she was, and so on. Most of the contents of these letters are of little interest to anyone outside of their relationship, their circle of friends, and of course, dedicated historians, except, I think, for one thing: she begs him not to join her in New York City, and not to ask her to leave her work there yet. In her second marriage, she demanded the freedom she wanted that she did not find enough of in her first, and she got it through endearments, compliments, even sappiness, so that Noah would feel loved and not abandoned; through cajoling; through explanations and arguments about the importance of her work and her need to do it unimpeded; and even through what reads to me like a guilt trip.

o I American Eugenics Society journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

From Day 2, Part 2: ‘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 include ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’ ‘

In doing further research, I find there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal also in the collections of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library.

Mary Louise Inman, who wrote an account of and commentary on the meeting for the Eugenics Journal, wrote:

‘Most of our adult generation can remember when [the birth control movement] was chiefly characterized by determined looking ladies selling The Birth Control Review on metropolitan street corners, Margaret Sanger being held up for her propaganda, and a general feeling in the lay breast that the whole thing was not quite respectable.

Here we see before our eyes the evolution of an idea. That the movement has undergone a decided moral, social, and intellectual transformation is evidenced by the presence on the speaker’s platform of some of our foremost religious leaders, together with eminent writers, physicians, educators and scientists, as well as other professional and non-professional men and women of the highest social standing.’ ~ Inman, Eugenics, Jan 3oth ed, p 12

As I read further, I take notes. They go:

National Birth Control article for Eugenics journal by Mary Inman, 1930

‘In his speech, one Dr. E. Bord Barrett, a former Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, held out hope that the Church would be flexible and adaptable on the birth control issue. He was a believer in the social benefits of birth control, and based his hope on the fact that so many Catholics used birth control, that Church-mandated celibacy for priests and others indicated that the Church recognized it was not always in the best interests of individuals and communities for everyone to have children, and that the Church blessed marriages of couples who could not have children.

Dr. Hannah Stone, director of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and Sanger’s long-time colleague who was arrested in the raids on the W. 15th Street clinic, was among the speakers, but her talk was not recorded or described in Inman’s article.

Ministers and rabbis voiced their support for birth control on humanitarian and personal responsibility grounds.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to issues related to eugenics. They discussed the questions of whether it was desirable to ‘breed geniuses at will’, if it could be done at all; who would be qualified to decide what are ‘desirable’ human traits and types beyond those which impart health and the ability to take care of ones’ self; whether ‘spiritual values’ should be brought to bear on the issues, and much more.

Albert Edward Wiggam, worried that birth control might exacerbate a differential birth rate between those who are prudent, far-sighted, intelligent and self-controlled enough to be more likely to use birth control, and those who conceive and bear children thoughtlessly. He believed these traits were largely transmissible, predicting the likely behavior of the next generation. To counteract this problem, Wiggam believed that birth control needed to be universally and readily available as well as easy to use.’

Margaret Sanger, from Eugenics journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

The article ends by noting that Margaret Sanger could not attend the conference, which surprises me! Instead, she sent a telegram which was read to the attendees since her attendance was sorely missed given her role as a founder of the movement and the most important activist of her time for women’s rights, since the suffragists. Inman predicted that birth control would become as readily accepted in society as women’s right to vote, however controversial its past. She was mostly right. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with publicly funding birth control since we believe so firmly in the right to religious dissent, most Americans actually do use birth control, at least at some point in their lives. And as Sanger hoped, it has become readily available, easy to use, mostly every cheap, and all very safe. And she played a very significant role in bringing this about.

Thank you, Margaret Sanger.

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


Sources and Inspiration:

Duchsherer, Aimee. ‘Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement‘. July 16, 2015, Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickenson State University blog.

The Hotel Oakland Village website: ‘History: Grand Hotel‘ and ‘Historical Photos

Inman, Mary Louise. ‘The National Birth Control Conference’ from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, January 1930, pp 12-17.

Kaiser Convention Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition: Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, Peter Engelman, and Anke Vass Hubbard, 1996. #Microfilm 77685 , S15:0042. Reel S15: May 1938 – Nov 1938

Brochure for the Kaiser Center, one the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, Oakland Library collection


‘The Regency Ballroom: About‘, from their website

The Regency Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Regency Center: Venue Overview: History‘, from their website

Sanger, Margaret. ‘A “Birth Control” Lecture Tour‘, Aug 9, 1916. Published article: Malthusian, Sept. 1916, 83-84. (Sanger’s letter to Charles and Bessie Drysdale published as an article)

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Necessity for Birth Control,’ Dec 19, 1928. Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0226

Social Hall SF: Venue Info‘, from their website (part of the Regency Center)

Tillmany, Jack. ‘Regency I: 1320 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109‘. Cinema Treasures website

Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Philosophy Resonates Today, by Skye C Cleary

Simone de Beauvoir is rightly best known for declaring: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ A less well-known facet of her philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism, a viewpoint that follows directly from her metaphysical stance on the self, namely that we have no fixed essences.

The existential maxim ‘existence precedes essence’ underpins de Beauvoir’s philosophy. For her, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, we are first thrown into the world and then create our being through our actions. While there are facts of our existence that we can’t choose, such as being born, who our parents were, and our genetic inheritance, we shouldn’t use our biology or history as excuses not to act. The existential goal is to be an agent, to take control over our life, actively transcending the facts of our existence by pursuing self-chosen goals.

It’s easy to find excuses not to act. So easy that many of us spend much of our lives doing so. Many of us believe that we don’t have free will – even as some neuroscientists are discovering that our conscious will can override our impulses. We tell ourselves that our vote won’t make any difference, instead of actively shaping the world in which we want to live. We point fingers at Facebook for facilitating fake news, instead of critically assessing what we’re reading and reposting. It’s not just lazy to push away responsibility in such ways, but it’s what de Beauvoir called a ‘moral fault’.

Since we’re all affected by politics, if we choose not to be involved in creating the conditions of our own lives this reduces us to what de Beauvoir called ‘absurd vegetation’. It’s tantamount to rejecting existence. We must take a side. The problem is, it’s not always clear which side we ought to choose. Even de Beauvoir failed to navigate through this question safely. She adopted questionable political stances: she once, for example, dismissed Chairman Mao – responsible for the murder of over 45 million people – as being ‘no more dictatorial’ than Franklin D Roosevelt. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of political commitment has a dark side, and she personally made some grave errors of judgement, yet within her philosophy, there’s an opening to address this issue.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) she argues that to be free is to be able to stretch ourselves into an open future full of possibilities. Having this kind of freedom may be dizzying, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. We share the earth, and have concern for one another; if we respect freedom for ourselves, then we should respect it for others, too. Using our freedom to exploit and oppress others, or to support the side that promotes such policies, is inconsistent with this radical existential freedom.

With oppressive regimes, de Beauvoir acknowledged that individuals usually pay a high price for standing up to dictators and the tyranny of the majority, but demonstrated concretely – through her writing and political engagement – the power of collective action to bring about structural change. An intellectual vigilante, de Beauvoir used her pen as a weapon, breaking down gendered stereotypes and challenging laws that prohibited women from having control over their own bodies. She authored and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, which paved the way for birth control and abortion in France. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), sparked a new wave of feminism across the world.

Today more than ever it’s vital to recognise that freedom can’t be assumed. Some of the freedoms that de Beauvoir fought so hard for in the mid-20th century have since come under threat. De Beauvoir warns that we should expect appeals to ‘nature’ and ‘utility’ to be used as justifications for restrictions on our freedom. And she has been proved correct. For example, the argument that Donald Trump and others have used that pregnancy is inconvenient for businesses is an implicit way of communicating the view that it is natural and economical for women to be baby-making machines while men work. However, de Beauvoir points out ‘anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation’, and making birth control, abortion, and parental leave unavailable closes down men’s and women’s ability to reach beyond their given situations, reinforcing stereotypical roles that keep women chained to unpaid home labour and men on a treadmill of paid labour.

In times of political turmoil, one may feel overwhelmed with anxiety and can even be tempted with Sartre to think that ‘hell is other people’. De Beauvoir encourages us to consider that others also give us the world because they infuse it with meaning: we can only make sense of ourselves in relation to others, and can only make sense of the world around us by understanding others’ goals. We strive to understand our differences and to embrace the tension between us. World peace is a stretch, since we don’t all choose the same goals, but we can still look for ways to create solidarities – such as by working to agitate authoritarians, to revolt against tyrants, to amplify marginalised voices – to abolish oppression. Persistence is essential since, as de Beauvoir says, ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.’ De Beauvoir is surely right that this is the risk, the anguish, and the beauty of human existence.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Skye C Cleary is a lecturer at Columbia University, the City College of New York, and Barnard College, and is the managing editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog. Her latest book is Existentialism and Romantic Love (bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!


Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date… Read the complete bio and a wonderful selection of poems here

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

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!

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry 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!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Center at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

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.

Advice to Married Ladies Madame Restell abortion ad in the New York Times, Nov 9th 1865

‘Advice to Married Ladies’, Madame Restell abortion ad in the New York Times, Nov 9th, 1865

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.


The Pleasure Chest ‘Free Pleasure’ painted storefront window, New York City

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.

4 Perry St, Manhattan, New York City

4 Perry St, Manhattan, New York City

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.

Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, New York City

Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, New York City

Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, Carnegie Hall, New York Times Jan 29th, 1917, p 1

Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, Carnegie Hall, The New York Times, Jan 29th, 1917, p 1. To see this article continued on p 3, click here

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.’

Margaret Sanger and her son in Japan, 1922, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger and her son Grant in Japan, 1922, public domain via Library of Congress

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.

Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Bocker, and Anne Kennedy

Margaret Sanger (center), Dorothy Bocker (right), and Anne Kennedy

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.

353 W. 57th Street, formerly the American Women's Association Clubhouse, NYC

353 W. 57th Street, formerly the American Women’s Association Clubhouse, NYC

Margaret Sanger with H.G. Wells (right), 1920

Margaret Sanger with H.G. Wells (right) and Otis Skinner, 1920

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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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!


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 PartyRadical 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