Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

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Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Annotated and Introduced by Eileen Hunt Botting

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797, Portrait by John Opie, public domain via Wikimedia Commons


The educated woman, with power over herself, can bring down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity

by Eileen Hunt Botting

The French Revolution was not enough. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted something more. She declared war against the patriarchy. She called for nothing less than ‘a revolution in female manners’. This revolution was not about how to set up or sit at the dinner table. It rather sought to overthrow the system of socialisation that made men and women prisoners of each other’s tyranny, rather than the virtuous companions whom they were meant to be.

Wollstonecraft waged her war in print. She targeted literary and intellectual giants – John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke – for propagating absurd and pernicious ideas about the innate inferiority and natural subordination of women to men. With her pointed wit, she eviscerated a host of second-rate writers whose views on female education derived from this triumvirate. She chortled: ‘Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear.’ Then she gladly granted them their premise. Men and women obviously differed in their bodies. On the whole, women appeared to be physically weaker, but it did not follow that deeper differences of intellect or virtue prevailed between the sexes. With strikingly gender-neutral language, she contended: ‘Whatever effect circumstances have on the abilities, every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason.’

Wollstonecraft identified education as the culprit behind the inequalities between men and women. Education influenced every aspect of life, for it began in the crib, long before one learned language or went to school. Parents gave dolls and mirrors to infant girls, while letting baby boys toddle freely outside. These gross differences in the socialisation of young children, Wollstonecraft saw, bore consequences that could hardly be overstated. ‘The grand misfortune is this,’ she soberly noted, ‘that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life, before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature.’ Yet people applauded the difference in manners that education produced between the sexes. Women came to see and present themselves as weak and meek, and all the more attractive to men for it.

Women’s ‘rights and manners’, she insisted, must be considered alongside each other. If women were raised to see and treat themselves as mere toys and playthings of men, then they could not possibly avail themselves of the historic opportunity for civic engagement that the French Revolution had brought to them. To bring women’s ‘rights and manners’ into concert, people had to reconceive ‘rights and duties’ as inseparable. Into the narrow rights talk of the time – the ‘rights of man’, the ‘rights of men’ – Wollstonecraft infused a rich vocabulary of ‘rights and duties’. A Rational Christian Dissenter, she derived all rights from fundamental, God-given duties. Like Immanuel Kant, however, she never claimed that all duties generate a corresponding right. In her system of ethics, duty enjoyed moral primacy.

Wollstonecraft’s moral emphasis on duty animated her revolutionary politics. In order for women’s rights to be respected, men had to fulfil their duties to respect their wives, daughters, mothers and other women in their lives. Women had to learn self-respect, and to seize more than the few, meagre opportunities that patriarchal society had availed them. Once women and men together exercised their duties for respect of self and others, they would be psychologically and socially capable of respecting and recognising one another’s rights in law and culture.

Wollstonecraft’s theory of equal rights and their political realisation requires a transformation of how men and women perceive and relate to each other. No longer could men view women as weak and dependent creatures, or mere toys and playthings for their sexual pleasure. No longer could women view men as their lords and masters, the rulers of their entire way of life. It began with a change in self-understanding, for both men and women. A psychological change of such depth would require reform of education on the deepest level too. Only comprehensive education and religion could accomplish this kind of change.

Wollstonecraft was a governess, a primary school teacher, and a disciple of the Dissenting Christian minister and abolitionist Richard Price. From these experiences – ordinary and extraordinary – she learned how to bring education and religion together to advance a cultural revolution that would make Burke quiver. It would push women to stand up and speak out alongside men as moral equals – deserving of the same civil and political rights and bound by the same God-given duties.

Six weeks of single-minded writing produced A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published early in 1792, it was an instant international success. Although the title suggested its vindictiveness toward men’s mistreatment of women, its arguments are free from personal vitriol or bias toward her fellow women. Her core thesis was measured and even-handed: ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’

As we contest our own patriarchs in media wars on the internet, it is still time to heed her revolutionary message. The dedication and introduction of Wollstonecraft’s book lay out the first steps toward bringing down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity.

25 July, 2018

Read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, annotated by Botting, at Aeon, where this introduction was originally published

~ Eileen Hunt Botting is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Her books include Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights (2016) and Mary Shelley and the Rights of the Child: Political Philosophy in ‘Frankenstein’ (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here they are in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

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!

Say What? David Hume on Religion

‘Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles, though the most opposite to the plan of a wise superintendent, impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion; the causes of events seeming then the most unknown and unaccountable.’

~ David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, Section VI, paragraph 3

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, Elizabeth Cady Stanton!

In honor of the great feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday, I’m re-sharing the stories of some of my explorations of her life and ideas in the places she lived and worked, often in conjunction with her fellow feminists Ernestine Rose and Frederick Douglass.

To New York City I Go, In Search of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Enjoy, and I hope you find her story as fascinating, informative, and inspiring as I do!

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

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!

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~ 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