Abortion: Conflict and Compromise, by Kate Greasley

View of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510 – 1512, drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago, when I told a colleague that I was working primarily on abortion rights, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “But I thought they had sorted all of that out in the seventies”. Needless to say, he was a scientist. Still, while the idea that the ethical questions implicated in abortion were somehow put to bed in the last century is humorous, I knew what he meant. The end of the ‘sixties and beginning of the ‘seventies marked watershed developments for reproductive freedom in both Britain and the U.S. – developments which have (with some non-negligible push and pull at the boundaries) continued to set the basic terms of abortion regulation ever since.

In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act widely legalised termination of pregnancy for the first time and codified the grounds upon which abortions could be legally carried out. Shortly after, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade famously declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States, albeit with some qualifications. Since those events, there have been no revolutionary changes to the system of abortion regulation on either side of the Atlantic, although there have been many meaningful ones.

Of course, legal resolution by no means signalled the end of moral disagreement about abortion. A significant minority voice has continued to vehemently oppose abortion practice. What was settled back then secured far more of a grudging détente than a happy compromise. (Like so much legislation, the Abortion Act was a product of political expediencies; I once heard one of its drafters describe the pandemonium of last-minute back-room deals in the Houses of Parliament, and the hotchpotch of provisions that emerged from all of the bargaining necessary to get it through.) As such, the political resolutions, whilst enduring, have always been intensely fragile, especially in the US where Christian conservatism and the anti-abortion lobby overlap so much. Of late, that fragility has become increasingly apparent. Recent developments in the United States and elsewhere have revealed just how misplaced any complacency about reproductive rights truly is.

It is, in truth, hardly surprising that abortion compromise is so precarious when one considers the nature of dissent to abortion practice. If one side of that debate really believes—as many claim to—that abortion is murder, akin to infanticide, then it is hard to see how they can ever truly accept legal abortion merely on the strength of its democratic pedigree. Against such a belief, rehearsing the familiar pro-choice mantras about women’s rights and bodily autonomy is a bit like shooting arrows at a Chinook helicopter. For what strength does control over one’s body and reproductive destiny really have when measured against the intentional inflicting of death on another?

Of course, if ideological opponents of abortion rights really believe that abortion amounts to murder, it may be hard to make sense of some of the traditional exceptions they themselves have defended, in circumstances, for example, of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the very life of the pregnant woman. If killing the fetus is no less than homicide, then how can it be justified even in these dire conditions? We certainly do not permit the out and out killing of born human beings for comparable reasons. This may be an indication that opponents of abortion who make such concessions do not truly, deeply, believe the claim that killing an embryo or fetus is like killing a child. Alternatively, it may just suggest that such concessions are rarely ever authentic, but adopted merely as a matter of political strategizing, to avoid losing moderate support in the wider conflict. If that were true, it would be unsurprising to see those traditional concessions gradually withdrawn as opponents of abortion become emboldened by increasing success.

Either way, defenders of abortion rights have a constant decision to make about how to respond to attacks on reproductive freedom and the denunciation of abortion as a moral horror. The approach most traditionally favoured, at least in public spheres, is to simply ignore all talk about abortion being murder and try to refocus attention on women’s stakes in abortion freedoms. As the Mad Men character Don Draper always quipped, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This strategy can have its uses, but also its drawbacks. Most importantly, whilst reminding everyone of what women stand to lose through abortion prohibition is likely to strengthen the resolve of those sympathetic to abortion rights, it does nothing to address the consternation of those that are genuinely conflicted about the issue – who are not sure that abortion isn’t murder. As an effort to persuade avowed opponents of abortion rights to think again, it is even more pointless. For those who decry abortion as unjustified homicide do not usually need to be convinced that women can be hugely benefited by it, and harmed by its outlawing. That is not where their main ground of opposition ever lay.

It is for this reason that I think any effective defense of abortion rights must meet that opposition on its own terms, and confront the claims that abortion is homicide and the fetus the moral equivalent of a child. The task can seem daunting; how does one even begin to argue about whether or not unborn human lives have exactly the same right to life as mature human beings? But there are many reflections one can bring to bear on that question, and especially on the question whether, when examining our own or others’ beliefs, we are really committed to the claim that embryos are equal in moral value to human children. For one thing, as some philosophers have pointed out, if we really believed that claim, we may have to ask why infinitely more resources are not devoted to the prevention of natural miscarriage, which, it would follow, is the single biggest cause of child mortality – far greater than famine, disease, or war. At any rate, if defenders of reproductive freedoms do not concern themselves with the fundamental questions of abortion ethics, they are in danger of being left with little effective argument if and when the fragile settlements that have held for some decades threaten true collapse.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4

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

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

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

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… Read the written version here

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

 

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3, Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

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

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded…. Read the written version here

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

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.

http://www.nyu.edu/pages/projects/sanger/articles/sanger_on_trial.php

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…

*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!

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Sources and inspiration: 

Advice to Married Ladies‘, Madame Restell abortion ad in The New York Times, Nov 9th, 1865, via Newspapers.com

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate*** and Plate***. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Buhle, Mari Jo. ‘Women & the Socialist 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

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 2

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

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

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham shoot on W. 15th St in NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Town Hall Building, New York City

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

The Town Hall Building historical plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

Waverly and University Places at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY, northeast corner

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

I take the E train north from where I’m staying in NYC’s Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to Washington Square. It’s a lovely, warm, and soft day, the sky blue and thickly scattered with puffy, small, wispy clouds like spilled cheap cotton balls.

On March 1, 1926, Margaret Sanger delivered a lecture titled ‘The Need for Birth Control in America’ to New York University’s Liberal Club. It takes a bit of digging to find out where the Liberal Club met at this time, but I finally discover it in a letter written to Sanger’s supporter and sometimes collaborator W.E.B. DuBois. In this letter, dated Nov. 22nd, 1926, the secretary of the Liberal Club, Mary Broger, invited him to address the Club’s open forum on Monday, Dec 6th of that same year. The letter also specified that the Club met at New York University’s Washington Square College ‘at University and Waverly Places’, which is at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. (Pokorski’s ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger’ Google map has it a little wrong, marking the location of this event near the southeast corner of the park).

NYU's Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University at the northeast corner of the park

NYU’s Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University Places at the northeast corner of the park

It’s still unclear exactly where the Club met since there are buildings at the northwest, northeast, and southeast corner of this intersection, and my sources, including the DuBois letter, don’t specify an address. I think it most likely that the Club met in what’s now the New York University Silver Center for Arts and Sciences at the southeast corner of University and Waverly, called American Book Company of the Law Department of New York University in G.W. Bromley & Co’s city atlas of 1923. The buildings that stand at the other corners of this intersection appear to have been all residential, based on that same atlas, just as they appear now. At the southwest corner of this intersection, Washington Square Park pre-dates the 1926 meeting of the Liberal Club by about a century. The Silver Center building was built in 1892.

1926 was a hard year for Sanger. She was long subject to periodic depressions, and some legal setbacks in the birth control movement and the deaths of her sister Mary and her father that year all helped to start the cycles again. But she continued to think, and speak, and write, and plan, and that summer she decided she would present her case for birth control in the context of an international conference. Hoping to make her case to a world audience and influence delegates to the League of Nations, she began planning and organizing a World Population Conference in Geneva which would take place the next fall. It was a great success, and Rockefeller and many other benefactors helped fund the project. Its attendees and speakers included experts from a wide array of scientific fields from around the world, and this would be the first of many more such gatherings where problems of population growth would be studied and addressed.

The soft coolness of the morning has given way to a warm, somewhat humid day.

Webster Hall in October, festooned with pumpkin decorations, New York City

Webster Hall festooned with pumpkin decorations in October, New York City

Two views of Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Above, a Costume Ball probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record 'How to Succeed Without Really Trying' in 1961, public domain via Library of Congress

Two views of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. Above, one of their popular costume balls, probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record ‘How to Succeed Without Really Trying’ in 1961

I continue north (after a little wild goose chase several blocks to the east which turns out to be an out of date or incorrect address), and turn left on E 11th. My destination is Webster Hall at 125 E 11th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. It’s a red brick and brownstone structure, built in 1886-1887, and there’s a deco era small marquee added to the main entryway. The Hall has been restored and rebuilt many times after several major fires, and though its original brickwork, brownstone trim, and terracotta decorations survive, its beautiful old mansard roof is gone. It’s now a nightclub and concert venue. The doors are locked and there’s no one around to let me inside to see its famous Grand Ballroom with its reputed great acoustics. For a time, it was used as a recording studio, which leads to the second accidental Bob Dylan connection I make on this trip. His iconic harmonica backs Harry Belafonte’s 1962 recording of Midnight Special and is Dylan’s first published album recording.

In 1912, Sanger led a march of 119 child refugees from the Lawrence Mills textile strike, from Grand Central Terminal to Webster Hall. It was a difficult and violent strike, and this children’s march was to raise awareness of the plight of the striking families as much as it was to obtain proper shelter, food, and medical care for them. Sanger wrote in her autobiography that these children were underfed and inadequately dressed for the winter weather, and though many were sick, they had still been required to work. When they arrived at Webster Hall, however, they found a banquet all ready and families ready to give these children a caring home until better arrangements could be made for them.

Garment workers, Webster Hall. Bain News Service, P. (ca. 1915) [between and Ca. 1920] [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Garment workers, Webster Hall, ca. 1915-1920. By Bain News Service. Library of Congress

We think of Sanger today primarily as a feminist and birth control activist, yet she was an ardent Socialist and labor rights activist first. She increasingly distanced herself from her radicalist roots over the years because she believed it necessary to court the middle-class and wealthy for the long term success of her cause. Scientific research and development of effective means of birth control cost a lot of money. It also required influence in high places, to attract doctors and scientists willing to take the risk of working in this field as well as lawmakers, litigators, and politicians to push through legal reforms. Nevertheless, what Sanger observed in her early years as a nurse and activist among poor working families horrified, galvanized, and drove her in her cause for ready access to affordable and reliable birth control, especially essential for the health and safety of working class women and children.

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

I zigzag back east to The Brevoort, once Hotel Brevoort at 11 Fifth Avenue at 8th St. The doorman invites me inside when I tell of that I’m on a historical writing tour, and politely inquires about my subject. He utters a noncommittal ‘hmmm’ when I tell him who it’s about. This building dates to the 1950’s but he confirms that it stands on the original hotel site. There’s a photograph of the original hotel in a glass covered niche in the entryway.

Sanger gave many lectures and speeches at the Hotel Brevoort over the decades. The one I’ll focus on here was held the night before her obscenity trial for distributing The Woman Rebel through the mail. In this speech of January 17th, 1916, Sanger reminded her audience that birth control was not a new thing: it had been widely practiced since antiquity. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, arguably also the first scientist, had advocated it. She wrote more extensively about the history of birth control and its methods in her book Woman and the New Race.

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevort lobby

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevoort lobby

She also stressed her conviction that there was nothing anti-life about birth control. In fact, birth control prevented death: it prevented the death of mothers in childbirth, much more dangerous then than it is today, especially if you were poor. It prevented the suffering and death of infants and children born into deprivation and disease. It prevented the death of mothers who resorted to abortion, illegal then but widely available in back alleys if they could scrape together five dollars to pay for it. If they couldn’t, they did it themselves, often rupturing the uterus and causing deadly infections. But even this risk was acceptable to women who found themselves pregnant in circumstances so dire that they couldn’t face the thought of raising another child that way. When it came to abortion, in fact, Sanger opposed Aristotle, who promoted it especially in the early stages of pregnancy to prevent social ills such as poverty, overcrowding, and political unrest. In her Hotel Brevoort speech, as in her book, Sanger also reminded her audience that birth control prevented infanticide, another last but not uncommon resort of desperate women, and another acceptable form of population control to Aristotle in certain circumstances.

In other words, contrary to the opinion of her opponents then and now, Sanger considered herself and her movement radically pro-life, as we’ll recognize from her own words in a moment.

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

My next destinations, just a little ways up Fifth Ave between 10th and 11th Streets, are two buildings which stand shoulder to shoulder, both tall and handsome in their red brick. I especially like the second one, with its beautiful painted terracotta loggia-style embellishments. I’m unable to gain entry to either since they’re now residential buildings not open to the public. These two buildings turn out to have interesting histories.

The first is 35 Fifth Ave, formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, now Rubin Residence Hall of NYU. This 1925 building replaced the earlier 6-story Grosvenor, the first residential hotel in New York City, completed in 1876. Mark Twain lived in the original Grosvenor in 1904 while his new home at 21 Park Ave was being renovated. Another of my favorite novelists, Willa Cather, lived in the building that stands here today, from 1927 to 1932. Sanger stayed here a year earlier, from April to September of 1926, when the new Grosvenor was only a year old. She stayed here again for one month in 1928.

Sanger also lived next door at 39 Fifth Ave for a short time in mid-1923, when this building was also only a year old. It was designed by Emory Roth, whose firm designed many of New York City’s most iconic structures, and built in 1922.

1923 was a significant year for the progress of birth control for many reasons, one of which I’ll cover in the next installment of this story of my Sanger journey. Sanger wrote an article for the journal The Thinker in 1924 in which she summarized the trials and successes of the movement of the year before. In ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Sanger restates and reaffirms the basic tenets of her movement:

‘…[W]e witness [an] appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well-born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

Instead of being a blind and haphazard consequence of uncontrolled instinct, motherhood must be made the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration.’

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

I visit many more sites on this long and adventurous day and will return soon to pick up the tale. To be continued….

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!

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

10th Street.’ From New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

39 Fifth Avenue, Between East 10th Street & East 11th Street, Greenwich Village‘, CityRealty website

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

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 31. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

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

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

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

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

Greenhouse, Steven. ‘New York, Cradle Of Labor History‘, Aug 30th, 1996. The New York Times

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Anchor, 2005

The Lost Grosvenor Hotel — 35 Fifth Avenue‘. From Daytonian in Manhattan blog

New York University. Liberal Club. ‘Letter from New York University Liberal Club to W. E. B. Du Bois, November 22, 1926‘. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

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

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

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Apr 1924. Source: The Thinker, Apr. 1924, pp. 49-51. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. 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. 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 & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

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Webster Hall and Annex, 119-125 East 11th Street, Manhattan‘. Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 18, 2008, Designation List 402, LP-2273

The Morning After Election Day 2016

3f86f-ballot2bbox2bclosed2bprotestI watched the election results roll in last night on the same sofa and in company with the same good friends as eight years ago when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. As the night wore on, our dearest hopes that we would see the first woman elected president of the United States were dashed, to the deep disappointment of everyone in the room. Trump was elected president. It was clear to me that though all believe that women should have equal chances of being elected president, the gender of the candidate was not foremost in their minds last night. It was the misogyny, racism, crass materialism, and bullying personality of Trump and his followers that must be defeated, showing the world that our values are much better than our new Twitter-troll-in-chief might have you believe.

My friends are nearly all liberal, my family mostly conservative. Some of my loved ones are rejoicing, some are mourning, and probably, given the new president’s coarse speech and demeanor, checkered past, and nonconservative positions on many issues, more were at least as glum as they were glad.

For some of my religious family members, I believe they did not vote for Trump because they like him, admire him, or agree with him on many issues. They voted for Trump while holding their noses at his attitudes toward women and minorities, his coziness with Putin, his anti-free-trade positions, his hiding of his tax returns. For them, abortion is by far the most important issue at stake, so the candidate that will nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and oppose Roe v. Wade is their only viable choice. I understand their position: if you truly believe abortion is legalized murder, then the candidate that will likely to most to change the law in this regard must be their candidate. But that doesn’t mean they like having to vote for him.

Other people I know and love do sincerely admire Trump, dismissing some of his worst behavior as mere indiscretions, excesses of the vitality and exuberance that made him the go-getter they see him as: the man of the people who made himself rich in the can-do, hard-working, all-American way. For myself, I have a hard time seeing how exactly how the actual Trump fits in with this perception: his primary business is building luxury amenities for the wealthy, funding it at the beginning with piles of money he didn’t earn; he’s repeatedly exploited bankruptcy laws to the fullest which allowed him to escape personal responsibility for his bad investments while stiffing his contractors, the hard-working Americans that he’s supposed to represent; the things he does have made are often built from cheap Chinese steel and with low-paid Chinese, not American, hands; he starred in a reality TV show where he showcased his ‘business acumen’ by glowering behind a big shiny desk in a too-big suit, repeating generic self-help platitudes that convey no real guidance or information at all. In other words, he is just business-as-usual. But like so many Americans, they fell for his brand, the heavily marketed, glossy persona that the media lap up because he’s just so entertaining.

For me, what the Presidential candidates represent often does take priority over what they do, since they do not run the country on their own. Many of the qualities and principles that Trump represents to people are, I think, even uglier than what he’s said and done, which is often bad enough. But it seems that what he doesn’t represent is what got him into office: he doesn’t represent the establishment and he doesn’t represent the multicultural cosmopolitanism of the new information-centric world. And he doesn’t represent what’s been called the feminization of our culture, as machismo, militarism, and hyper-individualism slowly erodes from our national character. Hilary Clinton largely represented this feminization, the idea that the state also exists as a facilitator of care, for promoting health and education, of taking in those that flee to us for help, nurturing the young and the disenfranchised so that all have an equal shot or, if you happen to be a casualty of the capitalism most of us benefit from, you’re not out on your ear. And she represented it in a way that the strong mom does: idealistic yet practical, ruthless if need be in defense of her brood. Clinton has flaws, perhaps as many as Trump, but they are flaws of excess in the pursuit of greater and worthier things than self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. But women, traditionally, are not allowed to have flaws, not if we are to be admired and promoted to any position of influence. For men, that’s just, well, part of being a man, part and parcel to being strong, bold, and getting things done.

I wish we could have shown the world last night that we believe in women too, that our girls do have the same chance of becoming president as anyone else, and they could do so by being women, unapologetically, able to succeed to our fullest potential whether or not we have flaws too.

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