Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 2

24 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Thursday, October 20th, 2016, continued

I exit the A train at the Dyckman St station, the second to the last stop on the line, and walk a couple of blocks to 34 Post Ave. Margaret Sanger moved into ‘an inexpensive little flat’ here in January of 1914 leaving her husband William, or Bill as she called him, behind in Paris. The Sangers had lived there for a few months as Sanger researched and wrote and William worked to establish himself as a painter. En route to Paris, they stopped in Glasgow, Scotland, so that Sanger could observe and write about the effects of municipal ownership, a system of public ownership often endorsed by Socialists, for a newspaper assignment. While in Paris, Sanger met with many socialists and activists, all the while researching French methods of contraception. But she was growing bored and restless, eager to get back to work and engage in activism once again. She and the three children returned to New York City around the New Year, leaving William behind to continue his artistic pursuits.

The Woman Rebel, First Edition, March 1914

The Woman Rebel, First Edition, March 1914, directed that inquiries be sent to Sanger’s 34 Post St address

The lady in the photo above, in the black and white checked jacket, is standing in the doorway of today’s number 34, but this building does not date to Sanger’s time here: it was built in 1920. Sanger’s apartment in the former building was small, cheap and according to Sanger, dingy. But big things would happen here. On the return voyage from Paris to New York City, she had conceived of a journal that was, as her biographer Ellen Chesler describes it, ‘dedicated to working women and intended to challenge Comstock’s prohibition of information about sexuality and contraception’. Sanger and a group of like-minded radical thinkers and activists launched The Woman Rebel from the kitchen table of that little apartment, publishing the first edition in March of 2014. One of those radicals, Otto Bobstein, invented the term ‘birth control’ which Sanger seized on and popularized, often claiming to have invented it. Perhaps she lied, or perhaps this is an example of one of those memories that longtime friends or siblings argue over, of a favorite term or phrase used often and long enough that no-one can remember who really came up with it first.

In a speech at Hotel Brevoort given a few years later on January 17th, 1917, Sanger agreed with the magazine’s critics that The Woman Rebel was ‘..badly written; …crude; …emotional, and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that is was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty!’ She was proud nevertheless of the passion and sturdy defiance expressed in its pages. And what was printed on those pages led to her first indictment on obscenity charges, which drove her right back to Europe by the end of the same year she had returned and established this journal.

Apartment buildings which include 34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Apartment buildings which include 34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, in Inwood, upper Manhattan. The row continues for most of the block, all identical, including the site of Ethyl Byrne’s place at 26 Post Ave.

A few doors west in the same apartment row of identical buildings, heading back towards Dyckman St and the subway station, is number 26 Post Ave. Sanger stayed here with her sister and fellow birth control activist Ethel Byrne for a time in 1915. Sanger’s daughter Peggy had died of pneumonia just a short time before on Nov 6th, 1915.

Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne in court, 1916, image public domain

Margaret Sanger, left, and Ethel Byrne, right, in court in 1916

Sanger and her sister Byrne enjoyed a close relationship in their early lives and into the nineteen-teens. Byrne, who left her husband and children to pursue her own nursing career, was very involved with Sanger’s early birth control activism. She had gone on a hunger strike when imprisoned for her own role in Sanger’s Brownsville clinic, to the point of seriously endangering her health. And Byrne had often helped care for Sanger’s children while Sanger was in exile in Europe and out of town as she was very frequently. However, their relationship deteriorated over later years. Byrne was a direct, no-frills woman who thrived on practical work and remained a nurse for the rest of her life; Sanger had given up nursing in favor of theory and activism. Byrne disapproved of Sanger’s solicitation of wealthy society women for the cause; Sanger was willing to accept help, connections, and most crucially, money, wherever they were offered. It seems easy to pick sides in this divide, and I’m tempted to take Sanger’s on the grounds that I think Frederick Douglass would, according to my understanding of his pragmatist views: to eschew practical and political concerns in favor of staying true to the highest ideals of a cause is to show a commitment to the ideals themselves and not necessarily to the cause’s success. This won’t do when it comes to the liberty, health, and very lives of actual human beings. But it also takes people such as Byrne to make a successful cause: the idealistic, uncompromising, hard workers who are driven to perform many of the most laborious, tedious, and thankless tasks. Here’s to you, Byrne, and all your hard work!

163rd St at Amsterdam. 503 163rd St. used to face where the bus is now. NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

163rd St at Amsterdam. 503 163rd St. used to face where the bus is now.

I take the A train back south a few stops to the station at 163rd and walk to 502 W. 163rd St at Amsterdam. According to Bromley’s Atlas of that same year, the building that once stood at 502 was on the north end of a wedge-shaped lot, now vacant, at the intersection of 163rd, Amsterdam, and St Nicholas Ave /Juan Pablo Duarte Blvd. This section of St Nicholas Ave is another busy section of the street, crowded with small shops, fruit and vegetable stands, and sidewalk vendors.

Sanger spoke at the Free Synagogue here on Sunday, April 22nd, 1923. Rabbi Louis A. Mischkind, a socially conscious, progressive, even radical religious leader, had invited Sanger to speak on birth control at the Tremont Temple. When his superiors objected, he moved the talk here to the Free Synagogue but was still demoted for his disobedience. Sanger’s Birth Control Review extolled his decision as an act of free speech heroism.

St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street, Broadbelt houses built in the late 1800's, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street, Broadbelt houses built in the late 1800’s.

St Nicholas Avenue at 149th, more apartments which date to Sanger's time, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

Apartments on St Nicholas Avenue at 149th, some of which date to Sanger’s time here or shortly after

Next, I walk a little over two-thirds of a mile south to where Sanger, newly wedded to William (she called him Bill), moved into a “practically suburban” “little apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street” shortly after their wedding on August 28th, 1902. As of the time I write this, I’ve found no exact address for their apartment here, just this little description she wrote in her autobiography. Their first son Stuart was born here on November 28th, 1903. The strain of his birth added to her general poor health, already worn out by a tough bout of her recurrent tuberculosis. She was also terribly despondent, with what her description indicates was post-partum depression. After she recuperated for some months in a farmhouse and a sanitarium, the couple moved to Hastings-on-Hudson. As we’ve seen, however, the suburban life did not suit the Sangers in the long run, especially Margaret, and they returned to New York City in 1910.

I continue south on St Nicholas, turn left on on 138th St, and go about two long blocks until I make a brief right on 7th Ave, also called Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Here at 2352 7th Ave, Sanger opened the Harlem branch of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau on May 23, 1930. The BBCRB’s locations further south in Manhattan mainly served local women of European descent but Sanger believed that many other women needed the help of her clinics. She decided to open this northern branch to serve them.

On the right, 2352 7th Ave (Adam Clayton Powell) at 138th St, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

On the right, 2352 7th Ave (Adam Clayton Powell) at 138th St, NYC, the site of the Harlem branch BBCRB clinic

This clinic in Harlem was actually Sanger’s second attempt to open a clinic in New York for black and other underserved women; she had briefly opened one in west Midtown, in a small, predominantly black, impoverished neighborhood called Columbus Hill. I have not yet found an address for its former location. This first clinic was not a success and closed after only a few months; Sanger thought it would be best to conserve resources to open a clinic in a place where she might reach more people. She had the support of many black leaders throughout these efforts, including the influential Reverend Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (for whom this street has been renamed), Mary Bethune, and W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois spoke here on one occasion that fall, on November 21st, 1930.

Interestingly, a rumor that persists to this day, that Sanger’s efforts to provide reproductive services for black women were racist, may have originated with an intellectual and tactical foe of DuBois’. A Harlem preacher named Marcus Garvey believed that the black and white races could never get along and must be separated. He founded a shipping company called ‘The Black Star Line’ with the ultimate goal of taking all African descendants back to their home continent to found a racially pure black nation. To this end, he opposed all forms of contraception or childbirth limitation for black people: the nation of his dreams would need as many citizens as black women could bear to make it a vibrant and strong one. Garvey attacked Sanger’s clinics and all efforts to help black women control their fertility as genocidal projects. DuBois took the opposite view, believing that black people could and should live as equal citizens in the United States and wherever else they wanted to live, and that black families could better gain their rights as their financial and physical health improved through judiciously constrained childbearing. Of course, Sanger and DuBois were in agreement on this, as they were on matters of racial equality.

The Harlem clinic was more successful than the Columbus Hill one, but still only stayed open for about seven years. Though Sanger hired a black doctor and social worker to run the clinic, there was likely enough Garvey-inspired rumor and suspicion of their motives that the clinic not as widely welcomed as they hoped. No wonder, then, that she wrote that infamous line in a 1939 letter regarding her efforts to serve black women in the South: ‘We don’t want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population…’ The ‘word’, untrue and unjustified as it was, had already ‘gone out’ for her Harlem clinic several years before.

Interior of 2352 7th Ave at 138th St, now CHA Upscale Salon, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Interior of 2352 7th Ave at 138th St, now CHA Upscale Salon

There’s now a hair salon at the on the lower level of the Harlem clinic site called Cha, and I go in. I find myself in a shining, sparkling lobby filled with mirror-lined and white furniture, a rhinestone chandelier, and white lilies in rhinestone vases. It promises pampering, which sounds glorious to this footsore woman. I see no one for a moment, then a voice calls, ‘Can I help you?’ A few steps in takes me to another stylist’s both, where a woman with a flowing, waved, luxuriant ‘do’ was doing another woman’s hair. I very briefly explain that I’m doing a history project and ask if I can take a quick photo of her lobby. She says yes, kindly, but distracted, focused on her client. I don’t catch her name as I don’t want to interrupt her task any further, but if you happen to read this, hospitable lady, thank you! Your salon is so lovely and welcoming.

135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and family lived in 1911, 2016 Amy Cools

135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and family lived in 1911

I continue to make my way south and a little east to 135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and her family lived in 1911. The year before, the Sangers returned to New York City. The house Bill had designed and built for them suffered a fire which damaged the house and destroyed many of the furnishings. The expenses of repairing the house and replacing their lost things severely damaged their already precarious finances. While the situation was stressful and Sanger was frustrated with her husband’s inability to make a steady, reliable income, she was also bored and frustrated with her quiet, domestic suburban life. Upon returning to urban life, Sanger resumed nursing and Bill got into politics; both became very active in the bohemian Socialist scene. As we’ve discovered, it was Sanger’s experiences in these years that most inspired her birth control cause, from her Socialist activism on behalf of New York City’s beleaguered working class to the struggles of the poor mothers and families in the largely immigrant slums of the Lower East Side.

Earl Hall at Columbia University, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Earl Hall at Columbia University, New York City

As I head west on 135th St to the St Nicholas Ave station, I pass by a site I visited last time I was here: Ida Wells’ New York Age newspaper offices which published Wells’ groundbreaking Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and where Frederick Douglass likely met with her on at least onceI smile at the memory.

I enter the subway station where 135th St meets St. Nicholas Park and exit 116th, walking west across Morningside Park and up the hill to the Columbia University campus. It’s a beautiful walk; the park is lush and green, and the campus is an inspiring and lovely place, with broad lawns and elegant buildings in so many styles: Beaux-Arts, neo-classical, and Gothic Revival, to name a few.

Interior of Earl Hall, Columbia University New York, Amy Cools 2016

Interior of Earl Hall, Columbia University, NYC

Sanger at Earl Hall, Barnard Bulletin, New York, Fri Dec 11, 1925

Newspaper account of Sanger’s talk at Earl Hall, from The Barnard Bulletin, New York, Fri Dec 11, 1925. Click to read a larger version.

I head to Earl Hall at 2980 Broadway, a little north of 116th St. On December 3rd, 1925, Sanger addressed the Social Problems Club here. She delivered her lecture ‘The Necessity of Birth Control’ at 4 pm to a packed house. According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, at this event, birth controlwas discussed for the first time on the Columbia Campus’. That is, at least officially. The necessity of birth control was outlined in terms of major social problems that club would likely have discussed frequently: infant and maternal mortality rates, disease, crowding, poverty, crime, and women’s rights. The Barnard Bulletin published a detailed outline of the talk and its main topics (see the image and link to the right).

I take an indirect route to my next destination a mile away via Amsterdam Ave so I can see the spectacular Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on my way; it’s south of Columbia University on the west wide of Morningside Park. The cathedral is as wonderful as it’s been described to me by so many. I add my recommendation to theirs to visit if you haven’t yet.

I continue east from the cathedral heading for 141 W. 111th St. The doorway and its stoop of the building I find here is flanked on either side by classical columns with ‘Kenosha’ spelled out overhead; the others in an identical row of four apartment buildings (though this is the only one whose ground floor is painted white) have porches which read ‘Manitou’, ‘Pacific’, and ‘Mariposa’. I’m unable to discover any particular reason why they’re named this way. According to the Municipal Archives division of the NYC Department of Records, in answer to my inquiry, building names ‘were typically applied by the building architect or owner based on what you might today call “marketing-strategy”‘.

Porch of the Kenosha building at 141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC

Porch of the Kenosha building at 141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC

Here in the Kenosha building, Sanger attended meetings of the Women’s Committee of the Local New York Socialist Party in 1911 through 1912. According to Mari Jo Buhle, writing for the journal Radical America in 1970, Sanger ‘regularly attended local meetings with her husband, but only inadvertently did she become one of the most important activists in the movement. She was asked to replace an ailing speaker at one of the local women’s meetings [of the Women’s Committee of the LNYSP]. Although she had never given a public speech before, she accepted on the condition that her topic be of her own choice. She had little confidence about her understanding of Marxian theory and decided to speak about her own speciality, sex education and hygiene.’ As discussed earlier, Sanger and her husband William threw themselves eagerly into the Socialist scene upon their return to New York City from Hastings-on-Hudson. This place is just a little under a mile-and-a-half, thirty-minute walk from the 135 W. 135th St apartment I visited just before Earl Hall, where the Sanger family lived at the time.

141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC, at center with white Kenosha porch, photo by Amy Cools 2016

141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC, at center, with white porch which reads ‘Kenosha’

Lincoln Correctional Facility at the northeast end of Central Park, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Lincoln Correctional Facility at the northeast end of Central Park, NYC

A long block east, short block south, and half a long block east again takes me back to Central Park, this time to the northeast end. I’m looking for 31 W. 110th St, between Malcolm X and Park Ave, near NE corner of Central Park. I’m surprised to find myself looking at a placard across the front lintel which reads ‘Lincoln Correctional Facility’. It’s a minimum security prison, not an institution one would expect to find facing onto Central Park. It was once the headquarters of New York City’s Young Women’s Hebrew Association, from 1914 until the late 1930’s, when the Y.W.H.A. leased the building to the U.S. Army in World War II. That explains why it doesn’t look like a prison. It was a community center, with classrooms, meeting rooms, and gym facilities including an indoor pool.

On April 1, 1924, Sanger addressed the Guardian Mothers of Young Women’s Hebrew Association here; as of this time, I find no record of what she said here that day.

Left, Young Women's Hebrew Association Flag Ceremony at 31 West 110th Street, 1918. Right, LCF doorway at this address today

Left, Young Women’s Hebrew Association Flag Ceremony at 31 West 110th Street, 1918. Right, Lincoln Correctional Facility doorway at this address today. You can see the details and shape of the corbels supporting the overhang, the decorations around the door, and the placement and shape of the windows that it’s the same doorway

Duke Ellington Circle at 5th Ave and 110th St. Notice his statue on the tall pedestal to the right

Duke Ellington Circle at 5th Ave and 110th St. Notice his statue on the tall pedestal to the right

Just a half block east on 110th St to where it meets 5th Ave, I arrive at Duke Ellington Circle. There’s a statue of the great jazz pianist and his instrument on a very tall pedestal in a stepped, paved, and grassy park surrounded by a traffic circle and split down the center by 5th Ave, north to south. The circle surrounded by a couple of plain brick highrises, an artistically modern building which houses The Africa Center, a few plain old mixed use buildings, and small vacant lot.

I’m seeking the site of Parkview Palace, which, according to Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, was at 110th and 5th. There is no building now of that name and indeed, none at all that appear to be of the right vintage. I consult G.W. Bromley’s 1916 Atlas and find it named ‘Parkway Palace’ there. I spend a long time searching for photos or some other information about the Parkview Palace. I find lots of brief references to it, mostly in Socialist and anarchist history books since it was a popular meeting place for non-mainstream political thinkers and activists, and in old newspaper announcements for other events happening there. However, I find no photos of the Parkview at all. I do find a photo of the apparently more well-known Harlem 5th Avenue Theatre next door, but none that show the adjoining Parkview.

110th at 5th Ave, NW corner of intersection at Duke Ellington Circle. The Parview Palace likely stood where the Hermosa is. 2016 Amy Cools

110th at 5th Ave, NW corner of intersection at Duke Ellington Circle. The Parview Palace likely stood where the Iglesia Christiana La Hermosa stands now, the red and cream building to the right

Debate on Birth Control, Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell

Debate on Birth Control, Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell. Click to read the whole debate online

I’m seeking this place because Sanger debated with John Winter Russell on birth control here on December 12th, 1920. Russell was a lawyer and recent convert to Catholicism, and as we’ve considered in this series, Sanger was no particular fan of the Catholic church, to say the least. She was not a frequent debater, but she agreed to this one for two likely reasons. One, her participation fee. Since the Depression hit, she had to work harder to raise funds for herself and her cause. Second, this was another good opportunity to publicly refute arguments based on Catholic teaching. Sanger had many run-ins with Catholicism in the form of its influence on public policy as well as in the press and in local governments and police forces, as we saw in the Town Hall raid debacle. She likely relished the opportunity to demonstrate debating skills as a seasoned, well-informed birth control activist against this new convert to the Catholic religion. The entire debate was published by the Fine Arts Guild of New York City and is available online.

Russell gave Sanger many opportunities to defeat his arguments. For example: he equated the use of birth control with lack of sexual control, when the use of birth control actually requires a good deal of control in the form of foresight, planning, and proper use; he characterized sex without allowing for reproduction as animalistic and therefore unworthy of human beings, though it’s only all other  animals besides humans which don’t use birth control; he conflated abortion with other forms of birth control though that characterization is not scientifically feasible and as Sanger pointed out, birth control prevents the need for abortion; he argued that pleasure can’t and shouldn’t be enjoyed without its counterpart of pain even though it’s generally only the woman who suffers it; and so forth. In the end, Russell more or less delivered the sort of arguments Sanger expected, which were, as she perceived them, rooted in a narrow and rigid brand of religiosity, sexual prudery, misogyny, and lack of scientific understanding. She and many other believed that she won this debate handily.

I’ve come to the end of my third day in New York City following Sanger, and it’s been an especially long and interesting one. I’ve decided to return to Greenwich Village and enjoy the offerings of a couple of its long-established eateries and watering holes, to read and rest my weary feet as I fill my empty belly and warm my chilly self. Until tomorrow, then!

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Sources and inspiration: 

Adams, Michael Henry. ‘The Best Address: St. Nicholas Avenue and Place, Part I‘, Jul 17, 2012.

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 129 and Plate 167. 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

Debate on Birth Control / Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell, by Margaret Sanger, Winter Russell, and Emma Sargent Russell. New York, NY: Fine Arts Guild, 1921.

East 110th Street [31 West 110th Street]. Y.W.H.A., detail of steps, interior. Photo by Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.), from Museum of the City of New York’s digitized archives

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

Goldberg, Michelle. ‘Awakenings: On Margaret Sanger‘ Feb 7, 2012, The Nation

Gray, Christopher. ‘Built With the Ladies In Mind‘, Oct. 25, 2012, New York Times: Streetscapes

Grimaldi, Jill. ‘The First American Birth Control Conference‘, Nov 12, 2010. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

House Tour Preview: Margaret Sanger’s Window.’ Apr 22, 2010, Hastings Historical Society blog

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

Latest News‘ The Birth Control Review, May 1923, Vol VII, No. 5

Mrs. Sanger Addresses Social Problems Club‘, Barnard Bulletin (New York, New York) · Fri, Dec 11, 1925

Mrs. Sanger Glad She Was Indicted‘, New York Tribune, Feb. 21, 1916, p. 2, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, NYU

Mrs. Sanger to Talk on Birth Control‘, Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume XLIX, Number 58, 3 December 1925

Muigai, Wangui. ‘Looking Uptown: Margaret Sanger and the Harlem Branch Birth Control Clinic‘. Newsletter #54 (Spring 2010)  of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

On the Road with Birth Control‘, Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

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

Revolutionary and Subversive Movements Abroad and at Home, (vol. I-II). By New York (State). Legislature. Joint Committee (address of Parkview Palace on p. 2020). J.B. Lyons: Albany, 1920

Risen, Clay. ‘Prison on the Park.’ Jul 9, 2002, The Morning News, New York, New York.

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

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 & Company

Sanger v. Famous Father of 18!‘ Newsletter #29 (Winter 2001/2002) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sciancalepore, Victoria. ‘Rebels of Post Avenue‘, Jan 15, 2014, Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Silver, Rabbi Samuel. ‘Why I Became a Rabbi‘. Jewish Post, Indianapolis, Jan 28, 2004

Soclof, Adam. ‘Planned Parenthood Controversy‘, February 2, 2012

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Black Star Line,” Crisis, September 1922, 210–214, via History Matters website (with introduction)

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 3

roosevelt-hotel-exterior-view-manhattan-nyc-photo-by-amy-cools-2016Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, continued

I continue north to the Roosevelt Hotel at Madison Ave and E. 45th Street. Margaret Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met here on December 29th and 30th, 1936. She delivered a welcoming speech on the 29th and spoke on a panel the next day which discussed technical and medical birth control issues. While The New York Times reported optimistically on the effectiveness of birth control methods available at the time and Sanger spoke proudly of the ‘56,000 women who have voluntarily appealed to us for help’, she and many of the attendees knew that the lack of access to and effectiveness of birth control remained big problems. It was still fairly expensive; anti-obscenity laws were barriers to access and information in those pre-Griswold years; and too many of the methods were only moderately effective since they were not always easy to use correctly, especially in well, you know, the heat of the moment.

Roosevelt Hotel Lobby view

Roosevelt Hotel central lobby

But despite these problems, Sanger had reasons to be optimistic: the birth control movement had seen some successes in the twenty years since the raid of her first clinic in 1916. One of the most important was the recent decision in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (what a name!) in which the United States Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower court from earlier that year regarding a shipment of birth control devices that U.S. Customs had confiscated under the Comstock laws, which prohibited sending ‘obscene’ items through the mail. Sanger had ordered a case of unusually shaped diaphragms from Japan and requested that U.S. Customs forward them to her friend and colleague Dr. Hannah Stone. The circumstances of this shipment, between two physicians and across state lines, was arranged by Sanger and her lawyer Morris Ernst to create a test case to try and defeat the old Comstock laws. As they hoped, the Courts decided that obscenity laws, which had been broadly applied to prevent dissemination of information about contraception and the distribution of contraception devices themselves, could not be applied to the legitimate practice of medicine. But the birth control movement had a long way to go: would take three more decades before the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of birth control, specifically.

Theodore Roosevelt, American President and yes, a eugenicist too

Bas-relief sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Long Long Trail’, at the Roosevelt Hotel

Speaking of Roosevelt, for whom this hotel was named (I assume, based on a sculpture of him prominently displayed in an upper lobby): Theodore Roosevelt was very much opposed to birth control. He feared that the very people who should be having the most children, the most talented, intelligent, and well educated, the healthiest and the wealthiest, were the very ones who were having fewer than ever. He believed the falling birth rate could lead to what he called ‘race suicide’, and opposed any and all methods that would facilitate this trend. Though Sanger and Roosevelt both believed in eugenics principles, their conclusions were very different when it came to population issues and the right to reproductive self-determination. I explore the differences in their views which led to their different conclusions in an earlier essay I wrote as part of this series. Sanger publicly and vigorously opposed Roosevelt’s public positions on birth control and the population question. In Sanger’s article ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt‘, published in The Metropolitan Magazine in December of 1917, she described why she believed his views were shortsighted and ill-informed.

barclay-hotel-entrance-manhattan-nyc-photo-2016-by-amy-cools

The Barclay Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, where Margaret Sanger stayed several times in 1938 and 1939

I zigzag northeast to the Barclay Hotel at 111 E. 48th Street, between Park and Lexington Aves. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, ‘Sanger stayed at the Barclay Hotel in April and May 1938, and again in January 1939.’

I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy. I’ll update this account if I find anything interesting in the letter when I do get over there, and if I come across any other interesting details relating to her stay here in my continued research. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my story so I can publish it in good time.

barclay-hotel-lobby-manhattan-nyc-photo-2016-by-amy-cools

Barclay Hotel lobby, Manhattan NYC

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens. Note the turtles in the ironwork at either side of the gate

I continue on a few blocks away, heading east, to 242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Aves, to a brownstone at Turtle Bay Gardens. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League here at her friend Juliet Barrett Rublee’s home in 1921. Rublee, the wealthy wife of an influential lawyer, enthusiastically devoted her time and money to supporting feminist, humanitarian, and artistic causes. She’s a fascinating character, an activist, a nurse, a filmmaker, and an adventurer, whose exciting lifestyle was very well funded by her enormous fortune, leaving plenty of money to lavish on such projects as Sanger’s pamphlet Family Limitation and magazine The Birth Control Review, first published in February of 1917. Rublee took an active interest in Sanger’s work since Sanger was arrested for opening her birth control clinic in 1916 and they remained the closest of friends for the rest of their lives, dying only a few months apart. They wrote to each other often in intimate and detailed letters, many of which each kept although they marked them ‘destroy upon reading’. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project describes their correspondence as among the resources that reveal most about Sanger’s inner life. As with any public figure, especially one as controversial and embattled as Sanger, it can be difficult to get past the persona, the defensive walls they feel the need to construct.

Row which includes 242 E. 49th St

Turtle Bay Historic District row houses, including 242 E. 49th St. Behind these handsome brownstones is a lush, private urban garden, which you can see here.

242-e-49th-st-turtle-bay-gardens-view-2-2016-by-amy-cools

242 E. 49th St at Turtle Bay Gardens, Manhattan

Turtle Bay Gardens Historic District stands on what once was a bay of the East River, where ships harbored, country farmhouses stood, and Edgar Allan Poe used to go diving off the rocks. The bay was gradually filled in, and the once-thriving and handsome industrial district with its breweries, mills, and carpentry shops turned into a squalid, overcrowded district packed with cheap tenements, slaughterhouses, and run-down warehouses. One part of this neighborhood was destroyed in the riots that followed the establishment of a Civil War draft conscription office here in 1863.

When Sanger established the American Birth Control League at Rublee’s Turtle Bay home in 1921, it would have very recently been renovated and turned into a place of beauty and luxury. Another wealthy heiress, Charlotte Martin, bought this and an adjoining row of rundown brownstones in 1919 and thoroughly remodeled them, with a lush garden (complete with a copy of a fountain from Rome’s Villa Medici in the center) inspired by the European gardens she had fallen in love with during her travels, to create a haven of elegance and refuge in this what was then out-of-the-way, unfashionably too-far-east neighborhood of Manhattan. And by the way, as I just discovered, one of my favorite musical artists, Bob Dylan, used to live here at #242 as well!

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

I backtrack on 49th and turn right to 301 Park Ave, to the Waldorf Astoria between 49th & 50th Streets. There are three occasions in the life of Sanger which bring me here.

On January 5th, 1917, Sanger participated in one of the many debates on birth control she would take part in over the years. I’ll soon visit another site where she participated in a well-publicized debate four years later; I’ve found the text of it published online where I can share it with you, so I’ll wait to discuss her debate topics and style then.

Over fourteen years later, on October 23, 1931, Sanger addressed the attendees of a dinner honoring H.G. Wells, an important influence, long-time friend, and occasional lover. Wells shared many of her views on economics and eugenics, as well as her abiding concern that too many children were born into families and communities that didn’t have the capabilities to feed and care for them properly, leading to needless suffering and death. Wells’ article ‘The Needless Waste of Human Lives’ was published in the first edition of Sanger’s Birth Control Review, which described the plight of children born into poverty and privation only to be soon forced into labor in the most heart-wrenching terms this literary star could summon. Wells supported Sanger’s work in many other ways, both personal and public, some of which she described and thanked him for in her address that night. One of the ways Wells supported Sanger was by adding his influential name to an appeal to President Woodrow Wilson to get the many indictments which had piled up against her dropped. Most importantly, however, it was the enduring friendship with this famed man of like mind which propped up her confidence and spirits throughout the years until his death in 1946.

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Looking back on the Waldorf-Astoria in the early evening light

On May 11th, 1961, the Waldorf Astoria also hosted a World Tribute dinner for Margaret Sanger, organized as a fundraiser by the World Population Emergency Campaign and chaired by the renowned evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. It was Sanger’s last public appearance since by that time she had developed heart disease, and while the alcohol and Demerol she treated her pain with may have helped in that regard, she was often tired, confused, and emotionally volatile. The senility which would incapacitate her within a few short years may have been starting to set in as well. But she was delighted at the invitation, and she rallied what strength she could to get to New York, assisted by her younger son Stuart, and briefly deliver her thanks. Even this was too much, and she nodded off her in her chair shortly afterward. Sanger would live five and a half more years, four of those in a nursing home, dying just before her eighty-eighth birthday. She enjoyed intermittent bouts of lucidity until her last year of life and appeared to understand the significance of the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 when she was given the news. ‘It’s about time’, she said. It seemed as obvious to her as it does to most of us today that people had a right to privacy in their sexual relationships, yet the Comstockism she had fought for so long proved tenacious in American law and culture.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart's at Park Ave.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart’s at Park Ave.

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1921-1923 G.W. Bromley Atlas of the City of New York, Plate 78, showing location of Ambassador Hotel

My next stop is the northwest corner of 51st St. and Park Ave. According to plate 78 of G.W. Bromley’s 1921-1923 Atlas of the City of New York, the Ambassador Hotel used to stand at Park Ave and across 51st St. from St. Bart’s, as the beautiful 1835 St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church is commonly known. There’s a nondescript office highrise here now.

Ambassador Hotel, Park Ave, New York City midcentury advertisement

Ambassador Hotel ad; you can see St Bart’s in the foreground and to the right

The Ambassador Hotel was linked to Sanger in two ways. One, she stayed here on several occasions in late 1936 after she returned from her trip to India. While there, she toured the country and discussed and debated population and poverty issues, law, women’s rights, and birth control with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi opposed artificial means of birth control. He shared the Catholic Church’s position that sex without the possibility of procreation is a form of animal lust unworthy of a spiritual being. He believed that human respect, understanding, and true spiritual connection were incompatible with carnal desire. However, he did believe in the right of women to control their own bodies insofar as they should never be coerced into having sex and that they had full rights of refusal, for any reason, within marriage as well as without. Sanger strongly disagreed with some of his views: she believed that sexual union could be as spiritually transcendent as it was pleasurable, one of the most beautiful, intimate, and powerful ways in which human beings connect with one another. And she believed that when partners were forced to refuse sex to one another for fear of having children, it undermined harmony and romance between couples, thereby breaking up marriages and destroying families. I recommend reading her debate with Gandhi published in Asia magazine, which not held in public but fortunately preserved because her secretary Florence Rose had the presence of mind to record in shorthand. I’ll further explore Sanger’s ideas about sex, love, and interpersonal spirituality in an essay I plan to publish before long.

Secondly, the Ambassador Hotel was also the site of a special joint meeting of the American Birth Control League and the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control following the December 7th, 1936 United States Court of Appeals ruling in the One Package case I discuss at the beginning of this piece. In this decision, Appellate Judge Augustus Noble Hand (again, what a name!) upheld Judge Grover M. Moscowitz’s decision from earlier that year, which prohibited the government from interfering with mail from doctors sending medical devices and information. This case seriously undermined the Comstock laws and was an important moment in extracting, isolating, and describing the right to privacy, implied but never specified in the Constitution, in American jurisprudence.

485 Madison Ave, NYC

485 Madison Ave, NYC, former home of CBS and recording studio for WABC (not the same WABC that exists today)

I head next to 485 Madison Avenue, between 52nd and 51st St, to the former Columbia Broadcasting System offices where WABC radio broadcasts were recorded. The founder of CBS, William S. Paley, had taken over as president of the tiny radio network United Independent Broadcasters founded in Chicago in early 1927. The savvy Paley quickly put the newly expanded media operation, which he bought the majority share of and renamed CBS, on firm financial footing, good enough to move to new, sleek 485 Madison Avenue in New York City in 1929. He wanted his new company to be where the action was, well situated for success. CBS stayed here until it moved into its own specially designed building in 1965.

Sanger recorded a radio broadcast here on birth control, on April 11, 1935, which was distributed to many radio stations throughout the country. In it, she outlined her basic arguments in favor of birth control which we’ve already considered (the benefits to women’s and children’s health, the right to reproductive self-determination, and so on) as well as her incredulity that the United States was now the only advanced country to legally prohibit birth control on obscenity grounds, in defiance of what she perceived as a preponderance of medical opinion in its favor. (In reality, the science of reproduction was still at a very early stage and there was far less of a medical consensus that birth control is safe, effective, and on the whole, medically beneficial for women as there is today.) She also announced plans for a petition directly to the second President Roosevelt, who she hoped would be much more progressive in this matter than the first one was. Sanger had a good reason for these hopes: Eleanor Roosevelt was also a long time supporter of the right to free access to medically approved forms of birth control. However, once Roosevelt’s husband Franklin became president, she felt could no longer publicly state her views on this issue. When asked, Roosevelt would neither oppose nor support the issue, stating simply that she refused to discuss it. Sanger understood and didn’t much blame the First Lady for making that choice. Like Sanger, Roosevelt was a strong woman who spent her days working hard on behalf of progressive causes, and like Sanger, she was willing to compromise and choose her battles when she felt it was necessary.

the-rockefeller-center-courtyard-in-the-evening-2016-amy-cools

The Rockefeller Center courtyard in the evening

The Rockefeller Center's glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center’s glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center's central escalator

The Rockefeller Center’s central escalator

The last site I visit for the day is the Rockefeller Center at 5th Ave and 50th St, another of New York City’s grand edifices I’ve been wanting to see. According to Pokorski, Sanger met with John D. Rockfeller, Jr’s aide Arthur Packard at Rockefeller Center in October of 1936. The Rockefeller Center is handsome outside, breathtaking inside. It glows even brighter, more golden and coppery and gemlike than the inside of the Chrysler Building. My camera doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing since it has such difficulties in low light, but it does capture its amber-like quality.

arthur-packard-memorandum-of-conversation-with-margaret-sanger-oct-9th-1936-1st-page

Memorandum of the conversation between Margaret Sanger and Arthur Packard, click to read the whole thing

I track down a memorandum of a conversation between Sanger and Packard dated Oct 9th, 1936, so I assume this memorandum discusses that meeting. One of Packard’s primary duties was to help select projects that the wealthy philanthropist Rockefeller might wish to fund.

A humanitarian and progressive, Rockefeller was interested in Sanger’s work and helped fund many of her projects over the years. In this case, Sanger and Packard were discussing a new form of sponge-and-spermicidal-foam birth control that Sanger had become aware of through Dr. Lydia DeVilbiss (which Packard amusingly misspelled as ‘Devilbus’) of Florida, who had been prescribing it to her patients. In addition to the further research on this method Sanger wanted to help fund, they discussed the One Package case, and Sanger’s increasing doubts about some of the long-term ramifications of the case as it was being argued. As you may recall, Sanger, Ernst, and Dr. Stone had arranged the circumstances that led to this test case purposefully so that it would be argued largely as a case about the right to practice medicine, since it involved devices shipped from doctor to doctor. However, Sanger was growing more concerned that this would focus too much on the rights of medical practitioners to make decisions in these matters and not enough on the rights of the women themselves. Perhaps the fact that it took another thirty years for the Supreme Court to base their decision in a major birth control case on the right to privacy, and hence to self-determination, is enough to demonstrate that Sanger’s fears were well-grounded.

It’s dark now, a beautiful balmy night, so I end my day’s Sanger explorations and just wander freely a bit before I head back for dinner. I still have three more days to go, stay tuned!

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center's skating rink on a fall evening

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center’s skating rink on a fall evening

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:

242 East 49th Street‘. Douglas Elliman Real Estate website

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

Arredondo, Isabel. ‘Juliet Barrett Rublee‘. Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University

Barbanel, Josh. ‘Turtle Bay Gardens House on Market for Second Time Since 1961‘, Wall Street Journal July 15, 2013

Birth Control Aid Received By 56,000‘, New York Times, Dec. 30, 1936, p. 10, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 78. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

CBS‘. From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, retrieved from Wikiwand

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

Documenting a Friendship‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #3 (Fall 1992)

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

Griswold v. Connecticut‘, Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Nov 3, 2016

History of Turtle Bay‘, Turtle Bay Association website

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Juliet Barrett Rublee Papers, 1917-1955: Biographical Note‘. Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections: Sophia Smith Collection

Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #11 (Winter 1995)

Packard, Arthur W., 1901-1953: Biographical Information‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU, Editor’ Notes

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. ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt,’ The Metropolitan Magazine, Dec. 1917, pp. 66-67 .

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice Welcoming Speech Notes‘, Dec 29, 1936. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm, 128:0262

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Family Planning: A Radio Talk By Margaret Sanger Columbia Broadcasting System‘, Station W.A.B.C., New York, April 11, 1935, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702

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

Tracing One Package — The Case that Legalized Birth Control‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #59 (Winter 2011)

Wells, H.G. ‘The Needless Waste of Little Lives‘. The Birth Control Review, February, 1917

Zorea, Aharon W. Birth Control. 2012, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, Ltd.

Happy Birthday, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu!

Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathan Richardson the Younger (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia CommonsI just discovered this fascinating woman this morning, on the occasion of her birthday.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a ‘prolific letter writer in almost every epistolary style; she was also a distinguished minor poet, always competent, sometimes glittering and genuinely eloquent. She is further remembered as an essayist, feminist, traveler, and eccentric.’

Here are three excellent features on Montagu:

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu“. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1689–1762“. The Poetry Foundation.

Secor, A., 1999. ‘Orientalism, gender and class in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters: to persons of distinction, men of letters and c’. Cultural Geographies (formerly Ecumene) Volume 6, Issue 4 pp375-398. Arnold Publishers.

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

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass

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 fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure, beginning with research and study in Oakland, CA, then off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

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. He 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 historian-philosopher; 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 faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail that we have 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?

So I’ll begin my tale here in my home city of Oakland, CA, where I begin my research and exploration into Douglass’s life and ideas, then off to the east coast of the United States I’ll go, from March 19th thru April 2nd! There, 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.

~ Listen to the podcast version of this series intro here or on iTunes

Here is the story of Frederick Douglass as I discover him:
Traveling Philosophy Series: Frederick Douglass Edition, Prologue, Oakland, CA
Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt
Frederick Douglass on the Constitution
Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist
Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites
Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 1
Frederick Douglass, Easton and St. Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 2
Frederick Douglass Havre de Grace and Philadelphia Sites
Frederick Douglass New York City Sites
Frederick Douglass New Bedford, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Boston Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites
Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist & Descendant of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

More about Frederick Douglass:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, in Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Photobook: Frederick Douglass and Edinburgh, Old and New
O.P. Recommends: ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That: Frederick Douglass in Scotland’ by Andrea Baker for BBC Radio 4
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Originalist Interpretations of the United States Constitution
O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Race Relations
Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

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!

Patrons of the Frederick Douglass series: RH Kennerly, Elizabeth Lenz, Alex Levin, Cory Argonti Cools, Bryan Kilgore, Michael Burke, Gaia So, Veronica Ruedrich, Blair Miller, Alex Black, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Roxanne and Fred Smalkin and family, and Jim Callahan and Nerissa Callahan-Stiles and family. ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

First Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

My first rented room in Paris, France, following Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Jefferson

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

I arrive at Charles De Gaulle airport on Sunday afternoon, fairly well rested for once. Usually, I don’t sleep well on planes, and stumble off the walkway groggy and stupified. This time I slept about two thirds of the way through the 10 1/2 hour flight …not well, mind you, but much better than nothing. I attribute it to the ibuprofen tablets I took shortly before boarding, making the cramped quarters less painful to sleep in: my travel tip of the day! It was great to arrive and feel competent to navigate the trains, find my destination, and go out and start enjoying myself without delay.

At about 6pm, I meet my host Aurelia at 46 Rue Voltaire, a couple blocks down from Oberkampf station, in the 11th Arrondissement. She is sweet and helpful, and a practiced Airbnb-er: she has a series of photos on her iPhone at the ready so she can show me how to navigate the passageways, six flights of stairs, and unmarked doors to reach my mini apartment. The place is tiny, with the loft bed over the desk, the toilet tucked into a cubbyhole beside the shower, and the whole place the size of a small bedroom. On the whole, it suits me just fine, since it’s clean, private, and in a great neighborhood at a cheap price, but being somewhat tall and not used to these close quarters, I whack my head often.

Triomphe de la République, the sculpture at the Place de la Nation

I decide not to dive right in my historical adventures, but to take an aimless walk around instead, to get my bearings, wake up a little more, and re-immerse myself in this city which I last visited seven years ago on honeymoon. Right away, I find myself feeling a little wistful, feels odd to be here without Bryan. He’ll be joining me in a couple of days, so I console myself and head out.

I walk down Boulevard Voltaire in search of something better to eat than airplane food, which takes me awhile: most places are closed (usual in late July to mid-August, as my host informs me), until I get closer to Place de la Nation, which is is getting busier as the night crowd are starting to emerge. I find a boulangerie, where I pick up a butter croissant and another sweet one for tomorrow’s breakfast. I admire the sculpture, then turn up Boulevard Diderot, sit down for an Edelweiss (lightly tart beer), a couple of smokes (an old habit I like to indulge myself in on special occasions) and a little people-watching. It’s a lovely warm evening.

Latin dancers at the Quai St-Bernard along the Seine, Paris, France

I continue on towards the Seine, cross the Pont d’Austerlitz, and walk east along the river. In the park and sculpture garden on Quai St-Bernard, I happen upon masses of people dancing on three dance floors: the first was dedicated to the foxtrot, the other two to Latin dancing. One was huge, must have been well over a hundred people dancing until the sweat was dripping, ringed by crowds of spectators. I dare not join in the dancing: I can’t seem to learn steps to save my life, last time I took a dance class I caught the teacher apologizing to my assigned dance partner, probably for the bruises I pounded into his feet with my own.

The sunset is pink, orange, and gold against the blue sky and above the silver Seine as I pass by Notre Dame.

Gazing at the Île de la Cité from the Left Bank of Paris, France

On the bridge to the Île de la Cité, there was another crowd clapping and cheering for three performers, two on roller skates and one on rollerblades. In turn, they speed-skate up a ramp and over a crossbar set very high in the air, perhaps 15 feet or so.

As I’m reminded constantly on my evening stroll, Paris, like our Washington D.C., has not forgotten its nation’s Revolution. Its heroes and events are memorialized in the names of street after boulevard after avenue, in monument after statue after city square: Rue La Fayette, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Republique. So are its philosophes: along with Voltaire and Diderot, there’s Jean Jacque Rousseau, Montesquieu… even our own Thomas Jefferson is an honorary member of this elite company: his larger-than-life bronze sculpture adorns the Left Bank of the Seine.

Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France, on the right bank of the Seine

Other than some of the street names and monuments, my evening stroll took me by only one site
associated with a subject of my trip: the Hôtel de Ville, which has several connections with the life of Thomas Paine. It’s a very grand building, and looks both lovely and impressive all lit up at night, but it’s not the original building of Paine’s time. That one was burned down in another French revolution in 1871, in the same round of anti-monarchical arsonists that claimed the Tuileries palace and nearly claimed the Louvre.

I walk around the building to see if one of the statues in its many niches was Paine, but I can’t find one. It’s pretty dark out, though; the statues I see whose caption I can see in the half-light are all Frenchmen. However, Paine was a celebrity in France following his publication of Common Sense, which offered a comprehensive philosophical defense for the rightness of the cause for American Revolution, and again when he wrote The Rights of Man. His arguments resonated with many of the French people, who felt themselves chafing under a rigid hierarchical structure and high taxation maintained and imposed by an unchallengeable monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy. So it was at the Hotel de Ville on August 26, 1790 that the Paris Commune voted to make Paine an honorary citizen. When he returned to Paris in September of 1792, he was elected to the French National Convention; no matter that he couldn’t really speak French, one who so eloquently speaks for human freedom and dignity speak to all. So though he might be properly honored by a sculptural portrait here, so far as I can find out, he has none among the niches.

More to come soon: my next day in Paris is entirely dedicated to following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson. Stay tuned!  > Second Day, Part 1
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Sources and inspiration:

Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.

Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.

French Revolution.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

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

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Philosophy and Early Feminist Thought

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two founders of modern feminism, are the subjects of my recent traveling philosophy series. While their advocacy for women’s rights, abolition of slavery, religious liberty, and other human rights issues was so important, wasn’t their work more about politics than anything else?

Why write about feminist activists for a philosophy blog?

It’s true, their focus was on achieving political goals: to establish laws protecting and empowering women and other classes of human beings in their property, their person, their range of opportunities, and their enfranchisement. But to accomplish this, they needed ideas: not only of their own, personal beliefs about the world and the way it should be, informed by facts and supported by reason; they needed to convince others that their ideas were not only interesting and desirable to themselves but good, true, and conducive to flourishing for all human beings.

The laws of their time, which barred most women from owning any property, which subjugated them and their children to husbands, fathers, and male relatives, and which failed to protect women as they sought to engage in traditionally ‘unwomanly’ activities such as voting, receiving a full education, pursuing any occupation other than housekeeping or teaching, speaking in public, taking leadership roles, and so on, were based on certain widely held ideas and beliefs about the nature and proper roles of women. 

Women in some states, especially married women, had few political rights in the era when Rose and Stanton began to agitate for them. In fact, many women in the United States, legally, had as few rights as many slaves did, which may surprise many of us today; I know it surprised me as I did my research. Not to suggest that slaves were better off: far from it. Cultural expectations required better behavior toward and treatment of (non-slave) women. Most husbands, then as now, treat their wives with respect and try to make them happy, and they had a degree of power and influence in the home in her position as mother and keeper of the house. Many states had laws protecting women in cases of abuse, and some had laws requiring men to provide for their wives in a ‘decent’ manner. And adult single women legally enjoyed a degree of personal liberty a slave could only dream of. But it was extremely difficult for any woman to earn a decent wage or find an interesting, full-filling, non-menial job, and women were generally denied access to a full education. 

While some states offered better protections for women than others with fairly liberal laws (for the standards of that time, not necessarily ours) concerning divorce, remarriage, and a woman’s right to some control of property she brought into a marriage, in many other states, women lost their individual identity upon marriage under coverture. The legal doctrine of coverture meant that a women’s identity was absorbed into, or ‘covered by’, that of her husband, and her rights were subsumed under those of her husband. In other words, they disappeared. As a result of coverture and other laws, if a married woman felt the desire or need to leave her husband for any reason, including abuse, cruelty, neglect, etc, she had no right whatsoever to her children, to any of her property besides the clothing she wore and utensils to cook with, or to keep any wages she would earn. Not only that, if she was apprehended, she could legally be forced to return, echoing the cruelty of the Fugitive Slave Law (Mistress of Herself, p 93-94, 185-86). It’s no wonder, then, that the early feminist movement rose out of, and in partnership with, the abolitionist movement, since many of the arguments in favor of emancipation of slaves applied to the liberation of women as well. Rose and Stanton’s sister feminists identified with their enslaved fellow women in this: married women had no identity as individual persons under the law, and all women were barred from choosing their own professions, fulfilling their intellectual and other capacities, and subject to laws to which they could not consent because they were not full citizens, or citizens at all.

And nowhere were women of any status permitted to vote. So how could they better their situation?

Rose, Stanton, and other human rights activists and reformers of their era recognized that laws and practices of their time that oppressed women, blacks and other racial minorities, religious dissenters, and immigrants, were all there, more or less, because of the same ideas. So to change the law, they had to change minds, not only with logical, well-supported, eloquent arguments, but with passion, which revealed the conviction behind the words. Their ideas inspired them, and in turn, inspired others. That’s where their philosophy comes in.

So what were these old ideas they wished to supplant? Why did they wish to supplant them? And with what?

Here are some of the most important ideas that underlie Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work; not comprehensive, to be sure, but central to their goals of attaining legal and cultural liberty and equality, and to their beliefs about human nature and what constitutes the good:

~ The nature of rights, and where they come from

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both have similar, though not identical, views on the nature of human rights. Stanton believes in a divine creator*, and that all human beings are created with certain endowments and dignities, so to transgress against human nature was to transgress the divine will. Rose doesn’t believe in a divine creator, and doesn’t think it an important question in matters of ethics, law, or everyday life, as it would involve understanding a reality incomprehensible to the human mind. Since we can only comprehend this world, we are only responsible for life within it, and we must put all of our effort in making this life the best we can. For Rose, human nature is a product of nature, no supernatural explanation useful or necessary. To both of these thinkers, however, human rights are indissolubly linked to human nature, and one could no more be legitimately denied than the other, by the simple fact of the existence of human beings whose qualities and aspirations are clearly discernible to anyone. And both think that reason is all we need to describe these rights and put them into law. As Stanton says, ‘…Viewed as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same; individual happiness and development. ‘(Solitude Of Self)

Whether Rose and Stanton think human nature is primary and human rights are derived from it, or whether they think both exist equally as qualities or attributes of a human person, I haven’t been able to discern. For myself, I think human nature is primary, and rights are derived from it; that’s why we must formulate, fight for, and protect human rights, not merely observe them as facts of nature. Either view is consistent with Rose and Stanton’s writings, yet I suspect they perhaps would agree with me, or at least see my point, if we ever had a chance to sit down and thrash it out. What a delightful and invigorating afternoon that would be!

In any case, Rose says, one needs only to observe the world to discover the truth of the matter, and the evidence is available to anyone, anywhere, whatever one’s culture or belief system. In fact, one needs no education at all (though it helps!) to recognize what to her is so plain, if only one would put aside their biases for a moment. A young man once challenged Rose during a speech, claiming that divine revelation and authority are in opposition to the Women’s Rights movement platform and supportive of the traditional view of women’s rights and women’s ‘sphere’ in the home. Rose replied: ‘…I will show him the revelation from which we derive our authority, and the nature in which it is written, in living characters. It is true we do not go to revelations written in books… That revelation is no less than the living, breathing, thinking, feeling, acting revelation manifested in the nature of woman…Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are but dead letters’ (MOH, 227)

~ Individual identity

The legal doctrine of coverture, inherited from British law, remained more or less unchallenged in the United States until the early feminists, with Rose and Stanton, agitated for and finally pushed through laws protecting the property rights of married women in the mid-nineteenth century. Rose began the petition to the New York State Assembly in the 1930’s, where she was soon joined by other activists; Stanton’s efforts led to success in 1848, when the first Married Woman’s Property Act was passed into law in New York (MOH, 12). Coverture was widely justified on a Biblical basis: passages such as Ephesians 5:22-5:24 ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church…Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything’ was used to demonstrate divine support for complete control of husbands over their wives. And not only wives: Stanton goes through the Bible line by line, and finds and critiques a multitude of verses in support of the idea that all women should be subjugated to men (The Woman’s Bible).

As we have seen, Rose does not accept the idea that any sort of ‘revelation’ trumps the evidence of nature, so she scorns the idea that a woman’s identity could be absorbed in another’s. ‘From the cradle to the grave she is subject to the power and control of man…At marriage she loses her entire identity, and her being is said to have become merged in her husband. Has nature thus merged it? Has she ceased to exist and feel pleasure and pain?…What an inconsistency, that from the moment she enters that compact, in which she assumes the high responsibility of wife and mother, she ceases legally to exist…’ (MOH, p 93). Since a woman feels her own feelings, thinks her own thoughts, and experiences her own selfhood, she is fully an individual as a man, whatever her relation to him. And since she is an individual person, she should have all the rights of an individual person, to the same extent as a man, and for the same reasons. Stanton concurs: ‘The point I wish plainly to bring before you on this occasion is the individuality of each human soul; our Protestant idea, the right of individual conscience and judgment; our republican idea, individual citizenship’ (SOS)

What drive Rose and Stanton is that same idea that drive all feminists to seek full human rights protections: the inner experience of our own selves as human persons in the fullest sense of the term. The differences between women and men, as they repeatedly point out, are of minor significance compared to the similarities.

~ The intellectual, emotional, and moral equality of women and men

All able human persons, say Rose, Stanton, and their fellow feminists, enjoy and experience an inner life made up of the same components: reason, emotion, and the moral instincts chief among them. While there is some difference in degree and quality from person to person, and some minor differences in tendencies between male and female, women and men are the same kind of being. Rose, again, appeals to the evidence of experience: ‘What has man ever done, that woman, under the same advantages, could not do? …Even now, where her mind has been called out at all, her intellect is as bright, as capacious, and as powerful as his…And do you ask for fortitude, energy, and perseverance? Then look at woman under suffering, reverse of fortune, and affliction…’ (MOH,  99). She recognized, as her fellow reformers did, that the intelligence and ability they found in their own selves contradicted the claims underlying the rigid belief system of her day regarding the ‘proper spheres’ of men and women. 

Instead of thinking of intelligent, ambitious, entrepreneurial, and independent women as ‘unwomanly’ freaks of nature, and women as subservient mother and housewife as ‘natural’, Rose and Stanton think of women as complex and rich in their interior lives as men, and have similar needs. For example, Stanton reveled in motherhood and was one seven times over, but she often felt stifled by the way motherhood, in her day, relegated her to a narrower arena of activity and intellectual stimulation than suited her. She is restless and curious thinker, deeply intelligent and active by nature, and while her family lived in Boston, her busy social life kept her satisfied in mind and body. When her family moved to Seneca Falls, a small town in upstate New York, however, her new life of a full-time homemaker often made her feel trapped (Jacoby, 88). Stanton doesn’t recognize herself as confined to a ‘sphere’, or conforming to the ideal of ‘true womanhood’ of the time. She thinks these ideas are not divinely inspired, but are human creations, derived from men’s need to carry on their legacy and keep the mothers of their children obediently at home under their control (TWB, Jacoby 195). Instead, like Rose, Stanton recognizes in herself and her fellow woman the full human intelligence that needs to be satisfied and developed, and the range of needs, desires, and challenges in life that, like men, can only be addressed by protecting and furthering their chances of pursuing their own goals, in law and cultural practice.

(I felt this very same way, growing up, regarding ideas about women I was brought up to believe. Beginning in my mid- to late teens, the ideal of the ‘proper sphere of women’ of the very traditional, conservative religion I was brought up in, felt alien to me. I just couldn’t believe that most, let along all, women wanted more or less the same things, and though I recognized that lifestyle made many women happy, it was not so for all women. As an adult, I’m much more interested in the experiences, the day-to-day joys and challenges of my friends and family who are mothers, yet I still don’t feel the desire to live that life myself, especially that of a homemaker, and it’s increasingly undesirable to me personally as the years pass. Yet I’m glad that so many women now have a choice: they are not forced into it, or out of it, by the state, and less and less by overbearing families or isolationist, fundamentalist communities.)

~ Women, men, and their capacities

In the period in which Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived, the ‘myth of true womanhood’ held that each woman naturally has a specific and narrow set of capacities and tastes, all of which confine her to the choice of a few roles, the first two being primary: wife, mother, homemaker, and/or teacher (of children and other women, not of men), craftsperson in the ‘daintier’ arts, and nurse. But Rose and Stanton see things differently: while they allow there may be some differences in temperament and ability on the average, especially when it comes to physical strength, as we have seen, men and women are far more alike than they are different (intellectually, emotionally, and morally). Since women and men have similar capacities and aspirations in accordance with their human nature and their individual proclivities, so each individual should have equal opportunity to make the fullest use of them. The first and arguably most important method of developing ones capacity is a quality education, and the goal of their education should be to expand and fulfill the intellectual capacity of each individual person to the utmost.

And all persons should have full and equal access to engage in any occupation that suits their own tastes. As Rose says, in response to an influential lecturer who argues that women’s natural talents were confined to the ornamental arts, housekeeping, and the care and education of children, ‘…the great difficulty is, that …certain taste and adaptation or peculiar faculties are required for proficiency in any art or science…then it would be just as reasonable to expect all men to be painters, sculptors, or chemists, as to ask all women to be scientific cooks [chefs]. If men and women were educated in accordance with their predilections and tastes, it might so happen that some men might have the best capacity for the science of cooking, and some women for the science of government…’ (MOH, 115). In other words, preordaining and then imposing narrowly defined roles is, in fact, unnatural, and systematically wastes human potential.

~ Marriage and relationships between women and men

Rose and Stanton both believe that the traditional hierarchical view of marriage was wrong. It was still generally believed in their time that a marriage could only survive harmoniously if one partner was ultimately the authority figure, and many people in the world still believe that today (as in Paul’s doctrine of men as the ‘head’ of the family, for example, outlined in the Ephesians quote we considered earlier). Rose and Stanton, to the contrary, believe that sort of arrangement to be not only non-conducive to harmony (since it builds resentment, reduces serious consideration of the wishes and solutions to problems of the ‘subject’ partner, and encourages bullying in one and passivity in the other), but a to vow of obedience in marriage is to renege on one’s responsibilities as a moral agent:

Ernestine Rose has much to say about this subject. She was happily married for 57 years to a man who, like her, was radically egalitarian for the time, and also considered marriage a partnership between equals. She says, ‘But I assert that every woman …is bound to maintain her own independence and her own integrity of character; to assert herself, earnestly and firmly, as the equal of man, who is her only peer. This is her first right, her first duty: and if she lives in a country where the law supposes that she is to be subjected to her husband, and she consents to this subjection, I do insist that she consents to degradation: that this is sin…Marriage is a union of equals’ (MOH 275-276). She critiques the idea that blanket submission is a virtue: ‘Blind submission in woman is considered a virtue, while submission to wrong is itself wrong, and resistance to wrong is virtue alike in woman as in man’ (MOH 93). And she considers the vow of obedience in marriage not only wrong, but a lack of civilization:‘…who knows but the time may come when man and woman will be so far civilized as to agree to differ in an amicable and friendly way whenever they should not be able to agree?’ (MOH 119)

Stanton demonstrates her own commitment to the idea of marriage as a full and equal partnership not only in her writing, espousing the same principles as Rose, but likewise through action. She kept her own name upon marriage, adding her husband’s at the end. She thinks that referring to a married woman by ‘Mrs’ tacked onto the husband’s name, while leaving out hers, was a much a symbol of denigration and ownership as it was to refer a bondsperson by the name of their plantation or master. She agrees wholeheartedly that the vow of obedience was retrograde and against the true ideal of marriage as an equal partnership (Eighty Years 72). She lived a life of as much independence as her situation would allow during her years raising dependent children, and reveled in her freedom in later years, becoming more active than ever in her work for women’s rights.

~ The role of reform and progress in morality

Rose and Stanton hold somewhat different views of religion: to Rose, most religions oppressed women for so long, and their holy books contained so many anti-woman passages, that religions, in general, could only be considered more harmful than helpful, and were pretty much all antithetical to the women’s rights movement. Stanton is mildly religious, in the sense that she doesn’t identify with any particular sect of Christianity, and openly criticizes most of them for their support of retrograde laws and practices in respect to women. Yet she admires Jesus Christ himself, as a friend to the poor and oppressed, as a revolutionary, and as a promoter of tolerance (the story of Magdalene’s interrupted stoning, the Good Samaritan parable, and apostleship of the tax collector are some examples.) Both of them, in their day, would have been called freethinkers, and Stanton would also have been called an atheist by many, since that term was often used to refer to anyone who did not agree with orthodox ideas about God.

Many of the major religions go through more or less the same cycle: inspired by one (probably) historical figure 
who was some sort of inspirational radical (Abram, Siddhārtha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, Muḥammad ibn `Abd Allāh), evolving oral traditions and hagiography transformed these figures into gods or sacred beings with special moral authority (Abraham, the Buddha, Christ, The Prophet). As well as encouraging good behavior in their believers and often radically changing cultures for the better with their progressive ideas, eventually these belief systems rigidified, and were pressed into political service to enforce power structures which adopted them. Over time, culturally and legally, these religions were transformed from their reformist roots to dogmatic systems which enforced othodoxy of belief and rigidly proscribed behavior, with promises of reward and/or threats of punishment, by the divine and by the state. Sometimes this was beneficial to promoting pro-social behavior and attitudes; sometimes it led to such evils as religious wars, persecution of heretics, witch-hunts, and pogroms. Rose cites the cruel treatment of dissenters as one of her main criticisms of religion (MOH 76-77).

Over time, new reformists would spring up, challenging the more ugly, oppressive, or retrograde beliefs and practices religions had accumulated over time. Dissenters came from the fringes of that tradition (in the West, liberal anti-clerical Protestants such as Stanton, Deists such as Thomases Paine and Jefferson, Quakers such as Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, and Unitarians* such as William Lloyd Garrison) as well as from the outside (freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics such as Rose, Robert Ingersoll, and Charles Darwin). Time and time again, it would take these reformers, and the moral and rational arguments with which they won over popular opinion, to convince these the old religions to reform themselves, to become more liberal and to adopt more humanistic beliefs and practices, in order to stay relevant. This process has advanced much more with some religions than with others; it’s not hard to recognize which ones, by the standard of living and the human rights protections in those countries in which those religions are most dominant.

Rose and Stanton, despite their differences of opinion of the existence of the divine, think that dogma is antithetical to morality, properly understood. The capacity of a culture or a belief system to be reformed from outside, or better yet, contain within it ideas that generate self-reform, is a sign of its superiority, since it can adapt to solve problems in a changing world. A rigid, ‘eternal’ system, by contrast, is necessarily harmful, since it’s immune to new evidence, and attempts to solve new problems with old ideas that don’t apply. In Rose’s and Stanton’s day, science had made a major breakthrough, illuminating how natural laws can explain the evolution of human nature and in turn, human morality. In Biblical times, for example, a relatively rigid, harsh moral code, centered on sexual dominance, tribal loyalty, and the accumulation of property (be it through farming, herding, dowry, or plunder) evolved to aid the survival of small nomadic tribes in a similarly harsh landscape. In a modern industrial society, such a code no longer appropriate. But aside from the usefulness of a moral code, Rose and Stanton think that morality should be drawn from observations of human nature, and as human nature expands and evolves, so does morality. Religion, they think, has this backward: it codifies some idea about what human nature is and should be in relation to a wider reality, and this rigid system is then imposed upon everyone, regardless of how poorly it’s equipped to deal with any particular circumstance or new problem that arises, or how poorly it fits with the personality, interests, or abilities of particular individuals.

In sum: Rose, Stanton, and the ideas of the early feminists are as relevant and as important today as they ever were, since they so eloquently and convincingly make the case for the equality of legal rights for women, and for a cultural and religious reexamination of the predominant ideas about women in their time. The debate over the ideas that they opposed, and the better ideas with which they convinced most of the Western world, is still raging today. In many parts of the world, women are still subjugated to men, for many of the same reasons as they were in Rose and Stanton’s time, though the holy book these oppressive laws are often based on now is more often a different one.
And in the modern Western world, the rights of women to control their own bodies and their own minds is still under attack from some quarters. For example, traditional views about women still lead many to attack President Obama’s recent remarks on such reform by deliberating misrepresenting his views based on a grammatical unclarity in one sentence of a speech that otherwise promoted the economic rights of mothers. The reforms he was calling for in that speech would ultimately support a women’s right to choose to be a full-time stay at home mother, by limiting the negative economic impact such a choice would have on her future prospects. But the fervor of some traditionalists against the idea that a women’s choice to remain childless, or to be a working mother, or pursue other goals altogether, is a valid one, can lead to blanket opposition to all women’s rights reform, however just such reform appears on its face. Opposition to full rights for women is alive and kicking, as is opposition to full human rights for immigrants, prisoners, atheists, and other minority groups, so it’s important to keep the ideas of Rose, Stanton, and the early feminists alive since they still apply, in essence, to all of these.
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*Note: it’s a little tricky to pin down Stanton’s religious views: she was, from early life, a liberal Protestant Christian, a believer in God and an admirer of Jesus Christ. Yet she was a fierce critic of the mainstream organized religions of her day which opposed rights for women, which were most of them, and did not consider the Bible the ultimate authority on questions of human rights or on morality generally. As she once remarked to Susan B. Anthony, she grew more radical in her opinions over the years, and later in life, may have been closer to a Deist or freethinking Theist than a Protestant (Eighty Years 44, Jacoby 194)

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Sources and inspiration:

The Bible, King James version

Cassidy, Jessie J. ‘The Legal Status of Women’. New York, The National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1897. Obtained from the Library of Congress website

Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader.  The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008

Duke, Selwyn. ‘Just Say No to Stay-At-Home Moms‘. The New American. Nov 2nd, 2014.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. (2014, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Ernestine Rose‘. (2014, July 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Gordon, Ann D. ‘Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. American Natinal Biography Online.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Married Women’s Property Laws‘, American Memory: American Women. Library of Congress website. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/property_law.html

Obama, Barack. ‘On Women and the Economy‘ speech, Oct 30th, 2014. Retrieved from the White House website, Office of the Press Secretary

Salmon, Marylynn. ‘The Legal Status of Women, 1776–1830‘. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (website)

Stanton, Elizabeth et al. Declarations and Sentiments / Proceedings of the First Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, 1848.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 New Jersey: Mershon Company Press, 1897.

Stanton, Elizabeth. ‘Solitude of Self‘. Address Delivered by Mrs. Stanton before the Committee of the Judiciary of the United States Congress, Monday, January 18, 1892.

Stanton, Elizabeth et al. The Woman’s Bible, 1898.

In Her Own Words: A Defense of Atheism, by Ernestine Rose, 1861

My friends: –In undertaking the inquiry of the existence of a God, I am fully conscious of the difficulties I have to encounter. I am well aware that the very question produces in most minds a feeling of awe, as if stepping on forbidden ground, too holy and sacred for mortals to approach. The very question strikes them with horror, as is owing to this prejudice so deeply implanted by education, and also strengthened by public sentiment, that so few are willing to give it a fair and impartial investigation, –knowing but too well that it casts a stigma and reproach upon any person bold enough to undertake the task, unless his previously known opinions are a guarantee that his conclusions would be in accordance and harmony with the popular demand. But believing as I do, that Truth only is beneficial, and Error, from whatever source, and under whatever name, is pernicious to man, I consider no place too holy, no subject too sacred, for man’s earnest investigation; for by so doing only can we arrive at Truth, learn to discriminate it from Error, and be able to accept the one and reject the other.

No is this the only impediment in the way of this inquiry. The question arises, Where shall we begin? We have been told, that “by searching none can find out God” which has so far proved true; for, as yet, no one has ever been able to find him. The most strenuous believer has to acknowledge that it is only a belief, but he knows nothing on the subject. Where, then, shall we search for his existence? Enter the material world; ask the Sciences whether they can disclose the mystery? Geology speaks of the structure of the Earth, the formation of the different strata, of coal, of granite, of the whole mineral kingdom. –It reveals the remains and traces of animals long extinct, but gives us no clue whereby we may prove the existence of a God.

Natural history gives us a knowledge of the animal kingdom in general; the different organisms, structures, and powers of the various species. Physiology teaches the nature of man, the laws that govern his being, the functions of the vital organs, and the conditions upon which alone health and life depend…. But in the whole animal economy–though the brain is considered to be a “microcosm”, which which may be traced a resemblance or relationship with everything in Nature–not a spot can be found to indicate the existence of a God.

Mathematics lays the foundation of all the exact sciences. It teaches the art of combining numbers, of calculating and measuring distances, how to solve problems, to weigh mountains, to fathom the depths of the ocean; but gives no directions how to ascertain the existence of a God.

Astronomy tells us of the wonders of the Solar System–the eternally revolving planets, the rapidity and certainty of their motions, the distance from planet to planet, from star to star. It predicts with astonishing and marvelous precision the phenomena of eclipses, the visibility upon our Earth of comets, and proves the immutable law of gravitation, but is entirely silent on the existence of a God.

In fine, descend to the bowels of the Earth, and you will learn what it contains; into the depths of the ocean, and you will find the inhabitants of the great deep; but neither in the Earth above, nor the waters below, can you obtain any knowledge of his existence. Ascend into the heavens, and enter the “milky way,” go from planet to planet and to the remotest star, and ask the eternally revolving systems, Where is God? and Echo answers, Where?

The Universe of Matter gives us no record of his existence. Where next shall we search? Enter the Universe of Mind, read the volumes written on the subject, and in all the speculations, the assertions, the assumptions, the theories, and the creeds, you can only find Man stamped in an indelible impress his own mind on every page. In describing his God, he delineated his own character: the picture he drew represents in living and ineffaceable colors the epoch of his existence–the period he lived in.

It was a great mistake to say that God made man in his image. Man, in all ages, made his God in his own image, and we find that just in accordance with his civilization, his knowledge, his experience, his taste, his refinement, his sense of right, of justice, of freedom, and humanity, –so has he made his God. But whether coarse or refined; cruel and vindictive, or kind and generous; an implacable tyrant, or a gentle and loving father; it still was the emanation of his own mind –the picture of himself.

But, you ask, how came it to be that man thought or wrote about God at all? The answer is very simple. Ignorance is the mother of Superstition. In proportion to man’s ignorance he is superstitious–does he believe in the mysterious. The very name has a charm for him. Being unacquainted with the nature and laws of things around him, with the true causes of the effects he witnessed, he ascribed them to false ones–to supernatural agencies. The savage, ignorant of the mechanism of a watch, attributes the ticking to a spirit. The so-called civilized man, equally ignorant of the mechanism of the Universe, and the laws which govern it, ascribes it to the same erroneous cause. Before electricity was discovered, a thunderstorm was said to come from the wrath of an offended Deity. To this fiction of man’s uncultivated mind, has been attributed all of good and evil, or wisdom and of folly. Man has talked about him, written about him, disputed about him, fought about him,–sacrificed himself, and extirpated his fellow man. Rivers of blood and oceans of tears have been shed to please him, yet no one has ever been able to demonstrate his existence.

But the Bible, we are told, reveals this great mystery. Where Nature is dumb, and Man ignorant, Revelation speaks in the authoritative voice of prophecy. Then let us see whether that Revelation can stand the test of reason and of truth.–God, we are told, is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, –all wise, all just, and all good; that he is perfect. So far, so well; for less than perfection were unworthy of a God. The first act recorded of him is, that he created the world out of nothing; but unfortunately the revelation of Science–Chemistry–which is based not on written words, but demonstrable facts, says that Nothing has no existence, and therefore out of Nothing, Nothing could be made. Revelation tells us that the world was created in six days. Here Geology steps in and says, that it requires thousands of ages to form the various strata of the earth. The Bible tells us the earth was flat and stationary, and the sun moved around the earth. Copernicus and Galileo flatly deny this flat assertion, and demonstrates by Astronomy that the earth is spherical, and revolves around the sun. Revelation tells us that on the fourth day God created the sun, moon, and stars. This, Astronomy calls a moon story, and says that the first three days, before the great torchlight was manufactured and suspended in the great lantern above, must have been rather dark.

The division of the waters above from the waters below, and the creation of the minor objects, I pass by, and come at once to the sixth day.

Having finished, in five days, this stupendous production, with its mighty mountains, its vast seas, its fields and woods; supplied the waters with fishes–from the whale that swallowed Jonah to the little Dutch herring; peopled the woods with inhabitants–from the tiger, the lion, the bear, the elephant with his trunk, the dromedary with his hump, the deer with his antlers, the nightingale with her melodies, down to the serpent which tempted mother Eve; covered the fields with vegetation, decorated the gardens with flowers, hung the trees with fruits; and surveying this glorious world as it lay spread out like a map before him, the question naturally suggested itself. What is it all for, unless there were beings capable of admiring, of appreciating, and of enjoying the delights this beautiful world could afford? And suiting the action to the impulse, he said, “let us make man.” “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.”

I presume by the term “image” we are not to understand a near resemblance of face or form, but in the image or likeness of his knowledge, his power, his wisdom, and perfection. Having thus made man, he placed him (them) in the garden of Eden–the loveliest and most enchanting spot at the very head of creation, and bade them (with the single restriction not to eat of the tree of knowledge), to live, to love, and to be happy.

What a delightful picture, if we could only rest here! But did these beings, fresh from the hand of omnipotent wisdom, in whose image they were made, answer the great object of their creation, answer the great object of their creation? Alas! no. No sooner were they installed in their Paradisean home, than they violated the first, the only injunction given them, and fell from their high estate; and not only they, but by a singular justice of that very merciful Creator, their innocent posterity to all coming generations, fell with them! Does that bespeak wisdom and perfection in the Creator, or in the creature? But what was the cause of this tremendous fall, which frustrated the whole design of the creation? The Serpent tempted mother Eve, and she, like a good wife, tempted her husband. But God did not know when he created the Serpent, that it would tempt the woman, and that she was made of such frail materials, (the rib of Adam,) as not to be able to resist the temptation? If he did not know, then his knowledge was at fault; if he did, but could not prevent that calamity, then his power was at fault; if he knew and could, but would not, then his goodness was at fault. Choose which you please, and it remains alike fatal to the rest.

Revelation tells us that God made man perfect, and found him imperfect; then he pronounced all things good, and found them most desperately bad. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man and beasts, and the creeping things, and the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them.”So he destroyed everything, except Noah with his family, and a few household pets. Why he saved them is hard to say, unless it was to reserve materials as stock in hand to commence a new world with; but really, judging of the character of those he saved, by their descendants, it strikes me it would have been much better, and given him far less trouble, to have let them slip also, and with his improved experience made a new world out of fresh and superior materials. (*see footnote)

As it was, this wholesale destruction even, was a failure. The world was not one jot better after the flood than before. His chosen children were just as bad as ever, and he had to send his prophets, again and again, to threaten, to frighten, to coax, cajole, and to flatter them into good behaviour. But all to no effect. They grew worse and worse; and having made a covenant with Noah after he sacrificed of “every clean beast and of every clean fowl,”–“The Lord smelt the sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have done.” And so he was forced to resort to  the last sad alternative of sending “his only begotten son,” his second self, to save them. But alas! “his own received him not,” and so he was obliged to adopt the Gentiles, and die to save the world. Did he succeed, even then? Is the world saved? Saved! From what? From ignorance? It is all around us. From poverty, vice, crime, sin, misery, and shame? It abounds everywhere.Look into your poor-houses, your prisons, your lunatic asylums; contemplate the whip, the instruments of torture, and of death; ask the murderer, or his victim; listen to the ravings of the maniac, the shrieks of distress, the groans of despair; mark the cruel deeds of the tyrant, the crimes of slavery, and the suffering of the oppressed; count the millions of lives lost by fire, by water, and by the sword; measure the blood spilled, the tears shed, the sighs of agony drawn from the expiring victims on the altar of fanaticism; –and tell me from what the world was saved? And why was it not saved? Why does God still permit these horrors to afflict the race? Does omniscience not know it? Could omnipotence not do it? Would infinite wisdom, power, and goodness allow his children thus to live, to suffer, and to die? No! Humanity revolts against such a supposition.

Ah! Not now, says the believer. Hereafter will he save them. Save them hereafter! From what? From the apple eaten by our mother Eve? What a mockery! If a rich parent were to let his children live in ignorance, poverty, and wretchedness, all their lives, and hold out to them the promise of a fortune at some time hereafter, he would justly be considered a criminal, or a madman. The parent is responsible to his offspring–the Creator to his creature.

The testimony of Revelation has failed. Its account of the creation of the material world is disproved by science. Its account of the creation of man in the image of perfection, is disproved by its own internal evidence. To test the Bible God by justice and benevolence, he could not be good; to test him by reason and knowledge, he could not be wise; to test him by the light of the truth, the rule of consistency, we must come to the inevitable conclusion that, like the Universe of matter and of mind, this pretended Revelation has also failed to demonstrate the existence of a God.

Methinks I hear the the believer say, you are unreasonable; you demand as impossibility; we are finite, and therefore cannot understand, much less define and demonstrate the infinite. Just so! But if I am unreasonable in asking you to demonstrate the existence of the being you wish me to believe in, are you not infinitely more unreasonable to expect me to believe–blame, persecute, and punish me for not believing–in what you have to acknowledge you cannot understand?

But, says the Christian, the world exists, and therefore there must have been a God to create it. That does not follow. The mere fact of its existence does not prove a Creator. Then how came the universe into existence? We do not know but the ignorance mind of man is certainly no proof of the existence of a God. Yet upon that very ignorance has it been predicated, and is maintained. From the little knowledge we have, we are justified in the assertion that the Universe never was created, from the simple fact that not one atom of it can be annihilated. To suppose a Universe created, is to suppose a time when it did not exist, and that is a self-evident absurdity. Besides, where was the Creator before it was created? Nay, where is he now? Outside of that Universe, which means the all in all, above, below, and around? That is another absurdity. is he contained within? Then he can only be a part, for the whole indeed includes all the parts. If only a part, then he cannot be the Creator, for a part cannot create the whole. But the world could not have made itself. True; nor could God have made himself; and if you must have a God to make the world, you will be under the same necessity to have another to make him, and others still to make them, and so on until reason and common sense are at a stand-still.

The same argument applies to a First Cause. We can no more admit of a first than a last cause. What is a first cause? The one immediately preceding the last effect, which was an effect to a cause in its turn–an effect to causes, themselves effects. All we know is an eternal chain of cause and effect, without beginning as without end.

But is there is no evidence of intelligence, of design, and consequently of a designer? I see no evidence of either. What is intelligence? It is not a thing, a substance, an existence in itself, but simply a property of matter, manifesting itself through organizations. We have no knowledge of, nor can we conceive of, intelligence apart from organized matter; and we find that from the smallest and simplest insect, through all the links and gradations in Nature’s great chain, up to Man–just in accordance with the organism, the amount, and the quality of brain, so are the capacities to receive impressions, the power to retain them, and the abilities to manifest and impart them to others; namely, to have its peculiar nature cultivated and developed, so as to bear mental fruits, just as the cultivated earth bears vegetation–physical fruits. Not being able to recognize an independent intelligence, I can perceive no design or designer except in the works of man.

But, says Paley, does the watch not prove a watchmaker–a design, and therefore a designer? How much more does the Universe?Yes; the watch shows design, and the watchmaker did not leave us in the dark on the subject, but clearly and distinctly stamped his design on the face of the watch. Is it as clearly stamped on the Universe? Where is the design, in the oak to grow to its majestic height? In the formation of the wing of the bird, to enable it to fly, in accordance with the promptings of its nature? or in the sportsman to shoot it down while flying? In the butterfly to dance in the sunshine? or its being crushed in the tiny fingers of a child? Design in man’s capacity for the acquisition of knowledge, or in his groping in ignorance? In the necessity to obey the laws of health, or in the violation of them, which produces disease? In the desire to be happy, or in the causes that prevent it, and make him live in toil, misery, and suffering?

The watchmaker not only stamped his design on the face of the watch, but he teaches how to wind it up when it runs down; how to repair the machinery when it is out of order; and how to put a new spring in when the old one is broken, and leave the watch as good as ever. Does the great Watchmaker, as he is called, show the same intelligence and power in keeping, or teaching others to keep, this complicated mechanism–Man–always in good order? and when the life-spring is broken replace it with another, and leave him just the same? If an Infinite Intelligence designed man to possess knowledge, he could not be ignorant; to be healthy, he could not be diseased; to be virtuous, he could not be vicious; to be wise, he could not act so foolish as to trouble himself about the Gods, and neglect his own best interests.

But, says the believer, here is a wonderful adaptation of means to ends; the eye to see, the ear to hear, &c. Yes, this is very wonderful; but not one more jot so, than if the eye were made to hear, and the ear to see. The supporters of Design use sometimes very strange arguments. A friend of mine, a very intelligent man, with quite a scientific taste, endeavored once to convince me of a Providential design, from the fact that a fish, which has always lived in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, was entirely blind. Here, said he, is strong evidence; in that dark cave, where nothing was to be seen, the fish need no eyes, and therefore has none. He forget the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed, and no Providence, or Gods, could enable the fish to see. That fish story reminds me of the Methodist preacher who proved the wisdom and benevolence of Providence in always placing the rivers near large cities, and death at the end of life; for Oh! my dear hearers, said he, what could have become of us had he placed it at the beginning?

Everything is wonderful, and wonderful just in proportion as we are ignorant; that that proves no “design” or “designer”. But did things come by chance? It exists only in the perverted mind of the believer, who, while insisting that God was the cause of everything, leaves Him without any cause. The Atheist believes as little in the one as in the other. He knows that no effect could exist without an adequate cause, and that everything in the Universe is governed by laws.

The Universe is one vast chemical laboratory, in constant operation, by her internal forces. The laws or principles of attraction, cohesion, and repulsion, produce in never-ending succession the phenomena of composition, decomposition, and recomposition. The how, we are too ignorant to understand, to modest to presume, and too honest to profess. Had man been a patient and impartial inquirer, and not with childish presumption attributed everything he could not understand, to supernatural causes, given names to hide his ignorance, but observed the operations of Nature, he would undoubtedly have know more, been wiser, and happier.

As it is, Superstition has ever been the greatest impediment to the acquisition of knowledge. Every progressive step of man clashed against the two-edged sword of Religion, to whose narrow restrictions he had but too often to succumb, or march onward at the expense of interest, reputation, and even life itself.

But, we are told, that Religion is natural; the belief in a God universal. Were it natural, then it would indeed be universal, but it is not. We have ample evidence to the contrary. According to Dr. Livingstone, there are whole tribes or nations, civilized, moral, and virtuous; yes, so honest that they expose their goods for sale without guard or value set upon them, trusting to the honesty of the purchaser to pay its proper price.

Yet these people have not the remotest idea of a God, and he found it impossible to impart it to them. And in all the ages of the world, some of the most civilized, the wisest, and the best, were entire unbelievers; only they dared not openly avow it, except at the risk of their lives. Proscription, the torture and the stake, were found most efficient means to seal the lips of heretics; and though the march of progress has broken the infernal machines, and extinguished the fires of the Inquisition, the proscription, and the more refined but not less cruel and bitter persecutions of an intolerant and bigoted public opinion, in Protestant countries, as well as in Catholic, on account of belief, are quite enough to prevent men from honestly avowing their true sentiments upon the subject. Hence there are few possessed of the moral courage of a Humboldt.

If the belief in a god were natural, there would be no need to teach it. Children would possess it as well as adults, the layman as the priest, the heathen as much as the missionary. We don;t have to teach the general elements of human nature;–the five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. They are universal; so would religion be were it natural, but it is not. On the contrary, it is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so. Even as it is, they are great sceptics, until made sensible of the potent weapon by which religion has ever been propagated, namely, fear–fear of the lash of public opinion here, and a jealous, vindictive God hereafter. No; there is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal.

But the people have been made to believe that were it not for religion, the world would be destroyed–man would become a monster, chaos and confusion would reign supreme. These erroneous notions conceived in ignorance, propagated by superstition, and kept alive by an interested and corrupt priesthood who fatten on the credulity of the public, are very difficult to be eradicated.

But sweep all the belief on the supernatural from the face of the earth, and the world would remain just the same. The seasons would follow each other in their regular succession; the stars would shine in the firmament; the sun would shed his benign and vivifying influence of light and heat upon us; the clouds would discharge their burden in gentle and refreshing showers; and cultivated fields would bring forth vegetation; summer would ripen the golden grain, ready for harvest; the trees would bear fruits; the birds would sing in accordance with their happy instinct, and all Nature would smile as joyously around us as ever. Nor would man degenerate. Oh! no. His nature, too would remain the same. He would have to be obedient to the physical, mental, and moral laws of his being, or to suffer the natural penalty for their violation; observe the mandates of society, or receive the punishment. His affections would be just as warm, the love of self-preservation as strong, the desire for happiness and fear of pain as great. He would love freedom, justice, and truth, and hate oppression, fraud, and falsehood, as much as ever.

Sweep all belief in the supernatural from the globe, and you would chase away the whole fraternity of spectres, ghosts, and hobgoblins, which have so befogged and bewildered the human mind, that hardly a clear ray of the light of Reason can penetrate it. You would cleanse and purify the heart of the noxious, poisonous weed of superstition, with its bitter, deadly fruits–hypocrisy, bigotry, and intolerance, and fill it with charity and forbearance towards erring humanity. You would give man courage to sustain him in trials and misfortune, sweeten his temper, give him a new zest for the duties, the virtues, and the pleasures of life.

Morality does not depend on the belief in any religion. History gives ample evidence that the more belief the less virtue and goodness. Nor need we go back to ancient times to see the crimes and atrocities perpetrated under its sanction. Look at the present crisis–at the South with 4,000,000 of human beings in slavery, bought and sold like brute chattels under the sanction of religion and of God, which the Reverends Van Dykes and Raphalls of the North fully endorse, and the South complains that the reforms in the North are owing to Infidelity. Morality depends on accurate knowledge of the nature of man, of the laws that govern his being, the principles of right, of justice, and of humanity, and the conditions requisite to make him healthy, rational, virtuous, and happy.

The belief in a God has failed to produce this desirable end. On the contrary, while it could not make man better, it has made him worse; for in preferring blind faith in things unseen and unknown to virtue and morality, in directing his attention from the known to the unknown, from the real tot he imaginary, from the certain here to a fancied hereafter, from the fear of himself, of the natural result of vice and crime, to some whimsical despot, it perverted his judgment, degraded him in his own estimation, corrupted his feelings, destroyed his sense of right, of justice, and of truth, and made him a moral coward and a hypocrite. The lash of a hereafter is no guide for us here. Distant fear cannot control present passion. It is much easier to confess your sins in the dark, than to acknowledge them in the light; to make it up with a God you don’t see, than with a man whom you do. Besides, religion has always left a back door open for sinners to creep out of at the eleventh hour. But teach man to do right, to love justice, to revere truth, to be virtuous, not because a God would reward or punish him hereafter, but because it is right; and as every act brings its own reward or its own punishment, it would best promote his interest by promoting the welfare of society. Let him feel the great truth that our highest happiness consists in making all around us happy, and it would be an infinitely truer and safer guide for man to a life of usefulness, virtue, and morality, than all the beliefs in all the Gods ever imagined.

The more refined and transcendental religionists have often said to me, if you do away with religion, you would destroy the most beautiful element of human nature–the feeling of devotion and reverence, ideality, and sublimity. This, too, is an error. These sentiments would be cultivated just the same, only we would transfer the devotion from the unknown to the known; from the Gods who, if they existed, would not need it, to man who does. Instead of reverencing an imaginary existence, man would learn to revere justice and truth. Ideality and sublimity would refine his feelings, and enable him to admire and enjoy the ever-changing beauties of Nature; the various and almost unlimited powers and capacities of the human mind; the exquisite and indescribable charms of a well-cultivated, highly refined, virtuous, noble man.

But not only have the priests tried to make the very term Atheism odious, as if it would destroy all of good and beautiful in Nature, but some of the reformers, not having the moral courage to avow their own sentiments, wishing to be popular, fearing lest their reforms would be considered Infidel, (as all reforms assuredly are,) shield themselves from the stigma, by joining in the tirade against Atheism, and associate it with everything that is vile, with the crime of slavery, the corruptions of the Church, and all the vices imaginable. This is false, and they know it. Atheism protests against this injustice. No one had a right to give the term a false, a forced interpretation, to suit his own purposes (this applies also to some of the Infidels who stretch and force the term Atheist out of its legitimate significance). As well we might use the terms Episcopalian, Unitarian, Universalist, to signify vice and corruption, as the term Atheist, which means simply a disbelief in a God, because finding no demonstration of his existence, man’s reason will not allow him to believe, nor his conviction to play the hypocrite, and profess what he does not believe. Give it its true significance, and he will abide the consequences; but don’t fasten upon it the vices belonging to yourselves. Hypocrisy is the mother of a large family!

In conclusion, the Atheist says to the honest conscientious believer, Though I cannot believe in your God which you have failed to demonstrate, I believe in man; if I have no faith in your religion, I have faith, unbounded, unshaken faith in the principles of right, of justice, and humanity. Whatever good you are willing to do for the sake of your God, I am full as willing to do for the sake of man. But the monstrous crimes the believer perpetrated in persecuting and exterminating his fellowman on account of differences of belief, the Atheist, knowing that belief is not voluntary, but depends on evidence, and therefore there can be no merit in the belief of any religions, nor demerit in a disbelief in all of them, could never be guilty of. Whatever good you would do without fear of punishment, the Atheist would do simply because it is good; and being so, he would receive the far surer and more certain reward, springing from well-doing, which would constitute his pleasure, and promote his happiness.

‘A Defense of Atheism’ by Ernestine Rose. Reproduced with permission from Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters, The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor. Madison, Wisconsin 1997.
https://ffrf.org/shop/women-without-superstition-no-gods-no-masters

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* Note: In the paragraph regarding the story of Noah’s flood, Ernestine Rose could be interpreted as having a negative view of human nature, or she could be satirizing religious views of human nature as intrinsically evil and in need of redemption from some power outside of itself. From her other writings, it appears to be the latter; in her writings overall, she reveals her more positive view of human nature. For example, consider this quote: “I have endeavored to the best of my powers and ability to serve the cause and progress of humanity, to advocate what seemed to be the truth; to defend human nature from the libel cast upon it by superstition…” (Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008, p. 208)