Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew: The Extraordinary Ernestine Rose, Human Rights Activist

5e5b1-ernestinerose2b1In honor of Ernestine Louise Rose on the anniversary of her birth, January 13th, 1810 

Why such a title, you might ask? Feminist. Abolitionist. Immigrant. Socialist. Atheist. Jew. A series of epithets in Rose’s day, they’re still too often used as such. Why be so provocative?

In her life as an activist and orator, Ernestine Rose wasn’t deliberately provocative in any shock-factor sort of way. She wore modest black, gray, and brown dresses, never the bloomers (puffy pants worn under short skirts) that the more ‘radical’ feminists adopted; she never railed against individual capitalists or slaveholders as evil oppressors; she was openly happy in her traditional-style marriage; and while she was not hesitant to respond abruptly, wittily, even sarcastically to insults and bad arguments, she was not given to preemptive personal attacks or calls for violence. Yet in a time when women stayed at home when not accompanied in public by chaperones, she traveled often and often alone; when women were expected to be demure and silent in public, she was a witty, incisive, passionate, and famous public speaker; when most women accepted their assigned roles, she argued and fought for their rights; when slavery was still widely considered acceptable or at a necessary evil, she worked for their emancipation; when many or even most of her fellow feminists did not consider the races and classes equal, she argued that all people should have the same political and social rights; when hierarchical class systems were considered a law of nature, she argued for economic equality; when most people were religious, she was an unapologetic atheist; in an insular and xenophobic Protestant Christian country, she was a cosmopolitan foreigner of Jewish ancestry.

In short, Ernestine was just about as much of an outsider as one could be. Save being black, disabled, gay, or a single woman, she could hardly have belonged simultaneously to more of the marginalized groups of her day, yet even these found in her a champion as well. Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew can goad us into considering anew why and how these labels are simultaneously uncomfortable reminders of the persistence of prejudice, and remind us that they’re really badges of honor for passionate believers in universal human freedom.

3a25c-ernestine2broseIn spite of many obstacles, Ernestine Rose was a renowned public speaker and debater in her own time, and especially acclaimed for her role among the preeminent leaders of the feminist movement. The abolitionist, socialist, pro-immigrant, Jewish, freethinker, and Paineite (devotees to the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, who had become a target of hatred and slander due to his freethought views) communities also benefited from her staunch and tireless work on their behalf. She was widely praised as an orator, her style described as ‘powerful’, ‘eloquent’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dignified’, and often sold out even the largest halls. When travel plans or one of her many bouts of serious illness kept her from speaking at conventions and other public events, organizers would worry about the possibility of success without her participation. Yet now she is virtually forgotten, more so than just about any other feminist or abolitionist of the time with her level of fame. How did this come to be?

It was, for Rose, a very similar situation as it was for her hero Thomas Paine, hailed as a father of the American Revolution who wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Both of these great advocates of universal human rights had ideas that were simply too innovative, too outlandish, too challenging for widespread and sustained acceptance. Both inspired great admiration and achieved widespread fame for their abilities and achievements during their lifetime, but after the initial thrill of their progressive ideals wore off, conservative fearmongering that Rose’s and Paine’s ideas would undermine civilized society won the day. Successive generations would come to pick out what they liked from their work and enjoy the benefits, while vilifying Rose and Paine as radicals, corrupters of public morality, and would-be destroyers of civilization.

It’s only within the last fifty years or so that Paine’s reputation (Theodore Roosevelt still referred to him as a ‘filthy little atheist’) has been fully rehabilitated, his contributions widely celebrated. For Ernestine Rose, unjustly in my view, this hasn’t happened. Paine has the advantage of having been a white man, a friend of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a believer in free markets, and a deist. For Rose, a woman, a Jew, an atheist, and a socialist, the remnants of bigotry that she so eloquently called on us to overcome still cast a shadow over public memory, as the light of history belatedly re-illuminates the life and work of this extraordinary woman.

To learn more about the great Ernestine Rose, please check out:

About Ernestine Rose ~ by the Ernestine Rose Society at Brandeis University

Ernestine Louise Rose (1810-1892) ~ by the American Jewish Historical Society via the Jewish Virtual Library

Ernestine Rose, 1810-1892 ~ by Janet Freedman for the Jewish Women’s Archive

Ernestine Rose: American Social Reformer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Forgotten Feminisms: Ernestine Rose, Free Radical ~ by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily

Interview with Bonnie Anderson, Author of The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer ~ by the New Books Network

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

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 1

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

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Planned Parenthood, Oct. 1916

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

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

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded. Like the women Sanger made it her mission to help, I needed health care that I could not yet afford when I was still in my late teens and early twenties. I found it at Planned Parenthood. I’m grateful to the warm and caring providers there, and I simply did not find what many of the organization’s opponents describe: a ruthlessly pro-abortion, anti-life organization. Instead, I met women who gave me wise and medically-correct advice on all aspects of women’s health, including ways to prevent the need for abortion. That’s entirely in keeping with Sanger’s mission. She was, in fact, anti-abortion, with certain qualifications.

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of Bandbox Theater, 2016 Amy Cools

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of the Bandbox Theatre

Adolph Phillip's Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

Adolph Phillip’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

I plan to head all the way to White Plains today, but as I’m preparing to buy the ticket at Grand Central Station, I pause to reconsider my day’s plans. In the end, I decide to put the trip on hold: it wouldn’t put my funds and time to best use since I was unable to discover the White Plains site location I sought at the New York Public Library yesterday. I’ll see if I’m more successful when I do more research tonight and perhaps go tomorrow. Instead, I decide to cover the northernmost Manhattan sites on my list after I hit up a few near the southwest end of Central Park that I didn’t get to yesterday.

I walk north towards Central Park and then east, and stop first at 205 E. 57th St near 3rd Ave where the Bandbox Theatre used to stand. Originally named Adolf Philipp’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theatre, the theater that became the Bandbox was built in 1912, closed in 1926, and demolished in 1969. Now there’s a Design Within Reach store and a high rise apartment building here.

On Feb 20th, 1916, Sanger and her supporters held a victory celebration at the Bandbox Theatre. The court had just dismissed the obscenity charges against her for publishing The Woman Rebel that had caused her to flee to Europe the year beforeWhile she was away, many papers had begun to discuss birth control and sex a little more openly, and as you may remember, her daughter had just died suddenly the previous November, soon after Sanger’s return from Europe. Public opinion was swinging to Sanger’s side, and the court no longer had the appetite to pursue a case against her. What had once seemed a public defense against immorality would more likely be perceived as an attack on free speech and emerging modern, scientific attitudes about human sexuality. Even without the court case, however, the arrest and indictments proved an enormous boost to Sanger’s cause. She was portrayed, by herself as well as others, as a sort of free speech and humanitarian martyr, a persecuted champion of the cause of women, especially the poorest and most downtrodden.

14 E 60th Street, with the green awning, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

14 E. 60th Street, Manhattan, New York City

Then I head northwest to 14 E. 60th St between 5th and Madison Aves. It’s a 13-floor building erected in 1903. Two restaurants, Rotisserie Georgette and Avra Madison Estiatorio, occupy the ground floor, and apartments above. Sanger had been staying at the Ambassador Hotel but moved to one of the apartments at this address on December 17, 1936. Her move here followed on the heels of the birth control movement’s victory in the Dec 7th decision in the One Package case, and not long before Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met at the Roosevelt Hotel which, as you may remember, I visited on my first day following Sanger here in New York City.

1935 and 1936 were busy years for Sanger. In addition to the One Package trial, she toured India, speaking to women’s groups and conferences and debating Gandhi there in December of 1935. She continued on to Hong King, then Japan. In Japan, she visited Tokyo’s fledgling birth control clinic founded by her Japanese counterpart Shidzue Ishimoto, and reviewed birth control methods that had been developed in that country since her 1922 visit. While the birth control movement was also beleaguered in that country by law and custom, many Japanese health care professionals were working on new and effective methods of birth control in that island nation where population growth was a constant and pressing concern. In 1932, she had met a Japanese physician at a birth control conference who had developed a new type of diaphragm. He had sent her that package which was intercepted in customs and led to the One Package case finally litigated three years later. She planned to continue her travels in China and Malaysia but had to cut her trip short due to recurring gallbladder trouble, then a broken arm. She stopped for a short visit in Hawaii, then returned to mainland U.S. to rest and recuperate.

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City

I head west towards Central Park then veer south towards its southeast corner to 768 Fifth Ave at 59th St. Three occasions bring me here to the grand Plaza Hotel.

On March 15th, 1917, the National Birth Control League held a luncheon for her here in celebration of her release from Queens County Penitentiary. She had been imprisoned there for 30 days, convicted of violating anti-obscenity laws while operating her birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Then from November 11th – 13th, 1921, the First American Birth Control Conference, organized by Sanger, was held here. The conference was widely attended by medical professionals, social scientists, humanitarians, authors, suffragists, socialists, and socialites. Its list of sponsors was likewise distinguished, including famed Parliamentarian and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Sanger gave the opening address, in which she called on the medical profession to join social workers and birth control activists in addressing the sexual dimensions of problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation. As she often pointed out, there were plenty of people working hard to alleviate poverty and disease, but there were very few paying attention to their primary root causes: the human need for love and sex. This was the conference which launched the future Planned Parenthood and concluded with the Town Hall event which turned into a police raid. Between the conference and the publicity following the raid, Sanger was firmly placed as the United States’, and indeed the world’s, preeminent birth control activist and spokesperson.

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC

Several years later, on February 26th, 1929, Sanger presided over a dinner promoting the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. In her opening speech, Sanger outlined the history of her own birth control activism and the struggles and legal battles of the birth control movement in the United States from 1915 until that day. She also credited John Stuart Mill and Francis Place as founders of the modern birth control movement, about a century before her own activism began. Like Sanger, Mill was moved to support birth control by personal horror at the worst effects of children conceived in poverty: at age 17, he came across the corpse of a strangled infant discarded in a park. And like Sanger, Mill believed that when the poor had more children to help make money for the family, wages were inevitably driven down by the glut of laborers seeking employment, leading to a downward spiral of impoverishment and immiseration. So in 1823, young Mill and a friend distributed birth control pamphlets written by his father’s friend and social reformer Francis Place, and were arrested and imprisoned for their trouble.

The Park Lane Hotel and adjoining buildings, Manhattan, New York City, 2016 Amy Cools

The Park Lane Hotel (with the blue flags) and adjoining buildings

I walk a little ways west along the southern end of Central Park to 36 Central Park South, a.k.a. 59th St. Here at the Park Lane Hotel, Sanger delivered her speech ‘My Way to Peace’ to the New History Society on January 17, 1932. In my view, it’s a nasty speech. While Sanger generally insisted that birth control be entirely voluntary, the result of education and the right of women to have control over their own bodies, in this speech she called for coercive sterilization of ‘the unfit’. As Nazism was developed and implemented in the years to come, Sanger opposed it staunchly, sharply criticizing its racial doctrines and opposing its coercive practices. Though she justified it on the grounds of improving public health and decreasing mortality rates, to my mind she was never able to sufficiently explain how her earlier call in ‘My Way to Peace’ for coercive sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, people with certain diseases, and convicted criminals was morally superior to Hitler’s fascist system when it came to these unfortunate and marginalized groups.

New York Tribune Fri Nov 18 1921, Park Theater Cox Speech

New York Tribune, Fri Nov 18 1921, Announcement of Park Theater Margaret Sanger and Harold Cox appearance

One place I miss on this trip is the former site of the nearby Park Theater, near the southwest corner of Central Park, where Harold Cox delivered the Sanger speech he was prevented from making at the Town Hall five days earlier. A New York Tribune announcement describes the location as ‘Columbus Circle near 59th and B’way’ (Broadway). As I consult the 1923 Bromley atlas I’ve been consulting for much of this series, I don’t find the Park Theater. Later, I search through an earlier edition of the Bromley Atlas and this time, I’m in luck. The Park Theater, renamed the Cosmopolitan Theater by 1923, was on 58th St, the second address to the west of Eighth Ave, its northeast corner at Columbus Circle at the southwest edge of Central Park. It stood where the Time Warner Center now faces onto 58th St, about where Google Maps identifies 322 W. 58th St.

In 1944, Sanger reminisced:

‘…Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic… The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature”… Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, Columbus Circle, 59th St, NY, courtesy of MCNY

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, at Columbus Circle, photo courtesy of MCNY

With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group …with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country. Can one in public office use the power of that office to further his personal religious beliefs?

Mr. Cox and I were met at the steps of the Town Hall that evening by policemen, barred from entering and told, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting. That’s all I know…

We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in…”

I descend into the subway station at Columbus Circle and take the A train north, almost to the top of Manhattan Island. There are many sites on my list from Inglewood all the way back down to the southern end of Central Park, so I decide to visit them from north to south…

To be continued….

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration: 

14 East 60th Street‘, from 42Floors website

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

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

Bandbox Theatre: East 57th Street near Third Avenue, New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Blake, Aaron. ‘The Final Trump-Clinton Debate Transcript, Annotated.’ Oct 19, 2016, The Washington Post: The Fix

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 87 . Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 82 and Plate 87. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

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

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

Gopnik, Adam. ‘Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill‘. Oct 6 2008, The New Yorker

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

Guillin, Vincent. Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill on Sexual Equality. Brill: Boston, 2009.

International Theatre: 5 Columbus Circle (W. 58th & 59th), New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

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

New-York Tribune, two selections from Nov 18, 1921, page 11: ‘Birth Control Appeal Fails to Move Enright‘ and ‘You Are Invited to Hear Margaret Sanger… New York, New York. Via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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. ‘My Way to Peace,’ Jan. 17 1932. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Address for Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau Dinner‘, Feb 26, 1929. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S71:153.

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

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

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

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

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

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

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

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Webster Hall‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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