Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Since the earliest days of her birth control activism, Margaret Sanger has been often accused of being a racist, among other things. To many of her critics, her birth control advocacy must be understood as a nefarious plot to undermine human morals and decency, and any means of twisting her message to convey this are fair game. As I discuss in an earlier piece, a favored method of attack, which persists to this day, is to present a sentence or phrase of Sanger’s out of context to ‘prove’ her ‘true’ beliefs about people of other races. Her detractors even claim that she was on a genocidal mission to reduce or even exterminate black people, Jews, and other immigrant groups by destroying future generations. Never mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her work on behalf of his beleaguered people. Never mind that she worked closely with civil rights leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois. Never mind that she opened clinics to serve black and other minority women because so many existing clinics refused to serve anyone but whites. Never mind that she wrote in 1944:

‘We must protect tomorrow’s Chinese baby and Hindu baby, English and Russian baby, Puerto Rican, Negro and white American babies who will stand side by side… to bring promise of a better future’.

Eugenics journal, photo 2017 by Amy CoolsNow, as a eugenicist, Sanger did make herself an easy target for her accusers despite her decades of work with underserved and marginalized people, first as a nurse in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City and then as a birth control pioneer. Eugenics, enthusiastically adopted by many who considered themselves scientific, progressive, and enlightened in the first half of the 20th century, is now recognized as pseudoscience, (mis)applying the evolutionary process of (unguided) natural selection to utopian social engineering theories. Eugenicists believed that the ills of humanity could be cured preemptively by breeding them out of existence while breeding in favor of ‘desirable’ traits. Despite the rosy vision of transforming humanity into the most vigorous, hyper-intelligent, and disease free race the world had ever seen, eugenics principles actually produced very ugly results when instituted as social policy. Here in the United States, government programs incarcerated mentally ill, disabled, and socially maladjusted people and forcibly sterilized them. Then the world’s most infamous eugenicists, the Nazis, took those principles to their most extreme logical conclusion, borrowing a page from the United States’ eugenics book in instituting the most horrific, murderous selective-breeding process the world has ever seen, inflicting untold and untellable quantities of human suffering and bloodshed.

Little wonder, then, that eugenics has a very bad name. Though the desire to reduce human suffering caused so many to embrace it, eugenics was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s great theory. Its proponents understood natural selection just well enough to appreciate its power for change but missed the greater point: the wide variety of human traits and capabilities is itself a long-evolved, complexly-balanced, and very very successful web of adaptations developed and attuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Human beings, necessarily self-centered and short-sighted, are very inept judges of trait selection in comparison with Nature itself.

Buck v Bell Virginia Historical Marker Q 28, Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of VirginiaSanger, like many other eugenicists, was inconsistent in her attitudes about who should have children, when, and who should decide. Generally, she advocated for the right to self-determination in reproductive matters, calling for mass education and for cheap, reliable, widely available methods of birth control. In many instances, however, she advocated coercive sterilization for violent criminals and for those who she believed could not make this important decision for themselves, such as the mentally ill and cognitively disabled. She backed away from the latter, though, as the Nazis rose to power and instituted coercive, violent eugenics practices on a grand scale. Sanger was an early, ardent, and very vocal opponent of Nazism, and its policies alerted her to the problems of her short-sighted views on forced sterilization for anyone. As the logical-extreme beliefs of Nazism revealed, eugenics had its limits, and even the most non-coercive, most benign brands of eugenics were discarded by most of its former proponents over time.

But there are two other things Sanger was very consistent about.

One was her dismay at the sheer quantity of human suffering in the world and her desire to reduce it if she could. I find that oft-cited Sanger quotes, particularly from her book Woman and the New Race, refer to her observation that poor immigrants were especially likely to have more children than they could afford, and her claim that they were more likely therefore to produce ‘unfit’ children. ‘Unfit’, as Sanger described them, are those who are malnourished, diseased, undereducated, and in countless other ways ill-equipped to lead happy, flourishing lives. Yet, as is often the case with politically- and ideologically-motivated attacks, Sanger’s words are presented out of the context in which she wrote them, inspired by the plight of the immigrants she had in mind, mostly the Eastern Europeans she worked with in New York City’s Lower East Side. Before her time as a birth control activist, Sanger worked for them as a visiting nurse. As a Socialist activist and as a health care provider, she was driven by her special concern for the working poor that she observed were abused, often taken advantage of, in their desperation, by rapacious employers who offered them meager wages and terrible working conditions in exchange for backbreaking hours of miserable labor. These families were broken down from disease, hard labor, malnutrition, and, for the women, numerous pregnancies that often ended disastrously from these very health-destroying circumstances. One of Sanger’s most infamous quotes from Woman and the New Race, ‘The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it’, so often used to ‘prove’ that Sanger was both racist and genocidal, is understood as a sarcastically-despairing remark when presented within the chapter in which it appears. That chapter describes the horror and suffering that preceded the all-too-frequent deaths of the immigrant poor, especially children and their mothers, and laments society’s lack of concern in preventing all this suffering and death. Even the next sentence alone will do: ‘The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members.’

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

Nurse’s uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC. Sanger would likely have worn an updated version of this uniform when she worked there in 1911

Second, Sanger believed all human beings should be given the same care and opportunities as everyone else. That’s why she opened her first birth control clinic in the racially diverse Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1916, opened clinics to serve black and Latina women in Columbus Hill and Harlem neighborhoods in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and expanded her mission to help black communities in the American South in 1939. While there might be more than a shade of paternalism (maternalism?) in these efforts, her own writings, as well as the support of black civil rights leaders, demonstrate that her motives were, at least on the whole, motivated by her concern that justice be done for these underserved people.

As Sanger wrote to her friend Albert Lasker in 1939:

‘You are quite right in assuming that poor white people down South are not much better off than the Negroes, but there has been at least a start in several states to help the poor whites and as there is not sufficient time for a nurse, nor the material left over, for the Negroes, they are just left out of the service in most of the states. That is why I was anxious to have a special fund directed for the Negroes…’

Returning to Woman and the New Race, Sanger gave another reason why she was driven to improve lives in the disadvantaged communities she worked with and advocated for:

‘They would not be here if they did not bear within them the hardihood of pioneers, a courage of no mean order… And they have something else. The cell plasms of these peoples are freighted with the potentialities of the best in the Old World civilization. They come from lands rich in the traditions of courage, of art, music, letters, science, and philosophy… The immigrant brings the possibilities of all these things to our shores, but where is the opportunity to reproduce in the New World the cultures of the old? What opportunities have we given to these peoples to enrich our civilization? We have greeted them as “a lot of ignorant foreigners,” we have shouted at, bustled, and kicked them… What hope is there for racial progress in this human material, treated more carelessly and brutally than the cheapest factory product?’

In other words, America’s immigrants carry greatness in their very genetics, which our factories and farms have too often exploited, quashed, and wasted over the centuries by treating them as little more than wealth-generating fodder before kicking them to the curb or the ditch.

And in her article ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?’ Sanger wrote:

‘The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair.’

Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois shared this view with Sanger: that if oppressed people were to overcome the social forces arrayed against them, they needed to forge their way from a position of strength: of health, of education, of increased wealth, and birth control was one of the ways to get there. And Sanger and DuBois both believed that they all could get there because they were just as capable of greatness as anyone else, given the same chances.

This doesn’t sound like racism to me.

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Sources and inspiration:

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

Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project‘ The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001)

Ferebee, Dorothy Boulding, d. 1980, “Speech by Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, M.D. entitled “Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race,” January 29th, 1942,” Smith Libraries Exhibits

Margaret Sanger and the African American Community‘, compiled by Anna Holley, SisterSong Intern, July 2010, TrustBlackWomen.org

Marlin, George. ‘Margaret Sanger: “Abortion is Dangerous and Vicious”‘ Dec 14, 2011, The Catholic Thing blog

A Negro Number, June 1932 edition of Birth Control Review, by various authors.

Reed, Miriam. ‘Margaret Sanger: Correcting the False Narratives of Racism‘, June 30, 2016. Church and State

Sanger, Margaret, 1879-1966, “Letter from Margaret Sanger to Albert Lasker, November 12, 1939,” Smith Libraries Exhibits, Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?‘ Source: Negro Digest, August 1946, pp.3-8, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Population – Everybody’s Business,’ Published Article. Source: Tomorrow, 1944, pp. 16-18, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:0480, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

The Truth About Margaret Sanger‘, Blackgenocide.org

On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

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

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

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

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

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

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

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

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn my recent journey following the life of Frederick Douglass, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged, and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching as a whole.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer for black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape, it was inflicted for petty crimes, supposed insubordination or impertinence, drunkenness, competition, and so on. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they consisted a form of social control, a replacement for the terrorism of the slave system.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and wrote a letter praising Southern Horrors as an introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I visited a second site associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

Please follow the links below to learn more about Ida B. Wells. If I manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success.

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:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘, episode 25 of the History Chicks podcast by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

McBride, Jennifer. ‘Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice‘. From Webster University’s website.

McNally, Deborah. ‘Barnett, Ferdinand Lee (1858-1936)‘, in BlackPast.org

Steptoe, Tyina. ‘Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931)’, in BlackPast.org

Wells, Ida. B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Wells, Ida. B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892, via Project Gutenberg

Wikipedia contributors. ‘Ida B. Wells‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wintz, Paul Finkelman, Cary D. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y. 2004.