Today in Feminist History: Margaret Sanger Speaks Out

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 29, 1917: More reassurance that the movement to legalize birth control has been growing rapidly came tonight as three thousand people cheered speeches at Carnegie Hall demanding repeal or overturning of Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code and all similar statutes.

This law makes it a criminal offense for anyone to sell or give away contraceptives—or even information about birth control. The audience also expressed its strong support for Ethel Byrne, who is being force-fed after engaging in a four-and-a-half day hunger strike in the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island. She is serving a 30-day sentence for the “crime” of distributing birth control information at the nation’s first birth control clinic, which was opened, raided, and forcibly shut down during its 10-day run in October. 

One of the most dynamic speakers tonight was Margaret Sanger. She was able to attend tonight’s meeting despite having been on trial today on the same charges as her sister, Ethel Byrne. The three-judge panel has not rendered a verdict yet, and therefore has not imposed the expected prison sentence.

Sanger’s trial opened with testimony from the female police officer who arrested her on October 26th, 10 days after she, Byrne and Fania Mindell opened their clinic. Officer Margaret Whitehurst had been to the clinic before, in an undercover role, to gather evidence. Whitehurst said that when she entered the clinic on the 26th, she observed Sanger sitting in a back room with an open box of Aseptikon contraceptive suppositories on the table, and she was talking to three women on the other side of the table. After putting down the Aseptikon, Sanger picked up two rubber birth control devices, one for men and one for women, and continued talking.

Officer Whitehurst said that at this point, she and two male officers placed Sanger under arrest, and after interrogating the three other women, took Sanger to the station house in a patrol wagon. After more witness testimony and lengthy arguments from Assistant District Attorney Edward Cooper and defense lawyer Jonah Goldstein, Presiding Judge Freschi said: “This is a very close case. The court will reserve decision and ask both sides to submit briefs.”

At the Carnegie Hall rally earlier this evening, Sanger left no doubt about her goal of repealing Section 1142 of the New York State law and the Federal Comstock Act, both of which classify birth control devices and information on their use as illegal, obscene items.

“I come to you tonight from a crowded courtroom, from a vortex of persecution,” she declared. “I come not from the stake at Salem, where women were burned for blasphemy, but from the shadow of Blackwell’s Island, where women are tortured for ‘obscenity …’ My purpose in life is to arouse sentiment for the repeal of the law, State and Federal. It is we women who have paid for the folly of this law, and it is up to us to repeal it.”

The audience members enthusiastically passed a number of resolutions by acclimation. They condemned the denial of a jury trial to Sanger and the refusal of the judge to stay Byrne’s sentence while her conviction is being appealed. They also expressed sympathy for Byrne, and protested her being denied visitors by Commissioner of Correction Lewis. Finally, they pledged to “secure such change to State and Federal laws as shall put birth control knowledge within the reach of all who need it” and “unwavering moral and financial support” to Margaret Sanger “in her campaign to establish the principle of voluntary motherhood in this country.”

Carnegie Hall

The evening was a great success, with the proceeds from the 25-cent and 75-cent seats, as well as the $10 boxes going to help the campaign to decriminalize birth control. To the surprise of many, sales of the first issue of the Birth Control Review, which contains articles from such noted individuals as H.G. Wells and Havelock Ellis, advocating legalization of birth control, were not blocked by the police, and numerous copies were sold at 15 cents each.

But while spirits were high at Carnegie Hall, Ethel Byrne is still unjustly imprisoned in the grim surroundings of the Workhouse. She continues to refuse to take food voluntarily, and is still being force-fed, though now only twice a day instead of three times.

One incident in Byrne’s continuing ordeal exemplifies her character. When physicians offered her the opportunity to take two pints of nourishment from a glass instead of a rubber tube inserted down her throat and into her esophagus, and assured her that “nobody would know,” she refused, saying: “Nobody else might know about it, but I would, and I would not be following out the course I have laid down.” Even Burdette Lewis, the Commissioner of Correction, had to admit that “… she appears to be a very conscientious woman.” 

This is becoming a particularly exciting time to be fighting for women’s rights. Less than three weeks ago, Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage pickets took the unprecedented step of standing along the White House fence each day with huge banners protesting President Wilson’s failure to endorse or work for passage of the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment by Congress. Now the issue of birth control has in a remarkably short time gone from a taboo topic to something which is now openly discussed in public forums, and the trials of birth control advocates and gatherings in support of them are reported upon in even the most prestigious newspapers. 

Though the new attention being paid to the outrageous State and Federal laws banning birth control has not yet resulted in any meaningful reforms, this first crucial step of spotlighting the problem has been accomplished. Once those who have the power to change the law are confronted with a public insistently asking the question of why people should be denied knowledge of, and access to, the means of planning their families, there can be no satisfactory reason given for withholding such vital necessities, and reform will come about.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.