Today in Feminist History: Americans Demand Information on Birth Control (May 5, 1916)

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.

May 5, 1916: Rose Pastor Stokes caused a sensation in Carnegie Hall earlier this evening by distributing small slips of paper containing birth control information, a clear violation of Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code.

PHOTO: Rose Pastor Strokes

She took this step at a mass meeting called to celebrate Emma Goldman’s release from prison, where she recently served two weeks in the workhouse for the same offense.

Though tonight’s main event was supposed to be Goldman’s speech, it was eclipsed by the pandemonium set off when those in the audience stormed the stage in order to obtain knowledge criminalized by the State of New York, and classified by the Federal Government as “obscenity” under the Comstock Act of 1873. 

During part of her speech, Stokes spoke directly to those whose job is to enforce these Victorian Era laws:

“You, gentlemen, who earn your living by hunting down the victims of a maladjusted society, and you, gentlemen of the club, if you are here to interfere with, or arrest, or provide the authorities with evidence against anyone ignoring this unjust section of the law, I address myself to you. I should be truly sorry to place you under so mean an obligation, for I know your hearts well enough to know that you do not always relish the job your economic insecurity forces you to hold on to. But I cannot do other than again take the opportunity afforded me here of passing out information to wives and mothers in need.”

At the conclusion of the evening’s speeches, many audience members rushed forward and scrambled for the slips that Stokes had promised to distribute. She found herself quickly surrounded and besieged as private security officers tried unsuccessfully to maintain order. A false report then began to spread that Stokes was being arrested. But Max Eastman, in charge of the meeting, stood on one of the few unoverturned chairs and reassured the audience that the clamor on stage was not the result of an arrest, but only because so many people were trying to obtain slips at once, and resentment by a few men and boys that only women were being given the information.

After a substantial number of slips had been distributed, some of the other speakers (Ben Reitman, Arturo Giovanitti, Leonard Abbott and Max Eastman) pushed their way through the crowd and escorted Stokes off stage, enabling her to escape the chaos. After resting for a few minutes, she left the hall, saying: “I expect to be arrested,” though no attempt was made to do so tonight.

This isn’t the first time Stokes has openly defied the law. On April 19th, at a dinner put on by birth control legalization advocates at the Hotel Brevoort, she went among the guests quietly whispering some banned knowledge to a number of them, and giving out small slips of paper with similar information for some of the diners to take home.

The battle to decriminalize contraceptive information and birth control devices will undoubtedly be a lengthy one, but this long-overdue fight has clearly begun in earnest and will only increase in intensity. Victory will require many different approaches, from speaking at various forums to lobbying legislators and challenging unjust laws in court. It will certainly require a good deal of courage on the part of advocates who must sometimes openly break these laws in order to fight them.

Tonight was a welcome reassurance that there are many who are willing to step forward and do whatever is necessary to point out the absurdity and harm of anti-birth-control laws. But though the forces determined to use repressive measures to defend the “values” of reproductive ignorance and sexual shame may at some point no longer have State and Federal laws on their side, they are unlikely to go away, so this could be just the first stage of a permanent battle. Hopefully those who grow up in a future society where effective methods of birth control and accurate, explicit information about human sexuality are legally available will not take these hard-won rights for granted, and will be as zealous in defending them as today’s advocates are in establishing them.


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.