February 7, 2012

The woman who changed women's lives

- The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2012/02/01/2375117/the-woman-who-changed-womens-lives.html#storylink=cpy

TOWSON, MD. - Almost 100 years ago, in the fall of 1916, a courageous visionary opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. After the death of a patient from a botched abortion in 1912, Margaret Sanger had begun preaching her solution: If women had access to birth control, there would be fewer of the dangerous procedures that cost desperate women their lives in a nation that outlawed all abortions.

One of 11 children and trained as a nurse, Sanger was all too familiar with the pleas of women seeking information about controlling their pregnancies. But under the 1873 Comstock Act, Congress had classified all birth-control materials and devices as obscene, pornographic matter. Those involved in its marketing, circulation, and advertisement were subject to five years in jail.

In an act of civil disobedience that ended in her imprisonment, Sanger traveled through Brooklyn promoting her clinic: "Mothers," read the placards written in Italian, Hebrew and English, "Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want more children? If not, why do you have them?" When her clinic on Amboy Street opened, the women came - nearly 500 in the 10 days before the clinic was closed by the police and she was hauled off to jail. So began Margaret Sanger's lifelong crusade to provide women with safe, effective, convenient and cheap contraceptives.

In these early days her strategy was fourfold: In serial steps she would first agitate, next educate, then organize, and finally lobby for her cause. All the while she would search for a more effective contraceptive than the cumbersome spermicidal douches and what this generation called pessaries and we know as diaphragms. After her release from prison, she took her crusade on the road, lecturing and promoting "Family Limitation," the banned pamphlet she had written in 1915 and that more than anything else in print, explicitly informed readers about the various techniques of preventing pregnancy.

"I come," she proclaimed in her speeches, "not from the stake of Salem where women were tried for blasphemy, but from the shadow of Blackwell's Island, where women are tortured for obscenity."

Sanger faced hostile audiences and locked lecture halls, the latter often closed after Catholic priests threatened local authorities. She endured harassment from doctors who dismissed her as an attention-seeking hysteric. As well she suffered a hesitant public, some of whom, like the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, considered talk of birth control vulgar. But Sanger also discovered a vast, previously invisible female audience that hungered for some way to control the timing and frequency of their pregnancies. "No woman is free who does not control her own body," she counseled.

In an environment of declining fertility rates, Sanger's intention was to make birth control a legal, public matter supported by physicians (the latter profession overwhelmingly opposed to birth control until the late 1930s) and scientific research. For Sanger, discussion of sexual anatomy was no more obscene than considerations of the functions of the heart or stomach. She encouraged a new generation's tolerance through her books, two of which sold more than a half-million copies in three years.

Having no choice but to become an educator on matters of sex, she responded to thousands of pathetic entreaties from American women with too many children too closely spaced, with unemployed husbands - some of these women suffering from the ill health that came from constant, exhausting pregnancies.
"Dear Mrs. Birth Control," went one letter to Sanger. "I am 28 years old and have six children. I suffer from tuberculosis. Can you send me some information so that I will not have another baby?"

By the 1920s, propelled by Sanger and the impersonal forces of urbanization and modernization, American public opinion on the matter of birth control was shifting. Fewer Americans disdained information about contraception as pornographic; rather, as Sanger repeated, spacing babies was a public health matter. Not everyone, including some organized churches and synagogues, still accepted the obdurate Catholic position that artificial methods of birth control were sinful and that children trooped down from heaven at the will of God.
In 1921, Sanger, with the dissemination of specific information still against the law, set about the organizational phase of her campaign. She established the American Birth Control League, the national arm of her growing social movement and the home of the influential, Sanger-edited Journal of Contraception. By 1930, in a measure of her success, Margaret Sanger was
included in a list of the most influential living Americans.

Relief from the Comstock law finally came in a case orchestrated by Sanger who had encouraged a Japanese physician to send a package of contraceptive supplies to her clinic. The supplies were promptly confiscated by U.S. Customs under the prohibitions of the Comstock Act, and the doctor in charge of Sanger's clinic sued for their release. In 1935 a New York appeals court ruled that the language of the Comstock Act could no longer be construed literally. Advances in medicine had rendered contraception safe and practical; that ancient arbiter of judicial change - common sense - called for a reinterpretation of the Comstock Act. Although Sanger was out of the country at the time, her lawyers agreed that she had educated the judges on the matter.

There was still work to do. At the Sanger-organized international conferences she had listened to a new generation of scientists in the emerging field of endocrinology discuss the possibilities of a hormone that would prevent ovulation. In 1952, she persuaded her wealthy friend Katherine McCormick to invest in the laboratory of Dr. Gregory Pincus in Worcester, Mass. From the beginning of her campaign, Sanger had sought some kind of contraceptive pill, while for years Pincus had been working on mammalian eggs and the effect of the hormone progesterone on ovulation.

With McCormick's money and Sanger's incessant advocacy, Pincus developed Sanger's dream. In 1960, when the pharmaceutical company Searle released Enovid, Sanger became one of those rare, signal reformers who lived long enough to see her reform enacted and whose contributions made hers the eponym for the birth-control movement.

Today Margaret Sanger is inaccurately vilified by those whose agenda is to stifle her organizational legacy, Planned Parenthood of America. She is dismissed as a racist and a eugenicist, even labeled by the uninformed Herman Cain as a supporter of "planned genocide" who placed her clinics in black neighborhoods in order to prevent the birth of black babies.

The facts suggest otherwise: Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois and Franklin Frazier had asked her to establish a clinic in Harlem. Sanger despised racial segregation. Moreover her version of the pervasive tenets of eugenicism was to adopt birth control for fewer, better babies, spaced according to a mother's health and energy. In 1966 86-year-old Margaret Sanger died, but her legacy to all Americans survives.
Jean H. Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. She is the author of the recently published "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." Readers may send her email at jean.baker@goucher.edu. She wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

This essay is available ar McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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