On an October day in 1916, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, women, men, and children were lined up all the way down Amboy Street outside an unassuming storefront, waiting to break the law.
“Feminism” had just entered the American political vocabulary, as had the term “birth control.” Federal law made it illegal to mail, transport, or circulate contraceptive devices or information about contraception and women’s reproductive health. The women of Brownsville, a largely working-class, largely immigrant Jewish, Yiddish-speaking tenement neighborhood — known in these years for its leftist politics and orthodox communities — had petitioned for the clinic to open.
The building’s Jewish landlord supported the project, renovating 46 Amboy Street and “adding touches here and there to make the two shiny and spotless rooms even more snow-white.” Hundreds more heard of the clinic’s opening from thousands of flyers advertising in Yiddish, Italian, and English.
The Brownsville Clinic was staffed by birth control activist Margaret Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, and Fania Mindell, a language interpreter. For ten cents, each patient received a pamphlet, “What Every Girl Should Know”; a lecture on the reproductive system; and instruction on how to use “cervical pessaries,” or diaphragms.
On the first day, the clinic served over one hundred people and turned scores more away, asking them to return the following day. Women came from as far away as Connecticut and Massachusetts. Men came on behalf of their wives. Families brought toddlers and babies in carriages.
Over the next nine days, the Brownsville clinic served four hundred more patients before vice-squad officers raided the clinic and placed Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell under arrest. Sanger reopened the clinic in November while Ethel was still recovering from a prison hunger strike, but officers forced her landlord to evict her.
The closure and trial became national news, and in response waves of birth control leagues and clinics opened in large towns. Sanger’s American Birth Control League eventually became known as Planned Parenthood.
One hundred years later, we’re still trying to keep these clinics open.
At 10 AM tomorrow, a group called Pro-Life Future NYC is planning a protest at the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Manhattan, known as the Margaret Sanger Center. In 1993, the intersection of Bleecker and Mott, where the Sanger Center stands, was designated “Margaret Sanger Place,” and one of Sanger’s original Manhattan clinics on West 16th Street became a protected National Historic Landmark.
Like the vice squads and reactionary federal officials of the Progressive Era, the anti-choice forces of today want to close this clinic and all others. The anti-choice crowd support using state laws and legislatures, alongside more extreme violence and intimidation, to mandate what we can and cannot do with our bodies.
The protest at the Sanger Center is in fact part of a nationwide “Defund Planned Parenthood” campaign, with planned protests in over two hundred locations across the country.
Sanger watched her own mother die in childbirth at the age of forty-nine, and as a young tenement nurse in New York City’s turn-of-the-century working-class immigrant neighborhoods, she cared for many women who had resorted to $5 alley abortions. In “‘The Woman Rebel’ and the Fight for Birth Control,” she argued
During fourteen years experience as a trained nurse, I found that a great percentage of women’s diseases were due to ignorance of the means to prevent conception. I found that quackery was thriving on this ignorance, and that thousands of abortions were being performed each year — principally on the women of the working class. Since the laws deter reliable and expert surgeons from performing abortions, working women have always been thrown into the hands of the incompetent, with fatal results. The deaths from abortions mount very high.
Sanger began writing on birth control and women’s sexuality for socialist newspapers in New York and founded her own paper, the Woman Rebel, whose socialist- and anarchist-inspired masthead read “No Gods, No Masters.” She also traveled to Europe to learn more about the science of contraception and modeled the Brownsville clinic on ones she had viewed in the Netherlands.
Sanger was a savvy activist and used repression to advance her cause, informing the Brooklyn district attorney of her intent to open the clinic and using the subsequent trial as a forum for arguing her case — becoming an internationally known advocate for birth control.
Sanger was one of the many “new women” hotly debating feminism’s terms in radical and bohemian enclaves like New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1914, the women’s debating club Heterodoxy sponsored a mass meeting at Cooper Union hall to debate the question “What is feminism?”
As one speaker argued, it was women’s right to be both a “human being and a sex being” — that is, for women to have economic rights and political rights, as well as sexual freedoms. The emergence of feminism was closely linked to the struggle for birth control.
As a woman of her time, Sanger was, for good and for ill, also influenced by the visions of middle-class Progressive reformers, who believed in advancing human welfare through large-scale, top-down projects of social engineering.
By the early 1920s, Sanger had begun to write of birth control in this light, and infamously argued that birth control and sterilization could be used to prevent the births of the “unfit” and mentally disabled — beliefs propagated by the pseudoscience of eugenics, which proposed selective breeding, usually along racial lines.
Eugenicist arguments for birth control were about controlling the bodies of people they deemed unfit — the poor, the working class, the nonwhite, the marginalized — and led to forced sterilizations of Native American women, among others. Eugenics was not a fringe idea: it was more popular and more socially and intellectually respectable than advocating for birth control.
Unlike many eugenicists who favored top-down laws and social engineering, Sanger argued for eugenics as a “voluntary” project left to ordinary women — her phrase was that it had to “come from within” — rather than to middle-class reformers, and did not advocate its white supremacist variant.
Historians who have untangled the complex web of race and gender ideas in the Progressive Era have argued that in accepting eugenics, Sanger was trying to wrest birth control away from religion and put it in the realm of science (though they certainly condemn the terms on which she did so).
According to historian Dorothy Roberts, Sanger also believed that it was social environment, not genes or race, that produced social ills, and sought to aid women rather than condemn them. Finally, it’s worth noting that Sanger worked alongside W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune, and worked to open a racially integrated clinic in Harlem.
But however strategic her embrace of eugenics may have been — and however many caveats one might want to add to allow for missteps — Sanger’s alliance of birth control with eugenics gave credence, in a society of racial hierarchy, to racist policies and practices.
The history of forcible sterilization of Latina and black women in New York City, California, and Puerto Rican hospitals in the twentieth century serve as ominous reminders of the dangers of this strategic decision. Then as now, the best argument for birth control is the argument of personal freedom: the right to bear children safely, the right not to at all, the right to terminate a pregnancy safely, the right to have children in a healthy environment, the right to have one’s choices respected.
The racist, eugenicist strain running through Progressive Era history is a real one that we have to confront. But that era is also the history of people advocating and organizing to make their own choices about their own lives. This is where the “new woman’s” promise of individual freedoms and liberation comes alive.
Patients from the Brownsville clinic were called to the witness stand during Sanger’s trial. Their voices are worth listening to:
“Have you ever seen Mrs. Sanger before?”
“Yess. Yess, I know Mrs. Sanger.”
“Where did you see her?”
“At the cleenic.”
“Why did you go there?”
“To have her stop the babies.”
“How many children have you?”
“Eight and three that didn’t live.”
These are women talking about their own reasons — personal, individual, yet shaped by poverty and inequality — for seeking out reproductive health care. These are women talking about what they want for themselves and the sorrows they want to prevent. They don’t apologize for showing up at Amboy Street — they state it as fact. Of course we went to the clinic, they say.
Though wealthier women could discreetly visit private doctors and discreet shop owners to be fitted for diaphragms, this doesn’t mean poorer women had no knowledge or access to birth control. The people of Brownsville and other working-class immigrants like them had long accessed birth control through a thriving black market of pessaries, condoms, “anti-septic tampons,” and other reproductive health information, as historian Andrea Tone has shown. Birth control measures were a thriving industry before the 1873 federal laws made them illegal, and continued as a black market into the twentieth century.
Most of the reproductive health entrepreneurs were women, immigrants, Jews — people marginalized, poor, and with precarious rights. Their stories are a testament to people’s determination to make choices about their own reproduction.
Lecturers and “sexologists” like Manhattan single mother Sarah Chase spoke publicly on reproductive health, advertised (illegally) by circular, and sold contraceptives at the end of every talk. At 77 East Broadway in Manhattan, druggist Morris Glattstine sold “womb veils” and rubber “capotes” bought from the Milwaukee-based Stuart Rubber Company to customers. Homeless German Jewish immigrant Julius Schmid sought employment selling condoms made from sheep intestines. Immigrant and Brooklyn resident Joseph Backrach supported his family of nine by making “rubber womb veils, condoms, male caps, and ticklers,” and selling them out of his house.
Black women found birth control advice in the pages of black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, which carried advertisements for vaginal jellies, medicated douche powder, preventive antiseptics, and a product called “Puf” that guaranteed “marriage hygiene.” As in Brownsville, women and men in Harlem and other majority-black neighborhoods worked through the 1930s and ’40s to open their own reproductive health clinics.
Less easy to access were safe abortions for those who found themselves pregnant. Struggling to support large families on factory wages, worried about their own health, hoping for a different life, women attempted home abortions. Popular methods included laxatives, quinine, chemical douches with caustic chemicals that caused burns and irritations, rolling oneself down stairs, and “inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, and shoe hooks.”
As a New York City tenement nurse in 1913, Sanger was called by a Mr Sacks, who had found his wife unconscious, surrounded by their three young children. After three weeks of constant care, Mrs Sacks recovered enough to tell Sanger that she had been unwilling to bear another child because her husband’s wages were inadequate for the family they already had.
Then as now, abortion patients are disproportionately poor and low-income. Then as now, abortion and birth control are feminist issues, working-class issues, immigrants’ issues, marginalized people’s issues. They are a majority concern. They are part of our understanding of what it is to be human and to be free.
“No woman,” Sanger wrote, “can call herself free who does not own and control her own body and can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Women have always insisted on this choice, laws or not.
New York City is one of the historic flashpoints for the birth control movement, a city where feminists, working-class families, doctors, nurses, immigrant communities, radicals, and ordinary people have advocated for their right to health care. Anti-choice forces cannot come to the symbolic heart of that history and expect to go unchallenged.