Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.
Did you know that it used to be illegal for married couples to use birth control? Did you know that the Supreme Court only overturned states’ laws prohibiting birth control 55 years ago? I did not know that until I did some research in preparation for today’s texts. We will be discussing Margaret Sanger’s 1918 essay “The Morality of Birth Control” and her 1934 essay “The Case for Birth Control.”
I want to begin by emphasizing that this project highlights essential texts that describe the construct of patriarchy and the critiques that have challenged it throughout history. During each episode we include a biography of the author of the text we’re discussing, but that is only to give background and context to the important piece of writing that the person produced. There are other podcasts out there whose purpose is to tell the stories of amazing women - “History Chicks,” “Encyclopedia Womannica,” and “What’s Her Name” are all excellent podcasts that are biography-centric. Our project here at “Breaking Down Patriarchy” is about important documents on a historical timeline, and in some ways the author of a certain text might not necessarily be exemplary.
I say this because the author of this week’s texts is a controversial figure. Margaret Sanger was an American birth control activist, sex educator, writer, and nurse working in the WWI era and 1920’s. She popularized the term "birth control", opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Her essays, “Morality and Birth Control” and “The Case for Birth Control” were critically important in challenging patriarchal norms, and they are found on almost every Women’s History reading list. But Sanger was also involved in the eugenics movement, and rubbed shoulders with some very racist people. Some have accused Sanger herself of racist views, and some organizations have disavowed her. We at Breaking Down Patriarchy disavow and condemn racism in every form. Full stop. Today, as in every episode, we will simply be examining a text and its significance on our historical timeline as we strive to understand patriarchy and its critiques.
But before we continue the discussion, I want to introduce my reading partner, Courtney McPhie! Hi, Courtney, and welcome back to Breaking Down Patriarchy!
Courtney: Hi, Amy!
Amy: Courtney is not afraid of complicated narratives - you were my reading partner when we discussed the Seneca Falls Convention and we talked about the racist invectives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You tackle texts with such intelligence and compassion and you don’t shy away from a challenge.
Courtney Intro: If you didn’t hear our episode on Seneca Falls, Courtney is a high school English teacher outside DC, where she fights for equity and representation in the classroom. Another highlight about Courtney is she loves podcasts! Her favorite is NPR’s Code Switch. She has loved participating in the podcast because her undergrad offerings of women’s studies courses was extremely limited, so she feels like she is getting the solid education in feminist lit she always wanted.
Me too, Courtney! That’s the goal - to finally understand how things evolved for women the way they did. And this topic was yet another one that I had absolutely no knowledge of. If you had asked me when women were first allowed to use birth control (and just to point out - it was a group of men deciding whether women should or shouldn’t be allowed to use birth control - that’s why this is a patriarchal issue), I wouldn’t have known. My point of reference recently has been “Call the Midwife,” which I highly recommend watching.
So anyway… let’s learn a bit about the author of “Morality and Birth Control,” and “The Case for Birth Control,” Margaret Sanger. Can you introduce her to us, Courtney?
Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins in 1879 in Corning, New York, to Irish Catholic parents. Her mother, Anne Purcell, had left Ireland during the Potato Famine, and married Michael Higgins in 1869. In 22 years, Anne Higgins conceived 18 times, birthing 11 alive before dying at age 49. Margaret was the sixth of 11 surviving children, spending her childhood doing household chores and caring for family members.
Supported by her two older sisters, Margaret Higgins attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, before enrolling in 1900 at White Plains Hospital as a nurse probationer. In 1902, she married architect William Sanger, giving up her education. She suffered from consumption (which we now call Tuberculosis), but Margaret Sanger was able to bear three children, and the family eventually settled in New York City.
Sanger's political interests, her emerging feminism and her nursing experience all led her to write two series of columns on sex education which were titled "What Every Mother Should Know" (1911–12) and "What Every Girl Should Know" (1912–13) for the socialist magazine New York Call. By the standards of the day, Sanger's articles were extremely frank in their discussion of sexuality, and many New York Call readers were outraged by them.
At the time Sanger was writing, access to contraceptive information was prohibited on grounds of obscenity by the 1873 federal Comstock law and many state laws. All mentions of female reproductive function and any type of birth control, in any form, were prohibited. Individuals convicted of violating the Comstock Act could receive up to five years of imprisonment with hard labour and a fine of up to $2,000.
As a nurse working among working-class immigrant women, Sanger met women who underwent frequent childbirth, miscarriages and self-induced abortions because they had no information on how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Seeking to help these women, Sanger visited public libraries, but she was unable to find information on contraception. She often told the story of being called to the apartment of a woman, "Sadie Sachs,” who had tried to induce her own abortion and had become extremely ill. Sadie told Sanger that she had begged her doctor to tell her how she could prevent this from happening again, to which the doctor simply advised her to remain abstinent. His exact words and actions, apparently, were to laugh and say "You want your cake while you eat it too, do you? Well it can't be done. I'll tell you the only sure thing to do .... Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." A few months later, Sanger was called back to Sadie's apartment—only this time, Sadie died shortly after Sanger arrived. She had attempted yet another self-induced abortion. Sanger would sometimes end the story by saying, "I threw my nursing bag in the corner and announced ... that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for working women in America to have the knowledge to control birth."
Sanger opposed abortion, but primarily as a public health danger which would disappear if women were able to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
Given the connection between contraception and working-class empowerment, Sanger came to believe that only by liberating women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy would fundamental social change take place. She launched a campaign to challenge governmental censorship of contraceptive information.
In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter which promoted contraception. Sanger, collaborating with anarchist friends, popularized the term "birth control" as a more candid alternative to euphemisms such as "family limitation" Sanger proclaimed that each woman should be "the absolute mistress of her own body."
In these early years of Sanger's activism, she viewed birth control as a free-speech issue, and when she started publishing The Woman Rebel, one of her goals was to provoke a legal challenge to the federal anti-obscenity laws which banned dissemination of information about contraception. Postal authorities suppressed five of its seven issues, but Sanger continued publication, all the while preparing a 16-page pamphlet called Family Limitation, which contained detailed information and graphic descriptions of various contraceptive methods. In August 1914, Margaret Sanger was indicted for violating postal obscenity laws by sending The Woman Rebel through the postal system. Rather than stand trial, she fled the country.
Margaret Sanger spent much of her exile in Europe, where she met with thinkers who helped develop socioeconomic justifications for birth control. She shared their concern that over-population led to poverty, famine and war, and this would be a concern of hers for the rest of her life.
Some countries in northwestern Europe had more liberal policies towards contraception than the United States at the time (which is still the case, of course), and when Sanger visited a Dutch birth control clinic in 1915, she learned about diaphragms and became convinced that they were a more effective means of contraception than the suppositories and douches that she had been distributing back in the United States. Diaphragms were generally not available in the United States, so Sanger and others began importing them from Europe, in defiance of United States law.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. Nine days after the clinic opened, Sanger was arrested. After multiple arrests, sentences, and jail time, Sanger still stated to a judge "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." For this, she was sentenced to 30 more days in a workhouse.
After World War I, Sanger shifted away from radical politics, and she founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921, which enlarged her base of supporters to include the middle class. The founding principles of the ABCL were as follows:
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.
In 1922, she traveled to China, Korea, and Japan. In China, she observed that the primary method of family planning was female infanticide, and she later worked with Pearl Buck to establish a family planning clinic in Shanghai.
After World War I, Sanger increasingly appealed to the societal need to limit births by those least able to afford children. The affluent and educated already limited their child-bearing, while the poor and uneducated lacked access to contraception and information about birth control. Here she found an area of overlap with eugenicists. She believed that they both sought to "assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit."
She did not speak specifically about the idea of race or ethnicity being determining factors of “fitness” or “unfitness.” Instead, she stressed limiting the number of births to live within one's economic ability to raise and support healthy children. This would lead to a betterment of society and the human race. Sanger's view put her at odds with leading American eugenicists, such as Charles Davenport, who took a racist view of inherited traits.
However, in A History of the Birth Control Movement in America, Engelman noted that "Sanger quite effortlessly looked the other way when others spouted racist speech. She had no reservations about relying on flawed and overtly racist works to serve her own propaganda needs."
This association with eugenicists has understandably led to a lot of controversy.
But her influence on women’s reproductive rights is undisputed. Sangers’ fight for birth control directly resulted in the following:
1918 Doctors were first allowed to prescribe contraception.
1932 Doctors were first allowed to save women’s lives by sending pregnant patients to hospitals for abortions, if they determined that childbirth would endanger the mother’s life.
1936 Physicians were first allowed to obtain contraceptives.This court victory motivated the American Medical Association in 1937 to adopt contraception as a normal medical service and a key component of medical school curriculums.
In 1937, Sanger became chairman of the newly formed Birth Control Council of America, which eventually was re-named “Planned Parenthood,” a name Sanger objected to because she thought it was too euphemistic.
In the early 1950s, Sanger encouraged the development of the birth control pill (which would become available in the 1960’s).
Sanger died of congestive heart failure in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 86, about a year after the U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which determined that states could not ban the use of birth control for married couples.
Amy: So now, on to the texts themselves. First I’ll take “Morality and Birth Control,” and then Courtney you’ll take “The Case for Birth Control.”
"MORALITY AND BIRTH CONTROL" was a pamphlet written by Margaret Sanger in February 1918. I’m going to read some excerpts and then we can discuss them.
- She starts the essay this way:
“Throughout the ages, every attempt woman has made to strike off the shackles of slavery has been met with the argument that such an act would result in the downfall of her morality. Suffrage was going to “break up the home.” Higher education would unfit her for motherhood, and co-education would surely result in making her immoral. Even today, in some of the more backward countries reading and writing is stoutly discouraged by the clerical powers because “women may read about things they should not know.”
We now know that there never can be a free humanity until woman is freed from ignorance, and we know, too, that woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world.”
I have a LOT of thoughts about this passage.
As we learned in earlier texts like The Creation of Patriarchy, with the advent of the agricultural revolution, men began seeing women as producers of babies; commodities; providers of pleasure and population that they could control. Men started thinking of themselves as owning women’s bodies.
Sexual assault and harrassment comes from an attitude of male ownership.
Rape comes from an presumption that males own females’ bodies. Obviously a rape by a stranger has been regarded as a crime for a long time (sometimes because men thought of it as “ruining” the girl’s virtue more than they cared about it hurting her), but consider this:
In marriage, men believed they were acquiring their bride as their property, and he had a right to her sexually. Marital rape was not considered rape in all 50 states in the United States until 1993.
Some acts of mass violence like trucks driven into crowds and mass shootings are committed by men who call themselves “incels,” or “involuntary celibates.” They believe they have a right to have a woman, and are infuriated that no one has chosen them, so they want to “enforce monogamy.”
Even things that might seem benign like modesty rules - we grew up with a pamphlet called “For the Strength of the Youth” that outlined all the different clothing that it was inappropriate for teenage girls to wear - nothing revealing or form fitting, showing too much of the body. That always made me bristle, but It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the pamphlet had been written by a group of 100% men.
So on one hand I had a bunch of teenage boys telling me I should uncover my body and wear sexy clothing to please them, and on the other hand I had a bunch of religious men telling me I should cover my body and wear shapeless clothing to please them. In both cases, it’s just more of the same - men thinking they own women’s bodies.
Why on EARTH would men have the right to make rules about women’s pregnancies and child-rearing?? Even if you believe in separate spheres, that’s literally the woman’s sphere.
- Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.
- Biologically it’s set up that men have no accountability for their sexual choices; only women are left holding the bag. Society must make rules to level that playing field and help men take ownership that they are themselves the children of women, and the parents of children.
- Unwanted children can ruin women’s lives. She gives up her education, her career, her ability to progress. She gives up her freedom
- If the man walks away, the child doesn’t ruin the man’s life, but if he stays, it ruins his life too
I think I’ll pipe in her about Gabby Blair’s famous twitter thread about birth control
- [Sanger tells stories from her work as a nurse. These stories read like episodes of “Call the Midwife.”]
For fourteen years I worked as a nurse in the factory and tenement districts of New York City. Eight years ago I was called into a home where the father, a machinist by trade, was earning eighteen dollars a week. He was at the time the father of six living children, to all appearances a sober, serious and hard working man. His wife, a woman in the thirties toiled early and late helping him to keep the home together and the little ones out of the sweatshops, for they were both anxious to give their children a little schooling.
Two years ago I came across this same family, and found that five more children had been added in the meantime to their household. The three youngest were considered by medical authorities to be hopelessly feeble-minded, two of the older girls were prostitutes; three of the boys were serving long term sentences in penitentiaries, while another of the children had been injured by a fall and so badly crippled that she will not be able to help herself for years to come.
Out of this family of eleven children only two are now of any use to society, a little girl of seven, who stays at home and cares for her crippled sister during the day while the mother scrubs office floors, and a boy of nine who sells chewing gum after school hours at a subway exit. The father has become a hopeless drunkard, of whom the mother and children live in terror.
This is but one illustration of the results of our present day morality. Here was an opportunity for society to develop and preserve six children for human service; but prudery and ignorance added five more to this group, with the result that two out of eleven are left to fit the struggle against pauperism and charity. Will they succumb?
[Next comes a story about five orphan girls who Margaret knew in her work as a nurse, who were sexually abused by the men living in their apartment building.]
These five girl-women did not ask society to fill their minds, as it was willing to do, with a useless knowledge of Greek, Latin or the Sciences. But they did need and unconsciously demand the knowledge of life, of hygiene and sex psychology which is so prudishly and shamefully denied them.
Current attitudes about sex education, birth control. Compare to Europe
- Has knowledge of birth control, so carefully guarded and so secretly practiced by the women of the wealthy class -- and so tenaciously withheld from the working women -- brought them misery? Rather, has it not promoted greater happiness, greater freedom, greater prosperity and more harmony among them? The women who have this knowledge are the women who have been free to develop, free to enjoy in its best sense, and free to advance the interests of the community. And their men are the ones who motor, who sail yachts, who legislate, who lead and control. The men, women and children of this class do not form any part whatever in the social problems of our times.
Had this class continued to reproduce in the prolific manner of the working people in the past twenty-five years, can human imagination picture what conditions would be today? All of our problems are the result of overbreeding among the working class, and if morality is to mean anything at all to us, we must regard all the changes which tend toward the uplift and survival of the human race as moral.
Here is a reference to eugenics mentality. It’s one thing to feel/express empathy for the plight of impoverished mothers (which she did); It’s one thing to cite the burden on society’s resources when people have too many children (which she also did). It’s another to say “overbreeding among the working class,” which makes it sound as if upper-class people had superior genes, not just superior opportunities.
Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its general, though prudent, practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race.
All contents copyright © The Margaret Sanger Papers. All rights reserved.
Ok, Courtney, now you have “The Case for Birth Control.”
The Case for Birth Control
first published in the Woman Citizen, Vol. 8, February 23, 1924, pages 17-18.
-- by Margaret Sanger
Everywhere we look, we see poverty and large families going hand in hand. We see hordes of children whose parents cannot feed, clothe, or educate even one half of the number born to them. We see sick, harassed, broken mothers whose health and nerves cannot bear the strain of further child-bearing. We see fathers growing despondent and desperate, because their labor cannot bring the necessary wage to keep their growing families. We see that those parents who are least fit to reproduce the race are having the largest number of children; while people of wealth, leisure, and education are having small families.
Again this phrasing of “least fit to reproduce the race” calls upon eugenics. She thinks those who are poor and of the working class are unfit to reproduce based on who they are as humans, while wealthy people deserve to have more children. . How about instead those who “struggle to be able to care for their children the way that they wish they could?” How about accounting for the families of diminished resources who do provide love, safety, and dignity for their children? I know many of those families. How about accounting for wealthy families who neglect or abuse their children? I know families like that too.
She continues these eugenicist ideas when she states that people who are “feeble-minded,” insane or those who have children who are “not normal” should not have children. And remember, in Sanger’s time those who experienced depression were considered insane.
Other reasons Sanger states to not have children include gonorrhea and syphilis, which is understandable since, before they were treatable, sexually transmitted infections can cause severe impacts on newborns.
The next set of circumstances under which couples should not have children are compelling. She states the age of the parents should be 23 for the mother and 25 for the father. The average age of marriage in the 1920s was 21 for women and 25 for men, and Sanger recommended that couples should wait two years before having children so they can truly get to know one another. When I was first married it seemed everyone around me got pregnant within the first year of getting married. I felt like I had been married ages by waiting two and a half years. Then, Sanger states children should be three years apart. One year postpartum, which includes nursing the baby. One year for recovery and rest, and one year for the next pregnancy. The current average gap between children in the United States is 2 ½ years. There has always been so much pressure on women not only about when and how many children to have, but also in age gaps. I know when I had my first and she turned 1, I got so many comments from people at church and even strangers about how it was time to have another baby. People assumed I was pregnant or at least trying once my baby was 1. Amy, did you ever feel pressured on how close your kids should be? Or when to have kids?
I did! I’m sure you remember that I had only been married 7 months when I got pregnant. And it was on purpose! There was so much pressure in our faith tradition to marry young and start having children right away. One of my close friends’ moms told her how disappointed she was that they were going to stop at four kids, because she said “think of all those spirits that could have come to your family, and now they’re going to get sent to drug addicts.” This comes from the Mormon belief that there is a certain number of souls that already exists, and they need to inhabit bodies in order to continue to progress. So the thought was that good families (specifically Mormon families) needed to have as many children as possible. That’s changing now within the church, and thank goodness I never felt any pressure from our parents to have a lot of children. But weirdly, Margaret Sanger and Mormonism both emphasize that the “right” kind of people should have lots of kids.
It is generally conceded by sociologists and scientists that a nation cannot go on indefinitely multiplying without eventually reaching the point when population presses upon means of subsistence. While in this country there is perhaps no need for immediate alarm on this account, there are many other reasons for demanding birth control.
There were warnings about overpopulation in the 1960s, and population has continued to grow as expected, despite those warnings. Research shows the UN’s prediction of the world’s population reaching 9.7 billion by 2050, which is a realistic and alarming projection. A NY Times article from 2017 stated that countries facing massive overpopulation would require economic growth that is virtually impossible. As Sanger noted, as nations grow wealthier, the birth rate drops.
What are the numbers on overpopulation in the US right now? In the world?
At present, for the poor mother, there is only one alternative to the necessity of bearing children year after year, regardless of her health, of the welfare of the children she already has, and of the income of the family. This alternative is abortion, which is so common as to be almost universal, especially where there are rigid laws against imparting information for the prevention of conception. It has been estimated that there are about one million abortions in the United States each year.
The Brookings Institute says that about 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, a much higher rate than other developed countries. Washington University medical school states that when birth control is available at no cost, it decreases abortions up to 78%. 78%!!!!
Karissa Haugeberg, assistant professor of history at Tulane University, stated in an NPR interview that before Roe v Wade, 20% of pregnancies ended in abortion, which seems like an incredibly high statistic. However high that number, it is important to remember the methods women turn to when abortion is neither legal nor accessible. Self-induction methods include accidents, like a woman throwing herself down the stairs. Or a woman could use objects, like a coat hanger, to end her pregnancy. Still other women drank poisons. If not following those methods, women would turn to the black market of abortion providers, some who were not trained in gynecological care at all, which could cause the botched abortion to result in sepsis and death.
To force poor mothers to resort to this dangerous and health destroying method of curtailing their families is cruel, wicked, and heartless, and it is often the mothers who care most about the welfare of their children who are willing to undergo any pain or risk to prevent the coming of infants for whom they cannot properly care.
The mortality rate for abortions currently is .7%. It should be noted that the mortality rate for Black women is higher-- in fact more than twice as high as it is for white women. In 1930, the time which Sanger was fighting for birth control to reduce abortion rates, the mortality of abortions accounted for 20% of maternal deaths.
We want mothers to be fit. We want them to conceive in joy and gladness. We want them to carry their babies during the nine months in a sound and healthy body and with a happy, joyous, hopeful mind. It is almost impossible to imagine the suffering caused to women, the mental agony they endure, when their days and nights are haunted by the fear of undesired pregnancy.
When children are conceived in love and born into an atmosphere of happiness, then will parenthood be a glorious privilege, and the children will grow to resemble gods. This can only be obtained through the knowledge and practice of Birth Control.
Sanger makes such a clear argument here, that I have to admit, I don’t understand how anyone could oppose this. Women are healthier and more able to contribute, truly more powerful when they can choose when and how many children they have.
P.S. -- The American Birth Control League desires that the instruction in birth control should be given by the medical profession. Only through individual care and treatment can a woman be given the best and safest means of controlling her offspring. We do not favor the indiscriminate diffusion of unreliable and unsafe birth control advice.
This sets the stage for proper sex education given in schools. Currently, sex education is mandated in only 24 states and the District of Columbia. Five of the states with the highest teen birth rates are not mandated to teach about contraception but are mandated to teach abstinence. I wasn’t able to find Sanger’s explicit opinion on sex eduation in schools, which begain in the 1920s, but I imagine she was a strong proponent given the knowledge she wanted to disseminate to all women.
Amy: Courtney, what are some of your most important takeaways from this material?
Courtney: I want to say again how completely and fervently I disavow Sanger’s eugenicist leanings. I disavow that part of her life completely. And I think one of my takeaways is, despite Sanger being a problematic person, being incredibly impressed and thankful for her other work. Sex is such a taboo topic still in this country, and she made serious waves in giving women control over their own sexuality as well as their roles within their families. As someone from a conservative religious upbringing, it was really only in the latter half of the 20th century that our community openly allowed birth control, and permanent forms of birth control are often still discouraged. And as someone who was married at age 20 while still working on an undergraduate degree, birth control was vital in my being able to complete a college degree. It was also essential to me when I became a single mother ten years later and entered the dating scene.
But I do think the most important takeaway to me is to acknowledge how dangerous some of Sanger’s ideas were, particularly in context of recent news stories. Sanger actively fought for birth control to prevent the lower class population from reproducing. We still see this today as recently stories came out from immigrant detention centers that women were being forced to undergo hysterectomies and other gynecological surgeries without their knowledge or consent. So while birth control is essential in women gaining control over their lives and gaining power otherwise unattainable, we have to be so careful. The point of birth control is to be pro-choice, that a woman can choose when and whether to have children. That ball can and should only be in each individual woman’s court.
Amy: I think my biggest takeaway is gratitude. You and I come from a family of very fertile women - our grandma was one of 11 children, we have an aunt with 9 children - and I love those 9 cousins and I’m not judging our aunt - I am just saying that I am SO grateful that I lived in a time and place where birth control was invented, and legal, and accessible to me. Without birth control I have no doubt I would have had a baby every two years and could easily have had 9-10 kids, and I personally would not have wanted that, not for myself, not for my husband, not for those kids, not for the planet. I’m soooo grateful for these essays and for the work of my predecessors who made the world a better place for me, and I’m grateful for the work that people are doing right now to give women power over their own bodies and their own lives and their own destinies through honest education and access to family planning.
Conclusion: Thanks so much for being here, Courtney! For our next two episodes, we will be reading works by Virginia Woolf. Woolf is perhaps best known for the groundbreaking novels she wrote between 1915 and 1941, all of which grapple with patriarchal oppression, and I recommend reading all of her novels. But the works we will be discussing are two of her nonfiction works: first, her famous A Room of One’s Own, and second, a collection of speeches called Killing the Angel in the House. Both are relatively short, and especially A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text so I highly recommend purchasing it for your home library. Read as much of it as you can, look for insights that illuminate issues in your own life - I promise you will find many - and then join us next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.
The Twentieth Century can make progress only by fighting the superstitions and prejudices created in the Nineteenth Century -- fighting them in the open with the public searchlight upon them.
The first questions we must ask ourselves are: Are we satisfied with present day morality? Are we satisfied with the results of present day standards of morality? Are these so satisfying that they need no improvement?
Another case I should like to cite shows how shallow is the concern of society in regard to the over-crowded tenements, where thousands of little children occupy sleeping quarters with parents and boarders whose every act is visible to all. Morality indeed! Society is much like the ostrich with its head in the sand. It will not look at facts and face the responsibility of its own stupidity.
I recall the death-bed scene, when the patient, a woman of twenty-six, passed away during the birth of her seventh child. Five out of the seven were girls, the eldest being about ten years old. Upon the death of this woman, this girl began to assume the duties of her mother and continued to keep the four men roomers who had lodged in their home for years. A few years later, I found this girl suffering from the ravages of syphilis, although she had only just entered the period of puberty. She told me she could not remember when she had not dressed before the roomers, and on winter nights she often slept in their beds. She was already old -- old in ignorance, in vulgarity, in degeneracy.
Another womanhood blighted in the bud, battered by ignorance, another soul sunk in despair.
No doubt these five sisters will soon represent the ruins of an ancient prejudice, and five more derelicts will be added to that particular relic heap of humanity.
Again, is there anything more sickening to truth than the attitude of society toward that catch phrase “Sacred Motherhood”? Take another illustration and lay bare the living facts and view them for awhile.
Two sisters lived in an upstate town, members of a large family, where the older daughters worked in factories, in order that the younger girls might have educational advantages. The youngest fell in love with a good-for-nothing fellow, with the result that she had an illegal child. Disgrace, ostracism and remorse drove her out into the world, and together with her baby she drifted from house to house in the capacity of a servant, until finally the baby died, leaving the mother free to enter upon another vocation.
During this time, however, due to the condescending treatment accorded to her by the women who employed her, she had become so accustomed to look upon herself as an outcast that soon, with other companions of her frame of mind, she began trafficking...on the streets of New York.
Now the second sister, a few older, also fell in love with one of the “town heroes,” and came to grief; but owing to the “disgrace” of the youngest sister and sympathy for the elder members of the family, who were completely anguish stricken over this second mishap, the old family physician took her in charge and sent to her a place where an illegal operation was performed upon her. She returned, a sadder but wiser girl, to her home, finished the high school course, and several years later she became the principal of a school.
Today she is one of the most respected women in that county. She devotes her life outside school hours to a sympathetic understanding of the needs of young boys and girls, and her sordid early experience, put to good use, has helped many boys and girls to lead clean lives.
We will talk more about abortion in a few episodes when we discuss Roe v. Wade
These cases represent actual modern conditions. Our laws force women into celibacy on the one hand, or abortion on the other. Both conditions are declared by eminent medical authorities to be injurious to health. The ever ascending standard and cost of living, combined with the low wage of the young men of today, tend toward the postponement of marriage.