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Birth Control Pioneer

Standard histories of the birth control movement often overlook Emma Goldman's pioneering role. Goldman was in fact Margaret Sanger's mentor; she brought the young Sanger into the campaign against the 1873 Comstock Law which prohibited the distribution of birth control literature, thus forging an indelible link between free speech and reproductive rights. Unlike Sanger, who was later to advocate a single issue strategy for achieving the right to distribute birth control information, Goldman always insisted that birth control be viewed in the context of the broad social, economic, and political forces that led to its suppression.

Goldman first became convinced that birth control was essential to women's sexual and economic freedom when she worked as a nurse and midwife among poor immigrant workers on the Lower East Side in the 1890s. She tested her ideas about reproductive rights while attending a Parisian "Neo-Malthusian" congress in 1900 and then began to take direct action, smuggling contraceptive devices into the United States on her return. By 1915, she was working with Sanger in a mass movement for birth control, lecturing frequently on "the right of the child not to be born" and demanding that women's bodies be freed from the coercion of government. In one letter to Sanger written that year, Goldman remarked, "Not one of my lectures brings out such crowds as the one on the birth strike." Of all the literature she sold at her talks, Sanger's magazine, The Woman Rebel, sold the best.

At least twice, Goldman was arrested and charged with violating the Comstock Law. She managed to turn one trial in 1916 into a national forum on birth control, successfully attracting the support of many writers, artists, intellectuals, and progressives for her cause.


Goldman's Speaks on Birth Control to a Sea of Hats

Goldman speaks on birth control to sea of hats Emma Goldman speaking from an open car to a crowd of garment workers about birth control at Union Square, New York, on May 20, 1916.
(UPI, Bettmann Archive)


Reproductive Rights and Free Speech: Goldman Goes to Jail

goldman goes to jail for reproductive rights speech 1 goldman goes to jail for reproductive rights speech 2

As the mass movement for birth control grew, Goldman responded by lecturing to successively larger audiences on the subject. Often, by the time the authorities realized that birth control information had been disseminated at her public talks, she was already well into lecturing on another topic. It was not unusual for her to be arrested several days later, as she was about to speak on Atheism or Ibsen, for a birth control offense committed days before. Although Goldman did serve time, it was Ben Reitman, her lover and manager, whose six-month sentence for public advocacy of birth control was the longest jail sentence served by any birth control activist in the United States before 1920.
(Emma Goldman to the Press, a few days after her arrest in New York City, February 11, 1916. Goldman Collection, International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam)


Goldman Counsels Birth Control Advocate Margaret Sanger

Goldman counsels Sanger Goldman counsels Sanger Goldman counsels Sanger Goldman counsels Sanger

In 1914, Margaret Sanger was arrested for publishing information about birth control in her magazine Woman Rebel. While awaiting trial, she fled to Europe for a year. Upon her return, Goldman learned that Sanger was under pressure to plead guilty as a means of securing a lighter sentence. Goldman advised Sanger against plea bargaining and encouraged her to approach the trial as an occasion to mobilize support for the birth control movement.
(Emma Goldman to Margaret Sanger, December 8 [1915]. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Margaret Sanger Papers)


Margaret Sanger on the Opening Day of Her Trial, 1917

Margaret Sanger on the Opening Day of Her Trial, 1917 Margaret Sanger became America's most influential advocate of birth control in the 1910s. Emma Goldman had championed the cause years earlier as part of a broad social and political critique and had mentored the young Sanger. Gradually, however, as Sanger adopted a single issue approach to winning the right to reproductive freedom, she disassociated herself from anarchists like Emma Goldman. This strategy succeeded, but broke the friendship and the relationship of close mutual support that bound the two women activists. 
(Margaret Sanger, January 4, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, on the opening day of her trial for disseminating birth control information and "maintaining a public nuisance" (establishing the first birth control clinic in the US). UPI, Bettmann Archive)