Woman arrested for public lecture on birth control: 1916

Debra Beal and Debra Beal

On Feb. 11, 1916, Emma Goldman, advocate of free speech and women’s equality, was arrested in New York City for giving a public lecture on family planning. Goldman was charged with violating the Comstock Law of 1873, which banned sending obscene matter through the mail. The law had no stipulation on public lectures, but federal courts interpreted the law as prohibiting distribution of any kind on birth control methods.

Goldman, a Russian immigrant, moved to New York City in the early 1890s and became a nurse and midwife for poor immigrant women on the Lower East Side. While working as a midwife, “Goldman identified readily available birth control as a major factor in women’s advancement,” according to a Library of Congress Web site.

Goldman took the initiative to travel abroad to learn about the latest birth control methods. She attended conferences in Paris where the proper use of condoms, douches and diaphragms were freely discussed. Then Goldman teamed up with Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and the two went to Holland to visit clinics where women were fitted with diaphragms.

In the overall picture, “Goldman believed that birth control would alleviate human misery by reducing the burden of large families on the poor and giving women of all classes sexual freedom,” according to a History Channel Web site.

Around the turn of the 20th century, there were two conflicting movements in America concerning birth control. Women’s rights advocated first adopted the slogan of “voluntary motherhood,” which was followed by President Roosevelt’s campaign against “race suicide.”

Women who advocated “voluntary motherhood” as early as 1870 were seen as somewhat prudish because they promoted abstinence, but the movement had two meanings. First of all, they supported “voluntary motherhood” to oppose coercive childbearing. Secondly, they promoted “voluntary sex” to oppose men demanding sexual submission from wives. In retrospect, some historians say these women manipulated Victorian principles to increase women’s power, according to a History Channel Web site.

By the early 1900s, birth control use and the flourishing “voluntary motherhood” movement had reduced the birth rate from seven children to three children per family. In response, President Roosevelt began an attack on birth control advocates, and accused them of committing “race suicide.”

Overall, his concern stemmed from the birth rate dropping in the middle class, while remaining high among poor immigrants. “Roosevelt accused women of ‘good stock,’ who chose college and career over marriage and motherhood, of being ‘race criminals,'” according to a University of Cincinnati assistant history professor, Wendy Kline. Women were considered selfish when they avoided imposed maternal duties by using birth control. By 1918, birth control leagues had developed in every major city in the United States, and when they offered contraceptive information and services, they were swamped with clients, according to a History Channel Web site.

It was advocates like Emma Goldman that paved the way for birth control pills to be legalized by the Supreme Court in 1964 to married couples, and then in 1972 to single people. In 1973, the Supreme Court upheld a physician’s discretion on abortion in Roe v. Wade.