The growing presence of women in the labor market reinforced demands for access to birth control, an issue that gave political expression to changing sexual behavior. In the nineteenth century, the right to “control one’s body” generally meant the ability to refuse sexual advances, including those of a woman’s husband. Now, it suggested the ability to enjoy an active sexual life without necessarily bearing children. Emma Goldman, who had emigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the age of sixteen, toured the country lecturing on subjects from anarchism to the need for more enlightened attitudes toward homosexuality. She regularly included the right to birth control in her speeches and distributed pamphlets with detailed information about various contraceptive devices. “I demand freedom for both sexes,” she proclaimed, “freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.” Goldman constantly ran afoul of the law. By one count, she was arrested more than forty times for dangerous or “obscene” statements or simply to keep her from speaking.
By forthrightly challenging the laws banning contraceptive information and devices, Margaret Sanger, one of eleven children of an Irish-American working-class family, placed the issue of birth control at the heart of the new feminism. In 1911, she began a column on sex education, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for The Call, a New York socialist newspaper. Postal officials barred one issue, containing a column on venereal disease, from the mails. The next issue of The Call included a blank page with the headline: “What Every Girl Should Know—Nothing; by order of the U. S. Post Office.”
The much-beloved and much-feared Emma Goldman, with a poster advertising a series of her lectures, illustrating the remarkable variety of topics on which she spoke.
Mothers with baby carriages wait outside Margaret Sanger’s birth-control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1916.
By 1914, the intrepid Sanger was openly advertising birth-control devices in her own journal, The Woman Rebel. “No woman can call herself free,” she proclaimed, “who does not own and control her own body [and] can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” In 1916, Sanger opened a clinic in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn and began distributing contraceptive devices to poor Jewish and Italian women, an action for which she was sentenced to a month in prison. Few Progressives rallied to her defense. But for a time, the birth-control issue became a crossroads where the paths of labor radicals, cultural modernists, and feminists intersected. The IWW and Socialist Party distributed Sanger’s writings. Like the IWW free-speech fights and Goldman’s persistent battle for the right to lecture, Sanger’s travail was part of a rich history of dissent in the Progressive era that helped to focus enlightened opinion on the ways local authorities and national obscenity legislation set rigid limits to Americans’ freedom of expression.