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A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Goldman Letter to the Press on
"Birth Control and the Necessity of
Imparting Knowledge on This Most Vital Question"

[ Questions on Letter | Women's Rights | Next Exhibit ]

(from the International
Institute of Social History,
Amsterdam) 1916

CONTEXT: An early advocate of birth control, Goldman addressed large audiences on the subject. Because dissemination of birth control information was forbidden by the Comstock Law, anyone who chose to speak out on the subject risked arrest, imprisonment, and fines. A few days after her arrest in New York City on February 11, 1916, Goldman wrote a letter to the press stating her position.

Letter to the Press on Birth Control

My dear Sir:-

In view of the fact that the Birth Control question is now dominant before the American public, I hope that you will not permit your prejudice against anarchism and myself as its exponent to refuse me fair play. I have lived and worked in New York City for twenty-five years. On more than one occasion I have been misrepresented in the press and anarchism has been made to appear hideous and ridiculous. I am not complaining; I am merely stating a fact which you, I am sure, know as well as I.

But now the question involved in my arrest which took place Friday, February 11th and which is to be heard Monday, February 28th is birth control, a world wide movement sponsored and supported by the greatest men and women through Europe and America, such as Prof. August Forel, Havelock Ellis, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Dr. Drysdale in Europe and in America by Prof. Jacobi, Dr. Robinson and many others. A movement which has originated in minds of people who were both scientific and humanitarian, and which at the present time is backed by science, sociology and economic necessity. Certainly you will not refuse me a hearing in behalf of such an issue.

I have lectured on birth control for years; many times in New York and other cities, before representative audiences. At almost every meeting plain clothes men were present taking copious notes. It was therefore no secret that I am sponsoring birth control and the necessity of imparting knowledge on this most vital question.

Friday, February 4th, I again delivered this lecture in Forward Hall, New York, when three thousand people attempted to crowd the place. As a result of this popular clamor for knowledge on birth control, another meeting was arranged for Tuesday, February 8th at the New Star Casino. Again an eager throng attended. The meeting was orderly and everything went off as peacefully and intelligently as on all other occasions when I lecture if not interfered with by the police. Then on Friday, February 11th, just as I was about to enter the Forward Hall to deliver a lecture on Atheism, a subject which has no bearing at all upon birth control, I was arrested, taken to a filthy station house, then hustled into a patrol wagon, rushed to the Clinton Street jail, there searched in the most vulgar manner by a course looking matron in the presence of two detectives, a thing which would outrage the most hardened criminal. Then I was locked up in a cell until my bondsman released me on five hundred dollars bail.

Now all this was unnecessary in as much as I am too well known in the country to run away. Besides, one who has stood the brunt for an ideal for twenty-five years is not likely to run away. A summons would have been enough. But because I happen to be Emma Goldman and the exponent of Anarchism, the whole brutality of the New York police had to be employed in dealing with me, which only goes to prove that everything else in society advances except the Police Department. I confess I was credulous enough to believe that some change had taken place since my last arrest in New York City, which was in 1906, but I discovered my mistake.

However, this is not vital, but what is of importance and that which I hope you will place before your leaders is the fact that the methods of persecution of the part of the reactionary element in New York City in relation to any modern idea pertaining to birth control have evidently not ended with the death of Anthony Comstock. His successor, wanting to ingratiate himself, is leaving nothing undone to make any intelligent discussion of that vital subject possible. Unfortunately, he and the police are evidently not aware that birth control has reached such dimensions that no amount of persecution and petty chicanery can halt its sweep.

It is hardly necessary to point out that whatever may be the law on birth control, those like myself who are disseminating knowledge along that line are not doing so because of personal gain or because we consider it lewd or obscene. We do it because we know the desparate condition among the masses of workers and even professional people, when they cannot meet the demands of numerous children. It is upon that ground that I mean to make my fight when I go into court. Unless I am very much mistaken, I am sustained in my contention by the fundamental principles in America, namely, that when a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go and the only way to get rid of the law, is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purposes and that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.

I am planning a campaign of publicity through a large meeting in Carnegie Hall and through every other channel that will reach the intelligent American public to the fact that while I am not particularly anxious to go to jail, I should yet be glad to do so, if thereby I can add my might to the importance of birth control and the wiping off our antiquated law upon the statute.

Hoping that you will not refuse to acquaint your readers with the facts set forth here,

Sincerely yours,

[Emma Goldman]

Questions on Letter:
  1. Describe what happened to Emma Goldman when she gave a lecture on birth control.

  2. Why was her lecture considered illegal?

  3. What did Emma Goldman mean when she referred to Anthony Comstock?

  4. Why do you think Goldman began her letter by trying to separate her reputation as an anarchist from her activities on behalf of the birth control movement?

  5. What do you think of Goldman's idea that people have a right to break or get rid of a law when it has outgrown time and necessity?

General Questions on This Exhibit:
  1. Is it illegal today to speak publicly on the topic of birth control? Abortion?

  2. Is it illegal today to have an abortion? What are the moral and political arguments for and against abortion rights?

  3. If you were in favor of affecting abortion laws, what tactics would you use to sway public opinion?

  4. Do you think that planned parenthood organizations should be required to inform parents when a minor seeks birth control devices?

  5. Do you think that the government should play a role in legislating women's reproductive functions? Why or why not?

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