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
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
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
(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
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 . Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Margaret Sanger Papers)
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
(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)
Document maintained at: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/Exhibition/birthcontrol.html by the SunSITE Manager.