I’d like to tell you a short story. It includes radicals, arrests, fugitives, political intrigue, and bizarre social outlooks. Sound good?
Our tale revolves around a woman by the name of Margaret. She was born in New York, in September of 1879, the sixth of 11 children. As you would expect, Margaret spent much of her youth helping around the house and caring for her younger siblings. Now with eleven kids, no doubt the family suffered a bit financially, but her older sisters were able to fund Margaret’s tuition to Claverack College. In a sweet and loving gesture, she returned home in 1896 to care for her mother, whom had contacted Tuberculosis. After her mother’s death in 1899, Margaret jumped around a bit, partly due to her marriage to William in 1902 and partly due to her health, as she had contracted TB while caring for her mother.
By 1911 or so, we find our happy couple in New York City. Margaret and William are living on the edge now, immersed in the radical bohemian culture thriving in Greenwich Village that only artists, intellectuals, activists and anarchists can enjoy. The dark evenings were filled with deep conversations as the wine flowed and the candles burned. Well, all this exposure to the world as it should be changed sweet Margaret, and by 1912, she was publishing an underground newsletter, The Woman Rebel. In it, she promoted the dissemination of information about contraceptives and the idea that a woman is the “absolute mistress of her body.”
Now, to you and me, these concepts are commonplace, but to the authorities at the time, well, they had to act. So, in 1914, sweet Margaret was indicted and then became a fugitive when she fled the country. Not to be outdone, Billy, you remember him, the husband, served 30 days in the slammer after being arrested for distributing radical material. Ultimately, when a well-to-do lawyer stepped-up to defend Margaret, the fed’s dropped the charges.
Back in the action, Margaret found herself under arrest again in 1916, nine days after she opened a clinic providing contraceptive information to the poor. Undaunted, our little radical began to show her true colors in 1917, when she founded the Birth Control Review. In it, she and her contributing authors promoted eugenics (you know, purifying the race and all that). One of these contributing authors was Ernst Rudin (Hitler’s Director of Genetic Sterilization and founder of the Nazi Society for Racial Hygiene).
In a choice quote, our sweet Peg argued that birth control clinics “could breed out of the race the scourges of transmissible disease, mental defect, poverty, lawlessness, crime…since these classes would be decreasing in numbers instead of breeding like weeds.”
By 1923, she established the American Birth Control League.
In 1926, The Review, printed an excerpt from an address to the Institute of Eugenics at Vassar College on August 5, 1926.
It now remains for the U.S. government to set a sensible example to the world by offering a bonus or yearly pension to all obviously unfit parents who allow themselves to be sterilized by harmless and scientific means. In this way the moron and the diseased would have no posterity to inherit their unhappy condition. The number of the feeble-minded would decrease and a heavy burden would be lifted from the shoulders of the fit.
That’s right, she promoted the idea of government checks in exchange for personal sterilization. And just who was it that sweet Peg was referencing in her cleansing and purifying materials? Interestingly, her American Birth Control League, opened a clinic in Harlem, in 1930. (continued)