The “birth control agitators” of Union Square

Talking about birth control in public was pretty radical stuff in 1916.

But that’s what anarchist, free love advocate, and all-around rule-breaker Emma Goldman (in photo below) and a handful of other “birth control agitators,” as a next-day New York Times article called them, did on May 20 of that year in Union Square. 

A crowd of about 500 came to hear them speak.

In the years following this rally, Margaret Sanger became the marquee name associated with the birth control movement. But it was Goldman, who lived on East 13th Street, who was an early pioneer.

She’d already been arrested for violating the 1873 Comstock Law, which prohibited distributing information on contraception. 

After an outcry that prompted the Manhattan DA at the time to promise he wouldn’t arrest activists who spoke in a “properly regulated forum,” Goldman and her cohorts set up the Union Square rally.

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17 Responses to “The “birth control agitators” of Union Square”

  1. Josie Says:

    The crowd appears to be exclusively male! That strikes me as odd.

  2. Alice Beebe Says:

    Why are they all men?

  3. Laura Says:

    What an amazing photograph!

    I suspect it wasn’t deemed appropriate for women to be seen at such a gathering…so they sent their husbands to learn something instead!

    Another birth control agitator of note at the time was Kitty Marion:

  4. Alice Beebe Says:

    Another one was Katharine Houghton who was Katharine Hepburn’s mother.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks. I guess their wives are home taking care of all the kids!

  6. Alice Beebe Says:

    I can’t see Katherine’s mother staying home barefoot and pregnant.

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    Me neither–I meant the wives of the men in the oddly all-male crowd.

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  9. Alice Beebe Says:

    Maybe they were all FBI. LOL

  10. DGK Says:

    Just like today, she was speaking to people who passed through Union Square. Many of them would stop and listen on their way to and from work, and most of those people would be men. It wasn’t a rally for contraception per-se, but rather to protest the conviction of her paramour Ben Reitman who’d been convicted of handing out pamphlets on the subject. She described it this way in her autobigraphy, Living My Life:

    Reitman’s “conviction was followed by a large protest meeting in Union Square. A touring-car was our platform, and we spoke to the working masses that were streaming out from the factories and shops. Bolton Hall presided; Ida Rauh and Jessie Ashley handed out the forbidden pamphlets. At the close of the meeting they were all arrested, including the chairman.”

  11. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks for the background info. Now it makes sense that the crowd is mostly men; May 20 was a Saturday, a workday back then.

  12. OtisMcGill Says:

    Fascinating. Thanks, DGK, for the research and the info.

  13. A lovely view of Union Square, 1905 « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] postcard depicts a quiet, sparsely populated square. Maybe it’s early in the morning, and the social justice protests that often took place here aren’t scheduled to start until […]

  14. RED DAVE Says:

    Margaret Sanger herself for many years lived and ran a birth control clinic just west of Union Square at 17 West 16th Street. A plaque marks the building today.

  15. WHAMMO! Says:

    Birth control is just a euphemism for eugenics.

  16. Robert L. Olson Says:

    Maybe, all the men wanted to understand what Goldman meant by “free love.”

  17. A bomb goes off at a Union Square rally in 1908 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Day parades, rallies in favor of birth control and suffrage—Union Square in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ground zero for […]

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