Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Sanger’

The pioneering birth control clinics of New York

February 16, 2013

BrownsvilleclinicThe first clinic got its start in October 1916. It opened in a storefront on Amboy Street in working-class Brownsville, Brooklyn (left).

Fliers attracted 100 women on opening day.

“For ten cents each woman received [a] pamphlet What Every Girl Should Know, a short lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on the use of various contraceptives,” states this NYU website.

amboystflyerpopThis was radical stuff a century ago. No wonder it only took days for the woman who started the clinic, social reformer and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, to be arrested.

Sanger was charged with violating the Comstock Act. Established in 1873, it made discussing and administering birth control a crime.

Sanger spent a month in jail in Queens. But there was one upside: though an appeals court upheld her conviction, the judge determined that nothing in the Comstock Act prohibited doctors, rather than activists, from giving out contraception.

With this in mind, Sanger founded her second clinic, what she called the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, in 1923.

Staffed by MDs, the clinic disseminated information about contraception and offered birth control devices—serving more than 1,200 women in its first year, according to The Encyclopedia of New York State.

The clinic moved into this lovely circa-1846 row house at 17 West 16th Street in Chelsea in 1930.

“By the 1930s it served over 10,000 women per year and was the largest birth control clinic in the country,” the authors state.


For decades it was the only clinic giving out birth control to unmarried women, and interestingly, it treated men too. In 1969, it opened the first outpatient vasectomy center in the country.

After 50 years and a huge change in acceptance of birth control, the clinic closed in 1973. The 16th Street house is now a private home, albiet with a plaque designating it as a national historic landmark.

The “birth control agitators” of Union Square

March 13, 2010

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.

Mabel Dodge’s bohemian salons in the Village

October 10, 2009

Greenwich Village in the teens was a forward-thinking place, populated by artists and writers, anarchists and free-love practitioners, labor leaders and birth-control proponents. Bringing them together each week in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue was 33-year-old Mabel Dodge.

Was she really interested in new ideas, or just a celebrity hound? It’s hard to say; she simply proclaimed that she “wanted to know everybody.”

MabeldodgeBorn rich in Buffalo, she found herself in the Village in 1912 after spending years in Italy with her second husband, where she mixed with the European culturati.

In New York, now divorced, Mabel decided to gather the city’s “movers and shakers” together during weekly salons, where ideas could be presented and debated. 

Mabel’s salons were legendary. Anarchist Emma Goldman talked to poet Edward Arlington Robinson, while Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger chatted up artist Alfred Stieglitz.

Writer John Reed, who later became her lover, also was a regular. She held nights devoted to  “dangerous characters,” “sex antagonism,” and “evenings of art and unrest.”  

The salons came to and end after a few years. Mabel wrote for various publications and put out her memoirs in the 1930s. By then she was living in Taos, New Mexico, with her fourth husband. She died there in 1962.