Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and anarchist Emma Goldman hold an important place in New York’s radical past. But history has skimmed over their relationship, which was both personal and political.
Two new biographies about these two pioneering women with close ties to New York City and to each other gave MetroFocus reason to interview Jean Baker, author of “Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion” and Vivian Gornick, author of “Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life.”
Q: What first brought Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to New York?
Jean Baker: In 1910, Margaret Sanger urged her family to move to New York City because she had grown restless and bored with suburban life. “She had tired of the “tamed domesticity of the pretty hillside suburb” and worried about becoming “kitchen-minded.”
In a city with mass transit, Sanger could work as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side. In the tenements she witnessed the dangers of unplanned pregnancy, both physical and psychological. Sanger’s iconic episode with Sadie Sachs, the young mother who died from an illegal, but-all-too common, abortion procedure, confirmed that birth control could prevent maternal deaths.
Vivian Gornick: Emma Goldman drew from that same experience of working with immigrant women on the Lower East Side, but she was anarchist so she believed birth control was a means for social and economic revolution.
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Publication Date: Nov. 2011
Q: When did Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman meet?
JB: The two women met in Greenwich village around 1910 when they were both active in New York’s labor movement. Certainly Goldman impressed Sanger from the very beginning, and although their relationship turned contentious later, they both appreciated and drew from each other’s distinct forms of radicalism.
Sanger immersed herself in the radical and bohemian culture that was flourishing in the village in the 1910s, but the city provided a living laboratory for her life’s work. Commercial sex was everywhere, there were over two thousand brothels in the Tenderloin district between Gramercy Park and Murray Hill. Prostitutes could earn up to fifty dollars a week, while the average garment worker earned six to twelve dollars a week.
VG: Goldman had been lecturing about family planning and women’s sexual freedom long before Sanger came to New York. In fact, when Sanger launched “The Woman Rebel,” a monthly newsletter promoting contraception, she used the famous anarchist phrase, “No Gods! No Masters!” as the slogan for her publication. The two women were also arrested in New York for protesting the 1873 Comstock Laws, which banned the distribution of information about contraceptives.
Q: Why do think standard histories of birth control and anarchism leave out their relationship?
VG: When I began my research, I was shocked to see how completely separate Goldman’s name had become detached from the birth control movement. Who knew that Sanger had published articles in “Mother Earth,” Goldman’s anarchist magazine? At the time, other anarchists in New York were not concerned with birth control or sexual liberation so much of Goldman’s work in those issues was left out of their collective history.
JB: In time, Sanger saw herself as the brand name of birth control. Being first was important so she refused to credit Goldman, whom she also believed had deserted birth control for an unattainable project.
Q: Why were they not accepted by the early 20th century feminists?
JB: Sanger’s separation of sex from reproduction was not initially accepted by the suffragist in New York, who initially thought birth control advocacy was sordid and vulgar. Moreover, suffragists played up the idea that women could “clean up politics” and birth control contaminated that effort because in these early days birth control was condemned as leading to promiscuity — of course for women, not men.
VB: Goldman thought the women’s right to vote was symbolic, whereas birth control provided women with actual, substantive means to better themselves. She was resurrected as a feminist by my generation because of her admiration for free love. Goldman’s analysis of women’s rights is hardly a model that we could use today.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor Sam Lewis interviewed Vivian Gornick by telephone and Jean Baker by email. The authors’ responses have been edited and condensed.