Though people had practiced methods of fertility control for hundreds of years, the 20th century saw the advent of more reliable technologies that allowed a sharper separation between sex and reproduction. Before World War I, birth control advocates confronted numerous and often hostile opponents. By the 1920s, though, changing sexual ideologies made such ideas more widely acceptable. The major figure in the American birth control movement, Margaret Sanger, began her crusade as a militant radical whose birth control agitation grew out of her nursing experience in working-class communities. In her short-lived journal, The Woman Rebel, Sanger proclaimed, “A woman’s body belongs to herself alone” and openly defended unwed motherhood. In these excerpts from The Woman Rebel, Sanger announced the journal’s feminist and radical commitments and reported on “The Post Office Ban,” the U.S. Post Office’s suppression of the journal under the Comstock laws (which prohibited the use of the U.S. mails to distribute information about contraception).
This paper will not be the champion of any “ism.”
All rebel women are invited to contribute to its columns.
The majority of papers usually adjust themselves to the ideas of their readers but the WOMAN REBEL will obstinately refuse to be adjusted.
The aim of this paper will be to stimulate working women to think for themselves and to build up a conscious fighting character.
An early feature will be a series of articles written by the editor for girls from fourteen to eighteen years of age. In this present chaos of sex atmosphere it is difficult for the girl of this uncertain age to know just what to do or really what constitutes clean living without prudishness. All this slushy talk about white slavery, the man painted and described as a hideous vulture pouncing down upon the young, pure and innocent girl, drugging her through the medium of grape juice and lemonade and then dragging her off to his foul den for other men equally as vicious to feed and fatten on her enforced slavery—surely this picture is enough to sicken and disgust every thinking woman and man, who has lived even a few years past the adolescent age. Could any more repulsive and foul conception of sex be given to adolescent girls as a preparation for life than this picture that is being perpetuated by the stupidly ignorant in the name of “sex education”!
If it were possible to get the truth from girls who work in prostitution to-day, I believe most of them would tell you that the first sex experience was with a sweetheart or through the desire for a sweetheart or something impelling within themselves, the nature of which they knew not, neither could they control. Society does not forgive this act when it is based upon the natural impulses and feelings of a young girl. It prefers the other story of the grape juice procurer which makes it easy to shift the blame from its own shoulders, to cast the stone and to evade the unpleasant facts that it alone is responsible for. It sheds sympathetic tears over white slavery, holds the often mythical procurer up as a target, while in reality it is supported by the misery it engenders.
If, as reported, there are approximately 35,000 women working as prostitutes in New York City alone, is it not sane to conclude that some force, some living, powerful, social force is at play to compel these women to work at a trade which involves police persecution, social ostracism and the constant danger of exposure to venereal diseases. From my own knowledge of adolescent girls and from sincere expressions of women working as prostitutes inspired by mutual understanding and confidence I claim that the first sexual act of these so-called wayward girls is partly given, partly desired yet reluctantly so because of the fear of the consequences together with the dread of lost respect of the man. These fears interfere with mutuality of expression—the man becomes conscious of the responsibility of the set and often refuses to see her again, sometimes leaving the town and usually denouncing her as having been with “other fellows.” His sole aim is to throw off responsibility. The same uncertainty in these emotions is experienced by girls in marriage in as great a proportion as in the unmarried. After the first experience the life of a girl varies. All these girls do not necessarily go into prostitution. They have had an experience which has not “ruined” them, but rather given them a larger vision of life, stronger feelings and a broader understanding of human nature. The adolescent girl does not understand herself. She is full of contradictions, whims, emotions. For her emotional nature longs for caresses, to touch, to kiss. She is often as well satisfied to hold hands or to go arm in arm with a girl as in the companionship of a boy.
It is these and kindred facts upon which the WOMAN REBELwill dwell from time to time and from which it is hoped the young girl will derive some knowledge of her nature, and conduct her life upon such knowledge.
It will also be the aim of the WOMAN REBEL to advocate the prevention of conception and to impart such knowledge in the columns of this paper.
Other subjects, including the slavery through motherhood; through things, the home, public opinion and so forth, will be dealt with.
It is also the aim of this paper to circulate among those women who work in prostitution; to voice their wrongs; to expose the police persecution which hovers over them and to give free expression to their thoughts, hopes and opinions.
And at all times the WOMAN REBEL will strenuously advocate economic emancipation.
THE PREVENTION OF CONCEPTION
Is there any reason why women should not receive clean, harmless, scientific knowledge on how to prevent conception? Everybody is aware that the old, stupid fallacy that such knowledge will cause a girl to enter into prostitution has long been shattered. Seldom does a prostitute become pregnant. Seldom does the girl practicing promiscuity become pregnant. The woman of the upper middle class have all available knowledge and implements to prevent conception. The woman of the lower middle class is struggling for this knowledge. She tries various methods of prevention, and after a few years of experience plus medical advice succeeds in discovering some method suitable to her individual self. The woman of the people is the only one left in ignorance of this information. Her neighbors, relatives and friends tell her stories of special devices and the success of them all. They tell her also of the blood-sucking men with M. D. after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so. But the working woman’s purse is thin. Its far cheaper to have a baby, “though God knows what it will do after it gets here.” Then, too, all other classes of women live in places where there is at least a semblance of privacy and sanitation. It is easier for them to care for themselves whereas the large majority of the women of the people have no bathing or sanitary conveniences. This accounts too for the fact that the higher the standard of living, the more care can be taken and fewer children result. No plagues, famine or wars could ever frighten the capitalist class so much as the universal practice of the prevention of conception. On the other hand no better method could be utilized for increasing the wages of the workers.
As is well known, a law exists forbidding the imparting of information on this subject, the penalty being several years' imprisonment. Is it not time to defy this law! And what fitter place could be found than in the pages of the WOMAN REBEL!
Marriage, which is a personal agreement between a man and a woman, should be no concern of the State or of the Church. Never have either of these institutions interested themselves in the happiness or health of the individual. Never have they concerned themselves that children be born in healthy and clean surroundings, which might insure their highest development. The Church has been and is anxious only if a child be trained Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and so forth. The State and the Church are concerned only in maintaining and perpetuating themselves even to the detriment and sacrifice of the human race. In the willingness to accept without protest or question the indignities imposed through the barbarities of the Law, together with the stupid superstitions of the Church, can be traced a great proportion of the world’s misery.
That there exists in all Nature an attraction which takes place between particles of bodies and unites to form a chemical compound is not doubted. This same attraction exists in men and women and will, unconsciously perhaps, cause them to seek a mate just as other organisms do.
Priests and marriage laws have no power or control over this attraction nor can they make desirable a union where this attraction does not exist.
Marriage laws abrogate the freedom of woman by enforcing upon her a continuous sexual slavery and a compulsory motherhood.
Marriage laws have been dictated and dominated by the Church always and ever upon the unquestionable grounds of the wisdom of the Bible.
A man and woman who under a natural condition avow their love for each other should be immediately qualified by this to give expression to their love or to perpetuate the race without the necessity of a public declaration.
A reciprocal, spontaneous voluntary declaration of love and mutual feelings by a man and woman is the expression of Nature’s desires. Were it not natural it would not be so and being natural it is right.
The marriage institution viewed from the light of human experience and the demands of the individual has proven a failure. Statistical reports show that one out of every twelve marriages in the United States has resulted in a divorce—which does not include the thousands of women who want divorces—but on account of the Church and conventions are restrained from obtaining them. Nor does it mention the thousands of women too poor to obtain the price to set in motion the ponderous machinery of the divorce courts. The divorce courts give us only a hint of the dissatisfaction and unhappiness underlying the institution of marriage.
Superstition; blind following; unthinking obedience on the part of working women; together with the pretence, hypocrisy and sham morality of the women of the middle class have been the greatest obstacles in the obtaining of woman’s freedom.
Every change in social life is accomplished only by a struggle. Rebel women of the world must fight for the freedom to harmonize their actions with the natural desires of their being, for their deeds are but the concrete expressions of their thoughts.
The Post Office Ban
The woman rebel feels proud the post office authorities did not approve of her.
She shall blush with shame if ever she be approved of by officialism of “comstockism.”
Rebel women wanted
Who deny the right of the State to deprive women of such knowledge as would enable them to take upon themselves voluntary motherhood.
Who deny the right of the State to prohibit such knowledge which would add to the freedom and happiness of the people.
Who demand that those desiring to live together in love shall be provided with such knowledge and experience as Science has developed, which would prevent conception.
Who will assist in the work of increasing the demand for this information.
Who have the courage and backbone to fight with “THE WOMAN REBEL” against this outrageous suppression, whereby a woman has no control of the function of motherhood.
Who are willing to enter this fight, and continue to the end.
Source: The Woman Rebel. No Gods No Masters, March 1914, 1, 8, 16.
See Also:Enemies, A Drama of Modern Marriage: The Sexual Revolution Enacted
"Love and Companionship Came First": Floyd Dell on Modern Marriage
"The Civilizing Force of Birth Control": Margaret Sanger Becomes a Moderate
"I Am Almost a Prisoner": Women Plead for Contraception