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Margaret Sanger

American Nurse and Social Reformer

1879-1966

A selection from
WOMAN AND THE NEW RACE

Narrated by Beth Richmond

Download mp3 file: Woman And The New Race

This file is 5.9 MB; running time is 13 minutes
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Woman's Struggle for Freedom

Behind all customs of whatever nature; behind all social unrest, behind all movements, behind all revolutions, are great driving forces, which in their action and reaction upon conditions, give character to civilization. If, in seeking to discover the source of a custom, of a movement or of a revolution, we stop at surface conditions, we shall never discern more than a superficial aspect of the underlying truth.

This is the error into which the historian has almost universally fallen. It is also a common error among sociologists. It is the fashion nowadays, for instance, to explain all social unrest in terms of economic conditions. This is a valuable working theory and has done much to awaken men to their injustice toward one another, but it ignores the forces within humanity which drive it to revolt. It is these forces, rather than the conditions upon which they react, that are the important factors. Conditions change, but the animating force goes on forever.

So, too, with woman's struggle for emancipation. Women in all lands and all ages have instinctively desired family limitation. Usually this desire has been laid to economic pressure. Frequently the pressure has existed, but the driving force behind woman's aspiration _toward freedom_ has lain deeper. It has asserted itself among the rich and among the poor, among the intelligent and the unintelligent. It has been manifested in such horrors as infanticide, child abandonment and abortion.

The only term sufficiently comprehensive to define this motive power of woman's nature is the _feminine spirit_. That spirit manifests itself most frequently in motherhood, but it is greater than maternity. Woman herself, all that she is, all that she has ever been, all that she may be, is but the outworking of this inner spiritual urge. Given free play, this supreme law of her nature asserts itself in beneficent ways; interfered with, it becomes destructive. Only when we understand this can we comprehend the efforts of the feminine spirit to liberate itself.

When the outworking of this force within her is hampered by the bearing and the care of too many children, woman rebels. Hence it is that, from time immemorial, she has sought some form of family limitation. When she has not employed such measures consciously, she has done so instinctively. Where laws, customs and religious restrictions do not prevent, she has recourse to contraceptives. Otherwise, she resorts to child abandonment, abortion and infanticide, or resigns herself hopelessly to enforced maternity.

These violent means of freeing herself from the chains of her own reproductivity have been most in evidence where economic conditions have made the care of children even more of a burden than it would otherwise have been. But, whether in the luxurious home of the Athenian, the poverty-ridden dwelling of the Chinese, or the crude hut of the primitive Australian savage, the woman whose development has been interfered with by the bearing and rearing of children has tried desperately, frantically, too often in vain, to take and hold her freedom.

Individual men have sometimes acquiesced in these violent measures, but in the mass they have opposed. By law, by religious canons, by public opinion, by penalties ranging all the way from ostracism to beheading, they have sought to crush this effort. Neither threat of hell nor the infliction of physical punishment has availed. Women have deceived and dared, resisted and defied the power of church and state. Quietly, desperately, consciously, they have marched to the gates of death to gain the liberty which the feminine spirit has desired.

In savage life as well as in barbarism and civilization has woman's instinctive urge to freedom and a wider development asserted itself in an effort, successful or otherwise, to curtail her family.

"The custom of infanticide prevails or has prevailed," says Westermark in his monumental work, _The Origin and Development of the Moral Idea_, "not only in the savage world but among the semi-civilized and civilized races."

When a traveller reproached the women of one of the South American Indian tribes for the practice of infanticide, McLennan says he was met by the retort, "Men have no business to meddle with women's affairs."

McLennan ventures the opinion that the practice of abortion so widely noted among Indians in the Western Hemisphere, "must have supervened on a practice of infanticide."

Infanticide did not go out of fashion with the advance from savagery to barbarism and civilization. Rather, it became, as in Greece and Rome, a recognized custom with advocates among leaders of thought and action.

So did abortion, which some authorities regard as a development springing from infanticide and tending to supersede it as a means of getting rid of undesired children.

Athens and Sparta must be regarded as giving very strong indications that the Grecian women not only approved of family limitation by the destruction of unwanted children, but that at least part of their motive was personal freedom.

How desperately woman desired freedom to develop herself as an individual, apart from motherhood, is indicated by the fact that infanticide was "the most common crime of Western Europe," in spite of the fact that some of the most terrible punishments ever inflicted by law were meted out to those women who sought this means of escape from the burden of unwanted children. Dr. Werner shows that in Germany, for instance, in the year 1532, it was the law that those guilty of infanticide were "to be buried alive or impaled. In order to prevent desperation, however, they shall be drowned if it is possible to get to a stream or river, in which they shall be torn with glowing tongs beforehand."

Notwithstanding the fact that at one time in Germany, the punishment was that of drowning in a sack containing a serpent, a cat and a dog—in order that the utmost agony might be inflicted—one sovereign alone condemned 20,000 women to death for infanticide, without noticeably reducing the practice.

To-day, in spite of the huge numbers of abortions and the multiplication of foundlings' homes and orphans' asylums, infanticide is still an occasional crime in all countries. As to woman's share in the practice, let us add this word from Havelock Ellis, taken from the chapter on "Morbid Psychic Phenomena" in his book, _Man and Woman_:

"Infanticide is the crime in which women stand out in the greatest contrast to men; in Italy, for example, for every 100 men guilty of infanticide, there are 477 women." And he remarks later that when a man commits this crime, "he usually does it at the instance of some woman."

Infanticide tends to disappear as skill in producing abortions is developed or knowledge of contraceptives is spread, and only then. One authority, as will be seen in a later chapter, estimates the number of abortions performed annually in the United States at 1,000,000, and another believes that double that number are produced.

"Among the Hindus and Mohammedans, artificial abortion is extremely common," says Westermark. "In Persia every illegitimate pregnancy ends with abortion. In Turkey, both among the rich and the poor, even married women very commonly procure abortion after they have given birth to two children, one of which is a boy."

The nations mentioned are typical of the world, except those countries where information concerning contraceptives has enabled women to limit their families without recourse to operations.

It is apparent that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide. The Roman Catholic church, which has fought these practices from the beginning, has been unable to check them; and no more powerful agency could have been brought into play. It took that church, even in the days of its unlimited power, many centuries to come to its present sweeping condemnation of abortion. The severity of the condemnation depended upon the time at which the development of the foetus was interfered with.

As it was with the fight of the church against abortion, so it is with the effort to prevent abortion in the United States to-day. All efforts to stop the practice are futile. Apparently, the numbers of these illegal operations are increasing from year to year. From year to year more women will undergo the humiliation, the danger and the horror of them, and the terrible record, begun with the infanticide of the primitive peoples, will go on piling up its volume of human misery and racial damage, until society awakens to the fact that a fundamental remedy must be applied.

To apply such a remedy, society must recognize the terrible lesson taught by the innumerable centuries of infanticide and foeticide. If these abhorrent practices could have been ended by punishment and suppression, they would have ceased long ago. But to continue suppression and punishment, and let the matter rest there, is only to miss the lesson—only to permit conditions to go from bad to worse.

What is that lesson? It is this: woman's desire for freedom is born of the feminine spirit, which is the absolute, elemental, inner urge of womanhood. It is the strongest force in her nature; it cannot be destroyed; it can merely be diverted from its natural expression into violent and destructive channels.

The chief obstacles to the normal expression of this force are undesired pregnancy and the burden of unwanted children. These obstacles have always been and always will be swept aside by a considerable proportion of women. Driven by the irresistible force within them, they will always seek wider freedom and greater self-development, regardless of the cost. The sole question that society has to answer is, how shall women be permitted to attain this end?

Are you horrified at the record set down in this chapter? It is well that you should be. You cannot help society to apply the fundamental remedy unless you know these facts and are conscious of their fullest significance.

Society, in dealing with the feminine spirit, has its choice of clearly defined alternatives. It can continue to resort to violence in an effort to enslave the elemental urge of womanhood, making of woman a mere instrument of reproduction and punishing her when she revolts. Or, it can permit her to choose whether she shall become a mother and how many children she will have. It can go on trying to crush that which is uncrushable, or it can recognize woman's claim to freedom, and cease to impose diverting and destructive barriers. If we choose the latter course, we must not only remove all restrictions upon the use of scientific contraceptives, but we must legalize and encourage their use.

This problem comes home with peculiar force to the people of America. Do we want the millions of abortions performed annually to be multiplied? Do we want the precious, tender qualities of womanhood, so much needed for our racial development, to perish in these sordid, abnormal experiences? Or, do we wish to permit woman to find her way to fundamental freedom through safe, unobjectionable, scientific means? We have our choice. Upon our answer to these questions depends in a tremendous degree the character and the capabilities of the future American race.

More information about Margaret Sanger from Wikipedia




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