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Trusting women: A look back

Today is the 37 anniversary of the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision, and as such, it's also NARAL's 5th annual Blog for Choice Day. The question NARAL has posed for this year is "What does Trust Women mean to you?" And I've chosen to answer this as historians do best -- by dipping into the archives for a story about Jewish women and reproductive rights that goes back much farther than 1973.

On the morning of October 16, 1916, Jewish women -- many holding babies or pushing carriages, chatting with one another in Yiddish -- lined Amboy Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn. They waited there for hours for a chance to enter Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic and learn the secret of how to prevent conception. When the police raided and closed the clinic nine days later, it had recorded 464 clients, and those still waiting in line trailed the police wagon all the way to the station.

Brownsville's Jewish mothers were not just the clientele of Sanger's first clinic. They were also, according to Sanger, her "call to action," the inspiration behind the project. In the April 1918 edition of the Birth Control Review, she recalled "For nearly a week I waited for the call to action. It came one afternoon when five women with babies in their arms called on me. They came from Brownsville." Sanger's experience working as an obstetric nurse with Lillian Wald's Visiting Nurses' Association on the Lower East Side in the 1910s had taught her about the need for birth control in the teeming immigrant neighborhoods. But the Jewish women of Brownsville helped articulate the connection between contraception and issues such as poverty and hunger, defining from their own personal experience the economic necessity of legal birth control.

According to Sanger, the women who came to her door "told of the ravages of infantile paralysis in their district, of the low wages of the men, of the high cost of food. They told how their neighbors talked of the clinic, what a blessing, a godsend, it would be over there." These mothers were not alone in their support of Sanger; the neighborhood in general -- men and women -- provided a receptive atmosphere for the first clinic. The Jewish landlord of the space Sanger rented for the clinic even offered her a rent reduction when he heard her intentions.

When the clinic was raided and Sanger arrested and put on trial, the Jewish community remained supportive in person and in print, attending rallies, writing supportive articles in the Jewish press, even testifying on her behalf. Sanger was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in the workhouse. But before she had even finished serving her sentence, the Brownsville women had taken a leap into further activism, moving from birth control to the high food prices in New York City. Throughout February and March 1917, food riots led by Jewish immigrant women swept through the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As one Brownsville woman, Sarah Goldstein, wrote to the Birth Control Review, "We women here want to find out what the president, the mayor, and the judges, and everybody is trying to do. First they put Margaret Sanger in jail for telling us women how not to have any more children, and then they get busy for the starve [sic] of the ones we've got..."

Sarah Goldstein's words exemplify why we should Trust Women. All women have the wisdom of our own experience -- wisdom that can make immigrant women who spoke only broken English the educators and allies of a pioneer like Margaret Sanger. Sanger trusted these immigrant women to know when they had reached the limits of their families' financial ability to support more children; she trusted them to represent the need that she fought for; she trusted them to identify other social issues, like high food prices, that could be framed in the context of the birth control movement. Perhaps more importantly, these women trusted themselves and each other -- enough to go to the clinic, to take to the streets, to testify at Sanger's trial, and to challenge the kosher meat industry (and one another -- women who broke the butcher boycott risked being attacked with raw chickens.)

From those early days as Sanger's "call to action" to their recent leadership in protecting abortion access in the proposed health care reform bills, Jews -- as individuals and as a community -- have continually been prominent voices in support of women's right to an abortion, to safe birth control, and to health care. In each political battle, Jews have understood that reproductive rights stand at that central nexus of economic power, medical power, and women's self-determination.

Our social standing in America has shifted remarkably in the course of the past century, from that of poor immigrants to affluent and influential players in contemporary politics. Reproductive rights may no longer make or break the economic position of most American Jews today. However, our history and our current influence demand that we speak out about and take a stand on the still-central power struggle around reproductive rights. We would do well to remember those Brownsville mothers, who took to the streets in support of Sanger and the right to control their own reproduction. If they can do it, so can we.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Trusting women: A look back." 22 January 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/brownsville>.

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