American Birth Control Movement
Jewish women from a range of social and economic backgrounds found common political cause in the American birth control movement and profoundly affected its successes in the early twentieth century. Radical and socialist Jewish women distributed information about birth control, in defiance of anti-obscenity laws, to working class women; middle-class women established clinics and lobbied to overturn federal and state anti-obscenity statutes known as the Comstock Laws, which restricted the publication, distribution, and even discussion of material that the government deemed obscene; professional women affiliated with the movement as gynecologists and social workers; and poor women enthusiastically sought the inexpensive services of birth control clinics. This article charts the grassroots and organizational activism of Jewish women in the American birth control movement during its formative years, 1900 to 1945.
Jewish women in western and central Europe and in the United States had proved themselves to be especially committed to reducing their fertility rates well before the start of the American birth control movement in the early twentieth century. Using available contraceptive methods and performing abortions at rates that far exceeded other religiously or ethnically defined groups, central and western European Jews attained rapidly declining fertility rates by the late nineteenth century and soon controlled their fertility more effectively than their non-Jewish peers.
The arrival in the United States of eastern European Jews, whose fertility rates had yet to decline, aroused considerable interest among health care reformers. Although eastern European Jewish families were generally quite large upon arrival in the United States and in the first generation, studies of fertility rates according to ethnic or religious affiliation in the 1930s found that American Jews, including those of the first or second generation, avidly sought birth control services to limit their relatively high fertility rates. Jewish women’s commitment to the birth control cause had dramatic consequences: Though Jews in New York City had the highest number of children per marriage of any immigrant group in 1915, by the early 1930s, Jewish fertility rates compared favorably to the national average.
Jewish women activists were among the first in the United States to bring the need for women’s reproductive choice to the public’s attention. Radicals such as Emma Goldman and Rose Pastor Stokes lectured on the importance of contraception and protested against the Comstock Laws, broadly defined anti-obscenity laws. Born in Russia to a traditional Jewish family, Emma Goldman became one of America’s most controversial radical leaders and an early advocate of contraception. In 1900, fourteen years before the founding of Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic, she began including the importance of contraception among her lecture topics. Affiliated with Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) through Socialist circles, Goldman defended Sanger’s distribution of birth control literature and began a national lecture tour in 1914 on the importance of legal contraception. Goldman felt that it was especially important for her to lecture on birth control when she spoke at “Yiddish meetings,” “because the women on the East Side need that information most.” Like most of her contemporary radical activists, Goldman supported a eugenic argument for birth control: fewer and better children would create a healthier human race. With Ben Reitman (1880–1942), her fellow activist and lover, she published a four-page pamphlet, “Why and How the Poor Should not Have Many Children,” which included information about condoms, cervical caps, diaphragms, suppositories, and douches. Goldman faced arrest several times under anti-obscenity laws, and she eventually broke with Sanger for not supporting the anarchist’s radical tactics.
Rose Pastor Stokes began her involvement with the birth control cause by handing out leaflets describing the benefits of contraception at a rally to protest Goldman’s arrest. Stokes had risen from poverty as a poor eastern European immigrant working in a Cleveland cigar factory, to become an eager New York journalist who made the front page herself when she married millionaire Socialist J.G. Phelps Stokes. In 1915 Pastor Stokes became the financial secretary of the National Birth Control League (NBCL), an organization committed to legalizing the publication and distribution of birth control information by repealing anti-obscenity laws. Pastor Stokes did not limit herself to this narrowly legislative approach, however, and soon joined a variety of birth control organizations.
Immigrant Jewish women and their first-generation children educated themselves about birth control through the Jewish press. Sanger had several of her pamphlets about birth control translated into Yiddish and Polish, but she was not the only source of birth control-related information for Jewish immigrant readers in the United States. Ben-Zion Liber wrote and published the magazine Unser gesund, “Our Health,” which had four thousand subscribers in its first year. “A Jewish monthly for enlightenment in health questions,” it provided news of the birth control movement and of Sanger’s legislative and court battles. He urged his readers to reject “die alte minhagim,” the old ways that might rule out birth control as an option for limiting family size. One issue included “The Truth About Sexuality,” an illustrated pamphlet. A book about sexuality, Dos geshlekhts lebn, went through four editions in 1914, 1918, 1919, and 1927.
The weekly Women’s Page of the Jewish Daily Forward, or Forverts, provided a forum for education and debate about birth control. The Forward had a daily circulation of two hundred thousand in 1919, making it the leading Yiddish newspaper in the world and “the voice of a vibrant left-wing working-class Yiddish culture.” Advice columns offered guidance to mothers and brides, who often wrote in with anxieties or dilemmas related to sex and family size. The columnists reasoned that limiting family size would improve the “quality of life for mothers” and help them gain the ideal socialist family.
Middle-class Jewish women’s voluntary organizations provided opportunities for their members to contribute to the birth control cause and to help women of lesser means gain access to contraceptives, abortions, and various types of reproductive medicine.
The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) pioneered the establishment of birth control clinics, usually referred to as Mother’s Health Bureaus, during the 1920s and 1930s. Family-centered care had always been at the core of the NCJW’s efforts. Emphasizing the woman’s role in her home and with her family, the Council contributed its institutional goals and values to the birth control movement.
In 1932 the NCJW’s Brooklyn section announced the opening of a Maternal Health Center. Throughout the 1930s the Brooklyn NCJW supplied funds and volunteers for the Center, which steadily expanded to include three clinics. By the fall of 1946, the Brooklyn Mothers’ Health Clinic linked its services with Planned Parenthood of Kings County, and in 1947 the clinic handled three thousand five hundred cases. In 1955 the Brooklyn Section gave full responsibility for the clinic to the newly formed Planned Parenthood Committee of Brooklyn.
The NCJW’s New York section opened a Mother’s Health Bureau at its Council House in the Bronx in 1930 or 1931. During its first years of operation, the NCJW struggled to keep the busy clinic staffed and stocked with supplies, as doctor, nurse, and volunteers handled a deluge of clients. Affiliated with Sanger’s American Birth Control League, the Bronx clinic assisted approximately five hundred patients in 1935.
Midwestern Jewish women’s organizations also established clinics. The NCJW’s Detroit section opened a Mother’s Health Clinic in 1926 or 1927, the first birth control clinic between New York and Chicago. The Chicago Women’s Aid (CWA) began in 1882 as the Young Ladies Aid Society to assist Russian immigrants and had a mainly Jewish membership throughout its existence. CWA opened a birth control clinic in 1923 and maintained ties to Planned Parenthood from 1928 to 1947.
Not all Jewish women participated in the birth control movement through Jewish agencies like the NCJW. Active in a variety of Jewish, feminist, interracial, and Zionist organizations, Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro, North Carolina, joined the birth control movement as a lobbyist. She petitioned Congress on behalf of legislative campaigns to remove criminal penalties for importing birth control devices and transporting birth control information through the United States Postal Service. She supported Planned Parenthood financially throughout her life.
Like many of her peers, Weil’s interest in birth control included a eugenic bias. During the Depression many members of the middle class observed the population increase among the immigrant poor on relief with apprehension. Doctors informed about birth control, she wrote to Margaret Sanger in 1932, would appreciate, “the importance of controlling the reproduction of the unfit.” Between 1935 and 1942 Weil served on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Maternal Health League, which sought to “do something” about the high birth rate and infant and maternal death rates among families on relief. For middle-class women who supported the birth control movement, advocating contraception presented a means of allaying their class fears while crusading for their own interests as women.
Finally, Jewish women’s activism in the American birth control movement also included close association with Margaret Sanger and other national birth control organizations. Two of Sanger’s primary assistants, Anna Lifschiz (1900?–?) and Fania Mindell (1891–?), were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Lifschiz worked as Sanger’s secretary between 1916 and the early 1920s. Mindell, a Russian immigrant who trained in the United States to be a social worker, helped Sanger set up the Brownsville clinic in Brooklyn, administered the clinic during its first week of operation, and read birth control literature aloud in Yiddish to their many Jewish clients. When police shut down the clinic on obscenity charges a week later they arrested Mindell, though a judge later reversed her sentence, a fifty-dollar fine, on appeal.
Jewish women served as directors and staff at the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (BCCRB), later called the Margaret Sanger Bureau, which opened in New York City in 1923. A legal loophole allowed doctors to prescribe birth control if it seemed “medically indicated,” or if the patient’s physiological condition would make pregnancy hazardous. Dr. Hannah Meyer Stone, the daughter of eastern European Jewish immigrants, became director of the BCCRB in 1927. Stone amended the clinic’s list of medical indications to include the desire for child spacing and psychological factors. Over five thousand women received treatment at the clinic in 1929, including return visits for checkups and supplies, “more than the aggregate of all the rest of the voluntary birth control clinics in the country combined.” Stone kept the clinic open five days a week, with evening sessions for working women and special educational sessions that taught hundreds of physicians how to fit diaphragms. Twelve doctors worked part-time for her in addition to the nurses, social workers, administrators, volunteers, and field workers she required for keeping detailed records and following up on patients. Lena Levine, the daughter of immigrants from Vilna, Lithuania, directed the clinic for several years, helped Sanger found Planned Parenthood in 1948, and became the medical secretary of International Planned Parenthood. Levine also coauthored sexual and medical advice books.
Female Jewish doctors directed birth control clinics throughout the country, Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros (1869–1946), M.D., in Chicago; Bessie Moses, M.D., in Baltimore; Sarah Marcus (1894–1985), M.D., in Cleveland; and Nadina Rinstein Kavinoky (1888–?), M.D., in Los Angeles. For all of these women, working in a birth control clinic provided the professional recognition and responsibility still largely unavailable to them in the male-dominated worlds of academic medicine and hospital politics.
Chicago Women’s Aid Papers, University of Illinois Library.
Gertrude Weil Papers, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, North Carolina. Margaret Sanger Papers—LC, Reel 9.National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section and Brooklyn Section, Papers, American Jewish Historical Society.
Printed and Secondary Sources
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: 1992.
Goldman, Emma. Living My Life (1931), reprint London: 1988.
Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America (1976) reprint New York: 1990.
Sanger, Margaret. An Autobiography (1938), reprint New York: 1971.
Tobin-Schlesinger, Kathleen. “Population and Power: The Religious Debate Over Contraception.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1994.