1929 April 16

Margaret Sanger Appears on Stage Gagged in Boston


Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger appeared on stage at Ford Hall Forum in Boston wearing a gag. The gag was to protest a ban on her speaking in Boston by Mayor James Curley. He had previously banned Sanger from speaking on birth control in Boston in 1923, 1924, and 1925. Mayor Curley denounced birth control as a “pernicious doctrine.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., read Sanger’s speech on this day; she removed her gag briefly so she could eat.

Mayor Curley was able to ban speeches in private auditoriums because as mayor he had the power to license buildings and auditoriums, and had no trouble revoking or threatening to revoke licenses because of “”structural deficiencies” in a building.

It was a big day for First Amendment issues in Boston. Earlier in the day, the obscenity trial over Thedore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy began (see the separate event on this day, April 16, 1929).

Sanger’s career as a birth control advocate was filled with many dramatic events. Her magazine, Woman Rebel, was banned from the mails on April 2, 1914. She opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in Brooklyn on October 16, 1916. For this she was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 30 days in jail on February 2, 1917. She was prevented from speaking on a number of occasions in addition to the events of this day. See for example, October 25, 1916. A planned trip to Japan in 1949 was cancelled because of sensitivity over birth control on August 30, 1949, but she had a triumphal visit several years later.

Sanger’s organization, the American Birth Control League, evolved into today’s Planned Parenthood Federation (see January 18, 1939).

Over the years, birth control and Planned Parenthood continued to come under political attack. In the summer of 2015 an anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, released a series of videos which had been secretly recorded and then selectively edited to create the false impression that Planned Parenthood had been selling fetal tissue obtained from abortions. The videos sparked political attacks on Planned Parenthood from Republican Governors and presidential candidates. On September 29, 2015, Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards replied to criticisms of the organization in a long hearing before the House of Representatives.

Read: Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (2007).

Learn more about Sanger: https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/margaret-sanger/

Learn more about sex and civil liberties: Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2013)

Read about Mayor Curley’s colorful career: Jack Beatty, The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874–1958 (2000)

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