Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.
May 5, 1916: Rose Pastor Stokes has caused a sensation in Carnegie Hall by distributing small slips of paper containing birth control information, a clear violation of Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code. She took this step at a mass meeting called to celebrate Emma Goldman’s release from prison, where she had just served two weeks in the workhouse for the same offense.
Though the main event of the evening was supposed to be Goldman’s speech, it was eclipsed by the pandemonium set off when those in the audience stormed the stage to obtain knowledge criminalized by the State of New York, and classed by the Federal Government as “obscenity” under the Comstock Act of 1873.
During part of her speech, Stokes spoke directly to those whose job it is to enforce these Victorian Era laws:
“You, gentlemen, who earn your living by hunting down the victims of a maladjusted society, and you, gentlemen of the club, if you are here to interfere with, or arrest, or provide the authorities with evidence against anyone ignoring this unjust section of the law, I address myself to you. I should be truly sorry to place you under so mean an obligation, for I know your hearts well enough to know that you do not always relish the job your economic insecurity forces you to hold on to. But I cannot do other than again take the opportunity afforded me here of passing out information to wives and mothers in need.”
At the conclusion of the evening’s speeches, many audience members rushed forward and scrambled for the slips that Stokes had promised to distribute. She found herself quickly surrounded and besieged as private security officers tried unsuccessfully to maintain order. A false report then began to spread that Stokes was being arrested. But Max Eastman, in charge of the meeting, stood on one of the few unoverturned chairs and reassured the audience that the clamor on stage was not the result of an arrest, but only because so many people were trying to obtain the slips at once, and resentment by a few men and boys that only women were being given the information.
After a substantial number of slips had been distributed, some of the other speakers (Ben Reitman, Arturo Giovanitti, Leonard Abbott and Max Eastman) pushed their way through the crowd and escorted Stokes off stage, enabling her to escape the chaos. After resting for a few minutes, she left the hall, saying: “I expect to be arrested,” though no attempt was made to do so tonight.
This isn’t the first time Stokes has openly defied the law. On April 19th, at a dinner put on by birth control advocates at the Hotel Brevoort, she went among the guests quietly whispering some banned knowledge to a number of them, and giving out small slips of paper with similar information for some of the diners to take home.
The battle to legalize contraceptive information and birth control devices will undoubtedly be a lengthy one, but this long-overdue fight has clearly begun in earnest and will only increase in intensity. Victory will require many different approaches, from speaking at various forums to lobbying legislators and challenging unjust laws in court. It will certainly require a good deal of courage on the part of advocates who must sometimes openly break these laws in order to fight them.
Tonight was a welcome reassurance that there are those willing to step forward and do whatever is necessary to point out the absurdity and harm of anti-birth-control laws. But though the forces determined to use repressive measures to defend the “values” of reproductive ignorance and sexual shame may eventually be overcome, they are unlikely to go away, so this could be just the first stage of a permanent battle. Hopefully, those who grow up in a future society where effective methods of birth control and accurate, explicit information about human sexuality are legally available will not take these hard-won rights for granted and will be as zealous in defending them as today’s advocates are in establishing them.