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Friday, February 11, 2011

Feb. 11, 1916: Emma Goldman's Arrest for Promoting Birth Control

One of the best-remembered--and least understood--figures from early 20th-century New York is Emma Goldman. Variously described as a Communist, an anarchist, a freedom fighter, and a criminal, Goldman was one of the leading activists of her time. On February 11, 1916, Goldman was arrested. This, in itself, was not news--Goldman was arrested frequently. But this time she was arrested for distributing "obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles." The subject? Birth control.

Goldman was born in Lithuania (then part of Russia) in 1869 and came to New York in 1885. She is perhaps best known for the plot by her friend and lover, Alexander Berkman, to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892; Berkman hoped this act would cause the workers at Carnegie Steel to unite against their oppressive bosses. (Not only did Berkman fail to kill Frick, the Carnegie Steel workers leapt on Berkman, beating him senseless.) After Berkman's arrest and conviction, Goldman became a popular speaker, campaigning during the Panic of 1893 for workers' rights (she served ten months in prison for inciting a riot), founding the journal Mother Earth, and even standing up for the rights of Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley's assassin, who claimed to have been inspired by one of Goldman's speeches.

In 1914, Goldman met Margaret Sanger, who had just coined the term "birth control." During an earlier stint in prison, Goldman had begun studying nursing and midwifery and became convinced that one of the great scourges of a city like New York was unwanted pregnancy. Goldman argued that birth control would not only improve the health of women, it would empower them as well. She launched a cross-country speaking tour in 1915 and though she and Sanger parted ways in 1916 (the same year Sanger founded Planned Parenthood), Goldman continued lecturing on birth control.

What exactly sparked her arrest in New York on February 11, 1916, is unclear. She was held on a violation of the Comstock Law, which forbid the dissemination of information about birth control across state lines. The fine was $100, which Goldman could have paid; instead, she chose to serve out her two weeks sentence in the prison workhouse in order to spend time with those she felt had been dealt a raw deal by the government.

Goldman's birth control arrest was her penultimate run in with the law in New York City. By 1917, Alexander Berkman had been released from prison and had joined her in opposing World War I and the newly instituted draft. Both Berkman and Goldman were arrested for their draft opposition, convicted, and deported to Russia. Though initially supportive of the Bolsheviks, Goldman ultimately fled the new Soviet Union and lived in Canada, dying in Toronto in 1940.






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Read more about politics in early 20th-century New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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