“Tell Jake To Sleep On The Roof” by Anne Gaylor (August 1996)

Aslight, red-haired young woman, Margaret Sanger cared for patients in the swarming tenements of the lower east side of New York City in the summer of 1912. In her area of work one block alone held 3,000 persons, 450 of them babies.

Most of her cases were confinements for pregnancy, and she dealt daily with women who had five, six and seven children already crowded into tiny apartments, where a new baby pulled the family ever deeper into the hopeless morass of poverty.

Repeatedly she was seeing the degradation of motherhood, of sex servitude. She was nursing women, frail and wasted, fearful of another pregnancy, yet unable to prevent it.

Back street abortionists flourished in the area and going home at night Margaret Sanger often passed long lines of women waiting in front of the abortion “offices.” Several times she counted over 100 women waiting.

One day she was called to a dingy tenement on Grand Street to attend a Mrs. Sadie Sachs, a victim of bungled abortion. Her husband, Jake, a truck driver, had come home to find his wife unconscious on the floor, their three children crying helplessly. A doctor confirmed that septicemia had set in, and he and Margaret Sanger struggled for two weeks to save Mrs. Sachs’ life.

Present when the doctor came for his final examination of Mrs. Sachs and to pronounce her out of danger, Margaret Sanger heard her patient ask him, “What can I do to prevent another baby?”

Said the doctor, “Young woman, there’s only one way. Tell Jake to sleep on the roof!”

Later that year Margaret Sanger was summoned again to the Sachs tenement, only this time she and the doctor were too late. Mrs. Sachs, pregnant again, had attempted self-abortion and died.

That night Margaret Sanger reached a turning point in her life and put aside her nurse’s uniform forever.

“I was now finished with superficial cures,” she wrote, “with doctors and nurses and social workers who were brought face to face with this overwhelming truth of women’s needs and yet turned to pass on the other side. They must be made to see the facts. I resolved that women should have a knowledge of contraception. They have every right to know about their own bodies. I would strike out; I would scream from the housetops. I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. I would be heard. No matter what it should cost, I would be heard.”

The cost was great, but she was heard. Abused, persecuted, shunned by former friends, in exile, jailed nine times, Margaret Sanger finally saw birth control (she coined the phrase) legally, socially, and medically accepted. Her pamphlet, “Family Limitations,” which sent her into exile in Europe because it spelled out specific birth control techniques, eventually was printed in 13 languages. Her newspaper, “The Woman Rebel,” was the harbinger of a new and wholesome concept of sex for women, free from prudery and restraint, presaging the emancipation of women from sexual servitude and mandatory motherhood.

There were many low points — her lonely flight to England to avoid arrest, the death of her much-beloved, only daughter Peggy, the raids on her birth control clinic, the hunger strike and near-death of her sister, Ethel, who was imprisoned for disseminating birth control information, her own arrests and a 30-day incarceration in Queens County Penitentiary.

Her crusade for birth control was a focal point for official Catholic harassment. As late as 1921, when she organized the First American Conference on Birth Control held in New York, its final rally was obstructed, with the Town Hall closed by order of Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes.

Wrote Margaret Sanger:

“It was one thing to have halls closed by a mistaken or misguided, ignorant police captain, but a very different thing to have a high dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church order me to stop talking. I knew the law of the city; I knew the rights of citizens guaranteed under the Constitution. I had been taught by my teachers in American history that the church and state were separate and apart; that we as citizens were guaranteed from interference by powerful church influence. At the thought of this official impertinence, this bullying, this arrogant dictatorship, this insolence of a Roman Catholic Archbishop, my resistance, my resolution became set. I would not close that meeting unless I was forced by arrest to do so. I knew our rights were being violated . . . Unless I stood my ground and got arrested, I could not take the case into the courts.”

Naturally, Margaret Sanger stood her ground. Confusion followed as she was silenced by two policemen and other women took the podium and attempted to speak. There were cheers and bravos for the women, boos, hisses and catcalls for the policemen who silenced them. Finally, Margaret Sanger and Mary Winsor, a dauntless suffragist, were arrested. With policemen holding their arms, they were led from the building and marched through the streets to the stationhouse, followed by a large crowd. Reserves had been called out to deal with the “mob.”

The case was dismissed the next morning, but Archbishop Hayes inadvertently had assured the birth control movement the best publicity possible. His aide, a Monsignor Dineen, helped the cause still further with a statement to the New York Times (Nov. 15, 1921).

“The Archbishop is delighted and pleased at the action of the police, as am I, because it was no meeting to be held publicly and without restrictions. I need not tell you what the attitude of the Catholic Church is toward so-called birth control. What particularly aroused me, when I entered the hall, was the presence there of four children. I think any one will admit that a meeting of that character is no place for growing children. Decent and clean-minded people would not discuss a subject such as birth control in public before children, or at all. The police had been informed in advance of the meeting. They were told that this subject — this plan which attacks the very foundations of human society–was again being dragged before the public in a public hall. The presence of these four children at least was a reason for police action.”

The four children, as it turned out, happened to be four mature Barnard College students with bobbed hair. Short hair was very daring for young women in 1921, and to the elderly Catholic clerics, short hair could only be found on youngsters.

The action of Archbishop Hayes brought a firestorm of protest with critical editorials in all the east coast’s leading daily papers. People who had never heard of birth control heard of it after the Catholic blunder. The idea was dramatized, advertised, and given column after column of favorable publicity.

Margaret Sanger travelled far with her message — Japan, China, India–and made dozens of trips across the Atlantic. She lived to see birth control clinics around the world.

Eventually, the honors poured in, among them a beautiful tribute from her close friend, British author H.G. Wells. How appropriate if there were a statue of Margaret Sanger in our nation’s capital with his words inscribed:

“Alexander the Great changed a few boundaries and killed a few men. Both he and Napoleon were forced into fame by circumstances outside of themselves and by currents of the time. But Margaret Sanger made currents and circumstances. When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.”

Anne Nicol Gaylor is a founder and president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation