Portrait of Emma Goldman as she appeared just before entering the federal penitentiary to serve her term after a later arrest, in 1917
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By Lily Rothman
February 11, 2016

For decades after the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, it was illegal in most states for anyone—even doctors—to dispense information about contraception. But that didn’t stop Emma Goldman, one of the 20th century’s most famous anarchists and also an early crusader for family planning.

Goldman’s outspoken advocacy of birth control led to her arrest 100 years ago—on Feb. 11, 1916—on obscenity charges while on her way to give a lecture on the topic of atheism. A few days later, Goldman wrote a letter to the press laying out her motivation (the letter is in the impressive Emma Goldman Papers collection at Berkeley):

It is hardly necessary to point out that whatever may be the law on birth control, those like myself who are disseminating knowledge along that line are not doing so because of personal gain or because we consider it lewd or obscene. We do it because we know the desperate condition among the masses of workers and even professional people, when they cannot meet the demands of numerous children. It is upon that ground that I mean to make my fight when I go into court. Unless I am very much mistaken, I am sustained in my contention by the fundamental principles in America, namely, that when a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go and the only way to get rid of the law, is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purposes and that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.

Concluding her letter, Goldman noted that, “while I am not particularly anxious to go to jail, I should yet be glad to do so, if thereby I can add my might to the importance of birth control and the wiping off our antiquated law upon the statute.”

The activist ended up spending two weeks in a prison workhouse. The Carnegie Hall meeting that marked her release that May drew more than 3,000 people who wanted to celebrate her return—and to obtain information about birth control.


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