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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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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):

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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