You probably know that since the 1960s, American Jewish women have been ardent advocates for reproductive rights, and have developed activist tactics and educational strategies to publicize, protect, and expand these rights. What we haven’t really known until now is that there were precursors to this activism. Jewish women played critical roles in advocating for reproductive freedoms for more than a century — from the earliest days of the birth control movement in the United States — as consumers, distributors, and advocates of contraception. The goal of the early movement was to give women the power to control their fertility by educating them about their own bodies and sexuality and by dispensing diaphragms so that they would not have to rely on male techniques or devices for contraception.
The organized birth control movement is often dated to 1916, when Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. She chose a location in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood of Jewish and Italian immigrants, and advertised the clinic in Yiddish and Italian as well as English. Jewish mothers lined up for blocks, baby carriages in tow. Few of them wanted to have no children at all, but many were eager to learn how to limit the size of their families. At a time when federal laws made it illegal to distribute contraceptive information, and working-class women with spotty access to health care could only rarely get help from doctors, a neighborhood birth control clinic seemed like a godsend. But the police shut down the clinic in short order, arresting Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne, who was a nurse, and Fania Mindel, a Jewish social worker.
Margaret Sanger was not Jewish, but her interest in birth control came out of her earlier experiences as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side, where she watched many women die of self-induced abortions rather than bring more children into their families. As a socialist, Sanger also had connections with radicals such as Emma Goldman, who gave frequent speeches in Yiddish linking revolutionary class struggle and women’s reproductive control. Goldman used her publication Mother Earth to press for birth control, handed out literature on contraception at her lectures, and gave demonstrations of contraceptive techniques, for which she went to jail. Like Goldman, Sanger too found many allies among American Jews. Her pamphlet What Every Girl Should Know was translated into Yiddish almost immediately, and all the American Jewish periodicals conducted a lively debate on the topic of birth control.
For the most part, the American Jewish community supported birth control use and activism. Several Yiddish plays promoted contraception, with titles such as A Woman’s Duty in Birth Control. Progressive thinkers concluded that contraception was consonant with a fundamental morality of Judaism: the health and wellbeing of all Jews. After much debate and consideration of both halakhic and sociological issues, the Reform and Conservative movements passed resolutions during the late 1920s and early 1930s condoning contraception for health and economic reasons, while reminding the Jewish public of the sanctity of family in religious tradition. Unsurprisingly, a Jewish marriage manual distributed by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations insisted that “The Jewish religion does not permit direct birth control. Mechanical means to avoid contraception are allowed the woman only in cases where childbirth might endanger her life.” It is important to note, however, that the high value Jewish law places on mothers’ lives did allow for birth control in some cases, an exemption that Catholic law did not permit.
Three overlapping groups of Jewish women became involved in the birth control movement: doctors, married women, and activists. Nearly all birth control activists believed that trained professionals should distribute contraception through independent facilities free of the organized control of American medicine. At a time when anti- Semitism and sexism restricted Jewish women doctors’ professional opportunities, they turned to birth control clinics as places where they could practice medicine, conduct research, and contribute to a cause they virtually all believed in. A roll-call of these birth control activists from the interwar era includes Drs. Sarah Marcus in Cleveland; Hannah Stone, Marie Warner, Cheri Appel, Anna Spiegelman, Naomi Yarmolinsky and Lena Levine in New York; Anna Samuelson in the Bronx; Evelyn Berg in Brooklyn; Elizabeth Kleinman and Lucile Lord-Heinstein in Boston; Bessie Moses in Baltimore; Nadine Kavinoky and Rachelle Seletz in San Francisco; Esther Cohen and Golda Nobel in Philadelphia; Hannah Seitzwick-Robbins in Trenton; Rachelle Yarros in Chicago, among dozens of others.
These Jewish women directed clinics, promoted sexual hygiene and often marriage counseling in their communities, advocated for relaxation of anti-birth control statutes in their states, wrote books about contraception, advised policy makers, and, most importantly, served as the human face of the birth control movement for many thousands of women. Dr. Cheri Appel, who worked at a clinic in New York, “felt that I was doing, making a contribution. It was a place where women could come and feel free to talk about sexual things, where they had no other place to go.”
Jewish women doctors also served as primary figures in the legal battles that surrounded birth control work. Dr. Lucile Lord-Heinstein was arrested during a raid on a Massachusetts birth control clinic after an undercover female detective visited the clinic and was prescribed a diaphragm. Upon receiving a package of contraceptive materials from Japan, Dr. Hannah Mayer Stone became the central figure in a court case that ultimately yielded a 1936 Supreme Court ruling that it was legal to mail contraceptive items that would be used by physicians for legitimate medical purposes. In some cities the proportion of Jewish clients matched the proportion of Jews in the general population, but in other cities it was considerably higher. A network of family, friends, and neighbors that had once supplied home remedies and wellmeaning but ineffective contraceptive advice now provided unofficial referrals to birth control clinics. It was often difficult for working-class women living in decidedly unhygienic conditions to cope with the diaphragm, the most up-to-date contraceptives during the 1920s and 1930s, but the observably lower birth rates of Jewish women during these decades indicate the degree to which Jewish women of all class backgrounds limited their families as best they could. A 1935 study showed that 45% of Jewish couples used birth control techniques immediately after marriage and 87% before a second pregnancy.
Many poor Jewish women thought of birth control as literally a matter of life and death, for themselves and for their families, especially during the difficult years of the Depression; these women bore witness to the damage uncontrolled childbearing could do. Testifying before Congress in 1934, Brooklyn mother Rose Halpern said, “Having had seven births in 11 years, I have suffered enough… I was left a physical wreck… I could safely say that Mrs. Sanger saved my life.” One of her neighbors was not so lucky. The 28-year-old woman, pregnant for the fifth time in five years, had died even before giving birth.
Because disseminating birth control information and distributing contraceptive devices only gradually became legal, clinics were all privately funded and operated by networks of birth control activists. Both the American Birth Control League and the Voluntary Parenthood League knew that Jewish women could be depended upon to offer support across the country. Margaret Sanger’s long-time Jewish secretary, Florence Rose, traveled across the United States during the 1930s, successfully calling on Jewish women to join her in supporting the cause. In 1928, for example, a group of Jewish women in Detroit raised money to open the Mothers Clinic for Family Regulation, at that time the only birth control clinic between New York and Chicago. Only 10 percent of the patients were Jewish, but the women still managed to secure the cooperation of the local Jewish Social Service Bureau and the Jewish Centers Association.
A number of Jewish women’s organizations also became involved in birth control activism. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), for instance, was one of the more radical women’s groups of the interwar years, sponsoring birth control clinics in cities from St. Paul to New York. The national organization passed an official resolution in 1931 demanding the legalization of sending contraceptive materials through the mail. In 1938, NCJW appeared alongside the Young Women’s Christian Association and General Federation of Women’s Clubs on a list of national groups that lobbied for birth control bills. Shortly thereafter, a pro-birth control resolution was passed at the 1939 NCJW Triennial Convention, urging an end to any state statutes that continued to criminalize contraception.
Jewish women pointed to the psychological as well as the medical advantages of birth control. Dr. Rachelle Yarros, of Hull House in Chicago, wrote in 1924 that sexual abstinence was not conducive to adult well-being, according modern science, so the need for birth control was obvious. Jewish activists dismissed as foolish the Catholic Church’s recommendation of continence or abstinence as a realistic possibility for married couples. Birth control would not just limit births but encourage them in an atmosphere of choice, control, and marital happiness unsullied by constant fear of pregnancy. The middle-class Jewish women who helped support birth control clinics for poor women understood the psychological benefits to harmonious family relationships. In 1936 the New York section of NCJW reported with satisfaction that its Mothers’ Health Bureau provided birth control to many patients on relief and was of “utmost importance not only to their economic but to their marital happiness.”
All Jewish women in the movement basically agreed with nurse Elizabeth Cohen Arnold’s succinct statement that she was “trying to help people have babies when they could have them, afford to have them, and want to have them.”
Melissa R. Klapper is Associate Professor of History at Rowan University and author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920 and Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in the United States, 1880 – 1925.
The Pill Turns 50. Act Now.
by Helen Cordes
The Pill celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and many kudos are due for the incredible opportunities it afforded women through effective contraception that needs no male participation. We who believe so strongly in women’s reproductive rights laud those gains, while we’ve also become activists exploring the downside the Pill brings with it: the documented risks of stroke, breast cancer, blood clots, and (sadly ironic) decreased female sexual desire. As in the Margaret Sanger era, we renew our demands for safer options. And we need to launch piercingly honest discussions about sex among girls and women, boys and men that unite us in a surely universal goal of consensual sexuality buttressed by birth control that doesn’t endanger female health. How? What about a rousing revival of hell-raising feminist ethics embodied by plucky pioneers like Barbara Seaman? At the same time that she championed women’s reproductive and sexual rights, she persisted in pointing out the Pill’s health hazards. Her groundbreaking 1969 book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, ignited feminists who then disrupted 1970 Senate hearings with shouts of “Why is there no Pill for men?” (still a damn good question) and won first-ever mandates to place patient warnings on prescription drug packaging, inaugurated by Pill packet side-effect advisories. Seaman continued to speak out about hormone risks and demand better contraceptive solutions until her death in 2008. The time is ripe to let rip on whole new levels of multigenerational feminist repro-activism. Let’s tell the truth about contraceptives, with hormonal methods kept an accessible option but other less risky methods given equal priority. Let’s be bold in our conversations with sons and daughters, mining the oversexualized media aimed at kids to spark soul-baring conversations about sex. Let’s reflect together about how using methods that aren’t “invisible” like the Pill give us more opportunities to be deliberate about our sexual choices and, hopefully, make wise ones. Let’s have fun celebrating our escape from the bad old days of the Pill’s infancy (one word: girdles) and delight in enacting a new “normal” that finally delivers on true sexual and reproductive freedom promised 50 years ago.