This Day in History: February 11th

Today in History: February 11, 1916

Emma_goldmanEmma Goldman, a tireless crusader for women’s causes, was among the first to recognize the link between free speech and reproductive rights. So it comes as no surprise that her arrest on this day in history, 1916, was for violating the Comstock Act, which deemed it a federal offense to transport “obscene, lewd and/or lascivious” objects through the mail. This included contraceptive devices or any information pertaining to contraception.

Federal courts at the time were interpreting this 1873 law to mean that even the passage of information pertaining to contraception by word-of-mouth was in violation of the Act. Her arrest on February 11, 1916, was for lecturing about family planning and giving out written materials about birth control.

Emma Goldman thought this was a load of horse dung. As she told a group of reporters after her arrest:

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 purpose. And that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.

Goldman worked as a nurse and a midwife among the poor in New York’s Lower East Side, and was convinced that unwanted pregnancy was one the greatest threats to women’s health and general well-being. Emma was astute enough to realize that until women had control over their reproductive lives, they had virtually no hope of ever acquiring the economic or sexual freedoms that men just took for granted.

Margaret Sanger, who went on to found Planned Parenthood and coined the term “birth control,” considered Emma Goldman her mentor. By 1915, the two women had joined forces, and were lecturing frequently on birth control and on “the right of the child not to be born.” They were firm believers that the government had no business legislating women’s reproductive choices.

This arrest was not Goldman’s only run-in with the law. She was charged with violating the Comstock Act at least two more times. Emma was a genius at attracting attention to her cause, and even managed to turn one of her 1916 trials into a public forum on birth control, which won her the support of many progressive writers, intellectuals and artists.

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  • How sad that the author of this article, perhaps due to ignorance, tried to “lionize” one of the most disturbed, discredited people ever to have lived in the U.S.A.!

    Emma Goldman, perhaps because she suffered great traumas in childhood, was an advocate for a variety of causes that disgusted almost all Americans. She was born in the Russian Empire (in what is now Lithuania) and immigrated in 1885 to the U.S., where she lived for almost 35 years … but NEVER became a citizen!

    Goldman was an anarchist. When the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley, was arrested in 1901, he said that he had been inspired to act violently by a speech given by Goldman.

    Goldman was an advocate of “free love” and the decriminalization of sexual perversions. Not surprisingly, she was a strong critic of marriage.

    In 1917, she was sentenced to two years in jail for conspiring to “induce persons not to register” for the military draft. In 1919, she was deported (thank God), never to return again to the U.S.. She caused a great deal of trouble in several other nations until her death in 1940.

    In my opinion, this article should be deleted from TIFO, unless it is completely rewritten to include all the bad things about Emma Goldman.