This Day in History: February 11th
Today in History: February 11, 1916
Emma 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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