To Mothers—Our Duty

views updated

To Mothers—Our Duty

Magazine article

By: Margaret H. Sanger

Date: March 26, 1911

Source: Sanger, Margaret H. "To Mothers—Our Duty." The New York Call (March 26, 1911): 15

About the Author: Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was a nurse who fought for public access to information on contraception in the early part of the twentieth century. Her efforts to disseminate birth control information led to her repeated arrests for violating the Comstock Law in the United States. She helped to found Planned Parenthood, an organization that helps provide health and gynecological care for women in the U.S.


Margaret Sanger's opinions and actions reached into many sectors of American society in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As the daughter of a woman who bore eleven children and died by fifty, partly a result of repeated pregnancies and childbirth, Sanger saw firsthand the results of uncontrollable reproduction. Trained as a nurse, Sanger began to work in New York City's Lower East side as industrialization and urbanization, combined with intense immigration as Jewish people from Eastern Europe fled repressive pogroms and discrimination in Europe, led to squalid conditions and public health crises in tenements and slums.

Sanger was approached, repeatedly, by poor and middle-class men and women alike, desperately seeking some form of contraception. Dissemination of information or supplies related to contraception was illegal under federal law in the United States; the 1873 Com-stock Law made it a crime to distribute information, literature, or supplies designed to aid in birth control. By 1912, Sanger realized that unfettered capitalism combined with unchecked reproduction was creating an underclass of poor children who were sent into the factories at young ages to help their families avoid starvation and eviction. In Sanger's opinion, as stated in her 1915 essay "Comstockery in America," "I saw that it is the working class children who fill the mills, factories, sweatshops, orphan asylums and reformatories, because through ignorance they were brought into the world, and this ignorance continues to be perpetuated." Sanger sought to end the "ignorance" concerning birth control by offering families the needed information to control the size and timing of their families.

Sanger became a strong supporter of the Socialist Party as well, and in this essay, printed in 1911, before her work in the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and before her 1916 arrest for violating the Comstock Law, we see the formation of her thoughts on the impact of capitalism, child labor, and unchecked reproduction on the family.


In this day and age, when women are striving to their utmost to compete with their sisters in matters of dress, fashion, in "bridge," or anything which offers amusement or diversion from the old routine of our mothers' day, we hear a great deal from the male element about "Woman's Duty." This question of "duty" seems to be a stickler, and seems to confine itself to woman only.

This "duty," so called, means that women should remain at home, not necessarily to drudge—not at all—for among those women referred to above, the servant question forms a large part of their conversation; but "duty" means the care of the home, of the children—the problem of feeding them carefully (even scientifically), of making their little bodies strong and robust, in fact, of giving them a good foundation mentally and physically—for life.

Most men think a woman's duty is done when she attends to these needs of her children, but to me she has but begun to do her duty.

Let us take a young woman in the most ideal conditions of this life; she has given much thought and consideration to the life of her boy long before he was born, her every thought for almost a year was this child. He now comes into the world a rosy, healthy being, and she feels proud her work is so well begun; and she may well be proud.

Then follow the years of care. Every conceivable attention, mental and moral, she gives him; his childhood, his boyhood, is one joyous song of the pleasures of living, and after years of these joys he emerges into manhood. He is now ready for the great battle of life.

This mother has done her duty, and she sends him forth, clean, honest, moral, to get his living, but has she ever given the manner in which he is to obtain that living a thought? That is considered outside woman's "duty."

We women can build them up, these bodies and minds, build them up to our highest expectations and then push them out upon a world whose system is greed, exploitation, graft and scientific robbery.

Can we expect these morals to stay built up in these corrupt surroundings? As this case is an ideal one, so it is an exceptional one; let us turn, then, to one which is no exception.

This is the case of the most abused, most dejected, most imposed upon class of mothers which our social system presents to us, and their number is legion.

Here we find the little mothers at 8, 9 and 10 years of age; here we see them already at work carrying responsibilities of the home, factory or mill; education is a thing apart from this child, childhood yearnings are crushed, childish joys are barred here, there is time for but one thing—work. Work through childhood, through girlhood and womanhood.

We follow this child-mother up to the marriage day and find she has given her childhood, girlhood, womanhood, her strength, her very life to the factory or mill for an existence, an existence which the owner of the factory would not allow his horse or dog. Her face is pale and pinched with that hunting look of poverty; it never changes—she is born, lives and dies with that look. She is married at night after the day's work, that she lose not one day's time.

On, on in the same monotonous way; on, on, waiting for the end. There's no time for her to think of the little one's coming; she must work only the harder because of its coming.

After months of worry, toil, privation and physical exhaustion this child, too, is born. Let us see what this woman gives to society. Her child is undersized, underfed, weak, sickly and ofttimes deformed. It, too, has paid the price of birth; it has given its little strength with every heartbeat, that it may be born, and now it is here, cheated and swindled of its birthright.

Women, women, arouse yourselves! If you are not so unfortunately placed, it is but a trick of circumstances.

If you are well clothed, well fed, today it is these women who have helped you to do so. And are you doing anything for these women? Ministers of the Gospel, what are you doing for these women and unborn babies? You reformers, conservatives, call yourselves what you wish, what are you doing for this condition of society which demands of its unborn such an awful price of birth? Do you think your duty is done if you have clothed or fed one or fifty of these victims for a day, a week, a year, perhaps? Oh, mothers, sisters, women of this land, awake! How can you slumber when these conditions exist?

The day is passed when we can selfishly protect our own. In order to protect our own, in matters of disease, in conditions where milk, water, food or drugs are unsafe for our own loved ones, we cannot hesitate to fight for all, for we realize we can only save our own by so doing.

Again I say: Women, awake, awake to this system and help these downtrodden women back to their homes, back to their little ones, back to that which belongs to every mother—the care and love of her offspring.

By the way, do we ever hear the male element, who so strongly advocate "home duty" for the "bridge" mother, advocate home duty for these women? It is only the "bridge" women's children who need the care and attention of the mother, evidently.

Let us turn to the mother we have just beheld with her new-born infant. What is to be done with this subnormal piece of humanity? Does it not need even more care and attention than a normal child? But what does it get? Dire poverty drives this mother back again to the factory (no intelligent person will say she goes willingly). It is the fear of the loss of a job, debts and another mouth to feed that compels her to leave this newborn infant in the care of any one who has the room to keep it. Any friend or neighbor who works at home can take care of this little waif.

We all know the type—hard working, ignorant, with scarcely time to attend to the actual needs of her own.

The little one is placed here among the filth and debris of the workshop. It grows through babyhood and childhood motherless, fatherless and moral-less.

Of course, there are other alternatives, such as the charity kindergartens, but always the mother on the industrial field is cheated of love and care of her offspring.

In this age of Christianity, in this advanced twentieth century, when science has discovered the methods of breeding the finest horses and dogs, when science has turned its searchlight upon every form of plant life; upon the different parasites which tend to destroy plant life, what has it done toward extricating the parasite poverty, which destroys humanity? Senator Owen, of Oklahoma, said recently:

"We spend $500,000 to exterminate the insect that eats the cotton plant…. We have millions for conservation of the forests. Our Senators and Representatives jump to their feet the minute one mentions raising the tariff on wool or on steel, but we can get no such interest when it comes to saving human lives…."

If man would do his duty to Human Beings, as well as he does to Things, we [would] have no need of leaving the little ones to the care of strangers all day. We would have no need of giving our babies' lives to the factory before they are born. We would have no need of seeing our little ones grow up in mental, moral, and physical starvation. We would have no need of suffering the awful pangs, of seeing them go out of the world, so soon, pangs which are so much keener than those which bring them here. All these and a thousand other sufferings and evils could be stamped out if man would do his duty.

There are two steps toward progress in this universe—organization and specialization. Mothers, let us not consider we are progressing. Let us not consider we have done our duty, until we have first organized. Then let us specialize in attacking and stamping out this social system.

We must organize—all women who have one vestige of love in our hearts, for children; all women who have interest in the progress of humanity; all should organize, but not alone.

We should organize under a banner which advocates our cause. We should join the party (there is but one, the Socialist party) which solves the problems of each and every grievance of these working women and children.

First, we should demand through this party absolute equality of the sexes.

Second, to put back the mothers or the prospective mothers, into the homes, and give her a pension sufficient to keep herself and child. I can hear wails of protest concerning this last demand, on the ground that it will make vagrants of the fathers or will give them more time and money for saloons. All I can ask is that you look into this, find out what has been done, and the results you will find will remove that argument completely. It has been the experience of those interested in this, that when a man feels his burdens partly lifted, he is mentally and physically better fitted for life's work.

Third, to support and educate the children, and by support we mean clearly to feed and clothe them, until they are at least 16 years of age.

Fourth, to keep every child, regardless of race, color, or creed, in this United States out of all factories, mills and all industrial fields which tend to dwarf the physical or mental development of the children.

Last, to pull down completely this system, which mangles and stunts the minds, morals and bodies of our boys and men; to fight this awful viper, which undoes all our life's work, to crush and stamp it out forever. This, mothers, is a duty which must go hand in hand with our every day duties, or our life's work will be all for nothing.


Sanger's essay fights against stereotypes about the role of women; nineteenth-century writers such as Sarah Stickney Ellis in England and Catharine Beecher in the United States had championed the cult of domesticity and true womanhood—the idea that a woman's place is in the home, with no political or economic power, her primary functions as mother, wife, and housekeeper. In working with poor women and middle-class women who had no control over reproduction and in taking into account the toll on their bodies and the divided attention and money needed to support large families, Sanger developed a viewpoint that stressed the need to examine family conditions as they were—not the ideal—and to give families the power to make changes to improve the health of the mothers and children within families.

In blending her viewpoint with Socialism, however, Sanger simultaneously appealed to some immigrants who were members of the Socialist party while alienating middle-class reformers who agreed with her positions on birth control, but were firmly anti-Socialist and viewed Socialism as a threat to American security. Sanger allied herself with the labor movement and pushed for women's equality. Her personal dealings with mothers who experienced health problems from repeat pregnancies and childbirth, and with children who died from simple childhood diseases and malnutrition, led her to the conviction that capitalism caused such inequalities in society and that Socialism needed to prevail, for the good of the family and society as a whole.

Sanger's appeal spoke to educated middle-class women; by speaking to them as fellow mothers, she urged these women to view poor and immigrant women as mothers, trying desperately to raise healthy sons. In pointing to the inevitable fate that children of the poor faced—destructive factory work at young ages—Sanger attempted to show how child labor laws were crucial in helping all families. The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act would not be passed for another five years after Sanger wrote this essay, and it would be ruled unconstitutional; not until 1938 did the Fair Labor Standards Act help to prevent the "little mothers" Sanger discusses.

Sanger's final five points, a manifesto of sorts, includes issues of relevance in modern society. Women's equality, economic recognition of stay-at-home parent work, child subsidy payments such as those seen in Canada or Scandinavian countries, child labor protections, and regulation and control of capitalism are themes subject to debate and consideration in the first decade of the twenty-first century; the impact of each on the family is significant. While advances have been made toward women's equality and child labor regulation, Sanger's key points continue to stimulate policy discussions. Economic support for families and children from federal agencies, such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and nutrition programs for women and children and childcare subsidies did not exist in Sanger's time—these programs came about in part as a result of progressive reformers such as Sanger. As she continued to write and to work on making birth control accessible for all families, Sanger set the stage for a reshaping of the size of American families, women's control over their bodies, and a change in gender roles.



Beecher, Catharine. A Treatise on Domestic Economy. Boston: T.H. Webb, 1842.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1839.

Hindman, Hugh D. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.

Matthews, Glenna. "Just a Housewife": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1989.

Sanger, Margaret. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2004.

―――――――. The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

About this article

To Mothers—Our Duty

Updated About content Print Article