Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960): Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Chapter XIV." In Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998.

In the following excerpt from her book Women and Economics, originally published in 1898, Gilman reflects on the changing relationship between men and women.

The changes in our conception and expression of home life, so rapidly and steadily going on about us, involve many far-reaching effects, all helpful to human advancement. Not the least of these is the improvement in our machinery of social intercourse.

This necessity of civilization was unknown in those primitive ages when family intercourse was sufficient for all, and when any further contact between individuals meant war. Trade and its travel, the specialization of labor and the distribution of its products, with their ensuing development, have produced a wider, freer, and more frequent movement and interchange among the innumerable individuals whose interaction makes society. Only recently, and as yet but partially, have women as individuals come to their share of this fluent social intercourse which is the essential condition of civilization. It is not merely a pleasure or an indulgence: it is the human necessity.

For women as individuals to meet men and other women as individuals, with no regard whatever to the family relation, is a growing demand of our time. As a social necessity, it is perforce being met in some fashion; but its right development is greatly impeded by the clinging folds of domestic and social customs derived from the sexuo-economic relation. The demand for a wider and freer social intercourse between the sexes rests, primarily, on the needs of their respective natures, but is developed in modern life to a far subtler and higher range of emotion than existed in the primitive state, where they had but one need and but one way of meeting it; and this demand, too, calls for a better arrangement of our machinery of living.

Always in social evolution, as in other evolution, the external form suited to earlier needs is but slowly outgrown; and the period of transition, while the new functions are fumbling through the old organs, and slowly forcing mechanical expression for themselves, is necessarily painful. So far in our development, acting on a deep-seated conviction that the world consisted only of families and the necessary business arrangements involved in providing for those families, we have conscientiously striven to build and plan for family advantage, and either unconsciously or grudgingly have been forced to make transient provision for individuals. Whatever did not tend to promote family life, and did tend to provide for the needs of individuals not at the time in family relation, we have deprecated in principle, though reluctantly forced to admit it in practice.

To this day articles are written, seriously and humorously, protesting against the increasing luxury and comfort of bachelor apartments for men, as well as against the pecuniary independence of women, on the ground that these conditions militate against marriage and family life. Most men, even now, pass through a period of perhaps ten years, when they are individuals, business calling them away from their parental family, and business not allowing them to start new families of their own. Women, also, more and more each year, are entering upon a similar period of individual life. And there is a certain permanent percentage of individuals, "odd numbers" and "broken sets," who fall short of family life or who are left over from it; and these need to live.

The residence hotel, the boarding-house, club, lodging-house, and restaurant are our present provision for this large and constantly increasing class. It is not a travelling class. These are people who want to live somewhere for years at a time, but who are not married or otherwise provided with a family. Home life being in our minds inextricably connected with married life, a home being held to imply a family, and a family implying a head, these detached persons are unable to achieve any home life, and are thereby subjected to the inconvenience, deprivation, and expense, the often unhygienic, and sometimes immoral influences, of our makeshift substitutes.

What the human race requires is permanent provision for the needs of individuals, disconnected from the sex-relation. Our assumption that only married people and their immediate relatives have any right to live in comfort and health is erroneous. Every human being needs a home,—bachelor, husband, or widower, girl, wife, or widow, young or old. They need it from the cradle to the grave, and without regard to sex-connections. We should so build and arrange for the shelter and comfort of humanity as not to interfere with marriage, and yet not to make that comfort dependent upon marriage. With the industries of home life managed professionally, with rooms and suites of rooms and houses obtainable by any person or persons desiring them, we could live singly without losing home comfort and general companionship, we could meet bereavement without being robbed of the common conveniences of living as well as of the heart's love, and we could marry in ease and freedom without involving any change in the economic base of either party concerned.

Married people will always prefer a home together, and can have it; but groups of women or groups of men can also have a home together if they like, or contiguous rooms. And individuals even could have a house to themselves, without having, also, the business of a home upon their shoulders.

Take the kitchens out of the houses, and you leave rooms which are open to any form of arrangement and extension; and the occupancy of them does not mean "housekeeping." In such living, personal character and taste would flower as never before; the home of each individual would be at last a true personal expression; and the union of individuals in marriage would not compel the jumbling together of all the external machinery of their lives,—a process in which much of the delicacy and freshness of love, to say nothing of the power of mutual rest and refreshment, is constantly lost. The sense of lifelong freedom and self-respect and of the peace and permanence of one's own home will do much to purify and uplift the personal relations of life, and more to strengthen and extend the social relations. The individual will learn to feel himself an integral part of the social structure, in close, direct, permanent connection with the needs and uses of society.

This is especially needed for women, who are generally considered, and who consider themselves, mere fractions of families, and incapable of any wholesome life of their own. The knowledge that peace and comfort may be theirs for life, even if they do not marry,—and may be still theirs for life, even if they do,—will develope a serenity and strength in women most beneficial to them and to the world. It is a glaring proof of the insufficient and irritating character of our existing form of marriage that women must be forced to it by the need of food and clothes, and men by the need of cooks and housekeepers. We are absurdly afraid that, if men or women can meet these needs of life by other means, they will cheerfully renounce the marriage relation. And yet we sing adoringly of the power of love!

In reality, we may hope that the most valuable effect of this change in the basis of living will be the cleansing of love and marriage from this base admixture of pecuniary interest and creature comfort, and that men and women, eternally drawn together by the deepest force in nature, will be able at last to meet on a plane of pure and perfect love. We shame our own ideals, our deepest instincts, our highest knowledge, by this gross assumption that the noblest race on earth will not mate, or, at least, not mate monogamously, unless bought and bribed through the common animal necessities of food and shelter, and chained by law and custom.


SOURCE: West, Rebecca. "The Woman as Workmate: Her Claim to Equal Rates of Pay for Equal Quality of Work." Manchester Daily Dispatch (26 November 1912).

In the following excerpt, West responds to an article by George Edgar denouncing women's participation in the workplace, and makes a case for equal pay for equal work.

Every man likes to think of himself as a kind of Whiteley's—a universal provider. The patriarchal system is the ideal for which he longs. He likes to dream of himself sitting on the verandah after dinner, with his wife beside him and the children in the garden, while his unmarried sisters play duets in the drawing-room and his maiden aunts hand round the coffee. This maintenance of helpless, penniless, subservient womanhood is the nearest he can get in England to the spiritual delights of the harem.

So when womanhood declares that she is no longer helpless, dislikes being penniless and refuses to be subservient the men become indignant and inarticulate. An example of this was to be seen in Mr George Edgar's recent article, 'Why Men Do Not Marry', in the Daily Dispatch. Mr Edgar's thesis is difficult to criticise because it consists of two mutually destructive conclusions. He stated, first, that it is absurd for women to ask for equal wages with men because they are inferior workers and have no dependants; and then he vehemently denounces women for ousting men from their work by accepting lower wages. This is the kind of argument one rarely hears except from cross-talk comedians on the halls. What makes it still more elusive is that both his conclusions are incorrect.

Mr Edgar takes the usual masculinist standpoint of regarding women as incompetent weak-lings except for their maternal functions which God bestowed on them, and for which, therefore, they deserve no credit.

It is not necessary for me to discuss the question whether a woman is the equal of a man in the performance of a day's work. In the past our practice has assumed that she is not.…In actual terms of wages, where in the past women have elected to work in competition with men, commerce has decided that her day's work is less valuable than a man's, and has given her less wages.

This engaging contempt for the value of the women's work is an error which comes of considering only the economic conditions of England since the industrial revolution. It is as though a Chinese mandarin were to spend a short weekend in Whitechapel and then return to Peking proclaiming that all Englishmen got drunk every night and beat their wives. This degradation of women is simply the accident of a new social order that has not yet righted itself.

Why does a man support his wife? It is not only because the mother needs to be relieved from the stress of earning her own livelihood. That is a principle that has never been universally adopted even in our own country in our own time: the Lancashire cotton-operative continues to work after she has children. The maintenance of wives is a survival of the time when England was an agricultural country. It was then recognised that the work of women in the home was so valuable that the husband and wife were regarded as equal partners of a firm, and shared the profits. The wife had then to grind the corn, bake the bread, brew, do all the dairy work and tend much of the livestock, doctor her household, spin the wool and weave the cloth, make her family's clothes and cobble their shoes, and prepare all the food stuffs, such as hams and preserves. And she did it very well indeed. On the rare occasions when she did go out to work beside men she seems—so far as we can judge from documents such as the pay-sheets of agricultural labourers in the fifteenth century—to have been paid the same wages.

And England went very well then. It was certainly a happier and—many economists agree—a more prosperous country than it is today. Then came the industrial revolution which snatched these occupations out of the women's hands and gave them to men, leaving women only the dish-washing and floor-scrubbing, which is now regarded as peculiarly feminine work, but which had previously been done mainly by boys. The ugliness and economic embarrassment of England since then ought to cause searchings of heart among masculinists such as Mr Edgar.

So much for Mr Edgar's historical researches. Now for his theory that women have no dependants. It is true that the wife does not contribute directly to the family income (men having left her no work to do) and that her maintenance and that of her children has to be borne entirely by her husband. But there are the old as well as the young. It is the woman's place to support the old. Many working-class parents will tell one that a daughter is a better investment than a son, for the son marries and keeps a family, while the daughter will probably remain single so that she can work and provide for her parents. So one cannot advocate the restriction of a woman's wage to the sum sufficient for the support of herself alone, unless one upholds the Tierra del Fuego theory that the aged are useless, dangerous, and ought to be abolished, by exposure if possible, by a club if necessary.

Moreover, I grant that men are efficient and godlike, but they sometimes die. They then leave widows and orphans, who have to be supported. And it also happens occasionally that husbands prove more ornamental than useful, 'dainty rogues in porcelain', unable to wrestle with the rough world, and then their wives have to work for them and the children.

Mr Edgar's fear that if wages were equalised they would tend to drop to the women's level is unsupported by logical proof, and is contradicted by fact. The England of the fifteenth century, which paid its women agricultural labourers as it paid its men, was the paradise of the worker. Never since have they enjoyed similar prosperity. The Lancashire cotton-operatives, who are paid without distinction of sex, are the most well-to-do workers of today. The women are not merely asking for prestige, they are fighting for hard cash. It is not the equality, but the increase in wages they want. Of course, if men insist on women getting lower wages they may create an army of blacklegs to their own undoing.

The second conclusion, that women are ousting men out of the labour world, is a popular and curiously persistent error. In the investigations made twenty years ago by Beatrice and Sidney Webb it was stated that it was very rare for men and women to compete in the same occupation, and Mary Macarthur agrees with them today. When it appears that some industry has shifted from men to women it will usually be found that some new mechanical process has been introduced which demands the manual dexterity and attention to detail characteristic of women. In the few occupations where men and women compete equal wages will benefit men by ridding employers of the temptation to employ women as black-legs. But, as a rule, the cry for 'equal pay for equal work' does not mean equal pay for the same work, but equal pay for work which exacts the same time, skill and energy.

Or, to put it differently, it is a declaration on the woman's part that she is not going to live by bread alone. She wants butter, and cake if possible; pocket money for an occasional theatre and holiday; and the ability to obey the Fifth Commandment and keep her parents out of the work-house.

The effect on the marriage-rate of the competition between men and women must be quite insignificant. There are much more forcible reasons which prevent marriage. Important among these is the isolation of modern city life. It is possible for men and women to come up to London and live there for years without making a friend. How different from the small communities of our forefathers, when every child was born 'into society' and grew up among a circle of young men and women of the same class! And another deterrent to marriage is the raising of the standard of comfort. Few men and women are prepared to risk bringing up a family on the small means that would have sufficed for their grandparents. And this disinclination to bring children into a poverty-stricken home is not altogether contemptible. City life, with the accompanying miseries of dear food and rent, holds cruel torments for child life.

And if there is to be any romance in marriage women must be given every chance to earn a decent living at other occupations. Otherwise no man can be sure that he is loved for himself alone, and that his wife did not come to the Registry Office because she had had no luck at the Labour Exchange. Only the materialist can fear that a fair day's wage for a fair day's work will kill the wife and mother in women. The trinity of the man, the woman and the child is as indestructible as the trinity of the sun, the moon and the stars.

But one admires the humility of men who think otherwise, and hold that only by the fear of starvation are women coerced into having husbands.


SOURCE: Goldman, Emma. "Victims of Morality." In Red Emma Speaks, Alix Kates Shulman, pp. 126-32. New York: Random House, 1972.

In the following excerpt, originally written circa 1913, Goldman responds to the Comstock Law of 1873, which made it difficult for women and men to obtain contraceptives, denouncing its imposition of a narrow version of morality on the lives of men and women.

Not so very long ago I attended a meeting addressed by Anthony Comstock, who has for forty years been the guardian of American morals. A more incoherent, ignorant ramble I have never heard from any platform.

The question that presented itself to me, listening to the commonplace, bigoted talk of the man, was, How could anyone so limited and unintelligent wield the power of censor and dictator over a supposedly democratic nation? True, Comstock has the law to back him. Forty years ago, when puritanism was even more rampant than to-day, completely shutting out the light of reason and progress, Comstock succeeded, through shady machination and political wire pulling, to introduce a bill which gave him complete control over the Post Office Department—a control which has proved disastrous to the freedom of the press, as well as the right of privacy of the American citizen.

Since then, Comstock has broken into the private chambers of people, has confiscated personal correspondence, as well as works of art, and has established a system of espionage and graft which would put Russia to shame. Yet the law does not explain the power of Anthony Comstock. There is something else, more terrible than the law. It is the narrow puritanic spirit, as represented in the sterile minds of the Young-Men-and-Old-Maid's Christian Union, Temperance Union, Sabbath Union, Purity League, etc. A spirit which is absolutely blind to the simplest manifestations of life; hence stands for stagnation and decay. As in antebellum days, these old fossils lament the terrible immorality of our time. Science, art, literature, the drama, are at the mercy of bigoted censorship and legal procedure, with the result that America, with all her boastful claims to progress and liberty is still steeped in the densest provincialism.…

Unfortunately, the Lie of Morality still stalks about in fine feathers, since no one dares to come within hailing distance of that holy of holies. Yet [it] is safe to say that no other superstition is so detrimental to growth, so enervating and paralyzing to the minds and hearts of the people, as the superstition of Morality.…

However, it is with the effect of Morality upon women that I am here mostly concerned. So disastrous, so paralyzing has this effect been, that some even of the most advanced among my sisters never thoroughly outgrow it.

It is Morality which condemns woman to the position of a celibate, a prostitute, or a reckless, incessant breeder of hapless children.

First, as to the celibate, the famished and withered human plant. When still a young, beautiful flower, she falls in love with a respectable young man. But Morality decrees that unless he can marry the girl, she must never know the raptures of love, the ecstasy of passion, which reaches its culminating expression in the sex embrace. The respectable young man is willing to marry, but the Property Morality, the Family and Social Moralities decree that he must first make his pile, must save up enough to establish a home and be able to provide for a family. The young people must wait, often many long, weary years.

Meanwhile the respectable young man, excited through the daily association and contact with his sweetheart, seeks an outlet for his nature in return for money [given to a prostitute]. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, he will be infected [with a sexually transmitted disease], and when he is materially able to marry, he will infect his wife and possible offspring. And the young flower, with every fiber aglow with the fire of life, with all her being crying out for love and passion? She has no outlet. She develops headaches, insomnia, hysteria; grows embittered, quarrelsome, and soon becomes a faded, withered, joyless being, a nuisance to herself and everyone else.…

Now, as to the prostitute. In spite of laws, ordinances, persecution, and prisons; in spite of segregation, registration, vice crusades, and other similar devices, the prostitute is the real specter of our age. She sweeps across the plains like a fire burning into every nook of life, devastating, destroying.

After all, she is paying back, in a very small measure, the curse and horrors society has strewn in her path. She … is yet the Nemesis of modern times, the avenging angel, ruthlessly wielding the sword of fire. For has she not the man in her power? And, through him, the home, the child, the race. Thus she slays, and is herself the most brutally slain.…

The prostitute is victimized by still other forces, foremost among them the Property Morality, which compels woman to sell herself as a sex commodity for a dollar per, out of wedlock, or for fifteen dollars a week, in the sacred fold of matrimony. The latter is no doubt safer, more respected, more recognized, but of the two forms of prostitution the girl of the street is the least hypocritical, the least debased, since her trade lacks the pious mask of hypocrisy; and yet she is hounded, fleeced, outraged, and shunned, by the very powers that have made her: the financier, the priest, the moralist, the judge, the jailor, and the detective, not to forget her sheltered, respectably virtuous sister, who is the most relentless and brutal in her persecution of the prostitute.

Morality and its victim, the mother—what a terrible picture! Is there indeed anything more terrible, more criminal, than our glorified sacred function of motherhood? The woman, physically and mentally unfit to be a mother, yet condemned to breed; the woman, economically taxed to the very last spark of energy, yet forced to breed;… the woman, worn and used-up from the process of procreation, yet coerced to breed, more, ever more. What a hideous thing, this much-lauded motherhood! No wonder thousands of women risk mutilation, and prefer even death to this curse of the cruel imposition of the spook of Morality. Five thousand are yearly sacrificed upon the altar of this monster, that will not stand for prevention but would cure by abortion. Five thousand soldiers in the battle for their physical and spiritual freedom, and as many thousands more who are crippled and mutilated rather than bring forth life in a society based on decay and destruction.

Is it because the modern woman wants to shirk responsibilities, or that she lacks love for her offspring, that she is driven to the most drastic and dangerous means to avoid bearing children? Only shallow, bigoted minds can bring such an accusation. Else they would know that the modern woman has become race-conscious, sensitive to the needs and rights of the child, as the unit of the race, and that therefore the modern woman has a sense of responsibility and humanity, which was quite foreign to her grandmother.

With the economic war raging all around her, with strife, misery, crime, disease, and insanity staring her in the face, with numberless little children ground into gold dust, how can the self- and race-conscious woman become a mother? Morality can not answer this question. It can only dictate, coerce, or condemn—and how many women are strong enough to face this condemnation, to defy the moral dicta? Few, indeed. Hence they fill the factories, the reformatories, the homes for feeble minded, the prisons, the insane asylums, or they die in the attempt to prevent child-birth. Oh, Motherhood, what crimes are committed in thy name! What hosts are laid at your feet, Morality, destroyer of life!

Fortunately, the Dawn is emerging from the chaos and darkness. Woman is awakening, she is throwing off the nightmare of Morality; she will no longer be bound. In her love for the man, she is not concerned in the contents of his pocketbook, but in the wealth of his nature, which alone is the fountain of life and joy. Nor does she need the sanction of the State. Her love is sanction enough for her. Thus she can abandon herself to the man of her choice, as the flowers abandon themselves to dew and light, in freedom, beauty, and ecstasy.

Through her re-born consciousness as a unit, a personality, a race builder, she will become a mother only if she desires the child, and if she can give to the child, even before its birth, all that her nature and intellect can yield: harmony, health, comfort, beauty, and, above all, understanding, reverence, and love, which is the only fertile soil for new life, a new being.

Morality has no terrors for her who has risen beyond good and evil. And though Morality may continue to devour its victims, it is utterly powerless in the face of the modern spirit, that shines in all its glory upon the brow of man and woman, liberated and unafraid.


SOURCE: Eastman, Crystal. "Birth Control in the Feminist Program." In Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution, Blanche Wiesen Cook, pp. 46-9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

In the following article, originally published in the Birth Control Review in 1918, Eastman contends that birth control is a fundamental right for women and must be available as an alternative if they are to participate fully in the modern world.

Feminism means different things to different people, I suppose. To women with a taste for politics and reform it means the right to vote and hold office. To women physically strong and adventuresome it means freedom to enter all kinds of athletic contests and games, to compete with men in aviation, to drive racing cars,…to enter dangerous trades, etc. To many it means social and sex freedom, doing away with exclusively feminine virtues. To most of all it means economic freedom,—not the ideal economic freedom dreamed of by revolutionary socialism, but such economic freedom as it is possible for a human being to achieve under the existing system of competitive production and distribution,—in short such freedom to choose one's way of making a living as men now enjoy, and definite economic rewards for one's work when it happens to be "home-making." This is to me the central fact of feminism. Until women learn to want economic independence, i.e., the ability to earn their own living independently of husbands, fathers, brothers or lovers,—and until they work out a way to get this independence without denying themselves the joys of love and motherhood, it seems to me feminism has no roots. Its manifestations are often delightful and stimulating but they are sporadic, they effect no lasting change in the attitude of men to women, or of women to themselves.


EMMA GOLDMAN (1869-1940)

Popularly known as "Red Emma," Emma Goldman became one of the most vilified women in America for her socialist and anarchist politics and activism. Born in 1869 in what was then part of the Russian empire, Goldman escaped an arranged marriage by emigrating to the United States. Goldman attracted large audiences as she advocated birth control, elevated the position of working women, and criticized the social and economic inequities that, she believed, forced many young women into prostitution. While in the United States she was arrested for agitation, accused of involvement in President William McKinley's assassination, forced underground, and deported. Goldman expressed her anarchist viewpoints in Mother Earth, a journal she founded in 1903 and edited with her lover, anarchist Alexander Berkman. Publication ended in 1917 when she and Berkman were arrested and deported to Russia for opposing the conscription of young men during World War I. Anarchy without violence and the drive to achieve individual rights for women were related ideologies, according to Goldman, who pursued both vigorously. In Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) Goldman stressed this theme, describing the constant victimization that women endured. Skilled as both a nurse and midwife, Goldman knew how women's health was endangered by frequent pregnancies. She was jailed for distributing contraception information alongside birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger in 1915 and also contributed articles to Sanger's magazine, Woman Rebel. Goldman held that a correlation existed between a woman's substandard wages and her need to exchange her sexual favors for money. In fact, she argued, economic necessity was not only the motive behind prostitution; it was the basis of marriage. Goldman argued that even with the power to vote, women would still be bound to oppression and the home. Goldman's published works include What I Believe (1908), The Psychology of Political Violence (1911), and Living My Life, her 1931 autobiography.

Whether other feminists would agree with me that the economic is the fundamental aspect of feminism, I don't know. But on this we are surely agreed, that Birth Control is an elementary essential in all aspects of feminism. Whether we are the special followers of Alice Paul [founder of the National Woman's Party] or Ruth Law, or Ellen Key, or Olive Schreiner [South African author known for her pro-women's rights and pacifist writings], we must all be followers of Margaret Sanger [pioneer in the birth control movement]. Feminists are not nuns. That should be established. We want to love and to be loved, and most of us want children, one or two at least. But we want our love to be joyous and free—not clouded with ignorance and fear. And we want our children to be deliberately, eagerly called into being, when we are at our best, not crowded upon us in times of poverty and weakness. We want this precious sex knowledge not just for ourselves, the conscious feminists; we want it for all the millions of unconscious feminists that swarm the earth,—we want it for all women.

Life is a big battle for the complete feminist even when she can regulate the size of her family. Women who are creative, or who have administrative gifts, or business ability, and who are ambitious to achieve and fulfill themselves in these lines, if they also have the normal desire to be mothers, must make up their minds to be a sort of supermen, I think. They must develop greater powers of concentration, a stronger will to "keep at it," a more determined ambition than men of equal gifts, in order to make up for the time and energy and thought and devotion that child-bearing, even in the most "advanced" families, seems inexorably to demand of the mother. But if we add to this handicap complete uncertainty as to when children may come, how often they come or how many there shall be, the thing becomes impossible. I would almost say that the whole structure of the feminist's dream of society rests upon the rapid extension of scientific knowledge about birth control.

This seems so obvious to me that I was astonished the other day to come upon a group of distinguished feminists who discussed for an hour what could be done with the woman's vote in New York State and did not once mention birth control.

As the readers of this magazine well know, the laws of this state, instead of establishing free clinics as necessary centers of information for the facts about sex hygiene and birth control, actually make it a crime, even on the part of a doctor, to tell grown men and women how to limit the size of their families. What could be a more pressing demand on the released energies of all these valiant suffrage workers than to repeal the law?



"Because I believe that woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child-rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws, and superstitions.

Because I believe that women's freedom depends upon awakening that spirit of revolt within her against these things which enslave her."

Sanger, Margaret. "Why the Woman Rebel?" In

The Woman Rebel 1, no. 1 (March 1914): 7.

Born September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York, Margaret Sanger is known as the leader of the birth control movement in the United States. In 1912, Sanger launched a long struggle against the ignorance, prejudice, religious tenets, and laws that prevented or opposed the practice of birth control. As a maternity nurse working in New York City's Lower East Side, she confronted the overwhelmingly high mortality rates, chronic illness, and social and political powerlessness that plagued poverty-stricken, pregnant women. Disillusioned by the suffering she saw and her own inability to help and advise, she renounced her nursing career forever and resolved to campaign for the collection and dissemination of birth control literature and devices. In 1914 she founded the National Birth Control League and published Woman Rebel magazine. Sanger's crusade was met with persecution, court trials, and imprisonment: she was indicted in 1915 for sending pleas for birth control through the mails, and in 1916 she was arrested for operating a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y. While still in prison, she founded and edited the Birth Control Review. After organizing national and international conferences, founding the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, and writing and speaking on behalf of her cause, Sanger finally won the needed legislative changes that would allow doctors to prescribe contraceptives and educate the public. Sanger was the author of numerous books on birth control and sex education, including What Every Mother Should Know (1914), The Case for Birth Control (1917), and Motherhood in Bondage. (1928).

This work should especially commend itself, now in wartime when so many kinds of reform are outlawed. There is nothing about Birth Control agitation to embarrass the President or obstruct the prosecution of the war.… It is a reform absolutely vital to the progress of woman and one which the war does not interfere with. While American men are fighting to rid the old world of autocracy let American women set to and rid the new world of this intolerable old burden of sex ignorance. It should not be a difficult task.

I don't believe there is one woman within the confines of this state who does not believe in birth control. I never met one. That is, I never met one who thought that she should be kept in ignorance of contraceptive methods. Many I have met … valued the knowledge they possessed, but thought there were certain other classes who would be better kept in ignorance. The old would protect the young. The rich would keep the poor in ignorance. The good would keep their knowledge from the bad, the strong from the weak, and so on. But never in all my travels have I come on one married woman who, possessed of this knowledge would willingly part with it, or who not yet informed, was not eager for knowledge. It is only hypocrisy, and here and there a little hard-faced puritanism we have to overcome. No genuine human interest will be against the repeal of this law. Of course capitalism thrives on an oversupplied labor market, but with our usual enormous immigration to be counted on as soon as the war [World War I] is over, it is not likely that an organized economic opposition to birth control will develop.

In short, if feminism, conscious and bold and intelligent, leads the demand, it will be supported by the secret eagerness of all women to control the size of their families, and a suffrage state should make short work of repealing these old laws that stand in the way of birth control.


SOURCE: McDougald, Elise Johnson. "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation." The Survey 53, no. 11 (1 March 1925): 689-91.

In the following article, McDougald reflects on the struggle confronting young African American women in their efforts to obtain employment in areas hitherto denied to them.

Throughout the long years of history, woman has been the weather-vane, the indicator, showing in which direction the wind of destiny blows. Her status and development have augured now calm and stability, now swift currents of progress. What then is to be said of the Negro woman today?

In Harlem, more than anywhere else, the Negro woman is free from the cruder handicaps of primitive household hardships and the grosser forms of sex and race subjugation. Here she has considerable opportunity to measure her powers in the intellectual and industrial fields of the great city. Here the questions naturally arise: "What are her problems?" and "How is she solving them?"

To answer these questions, one must have in mind not any one Negro woman, but rather a colorful pageant of individuals, each differently endowed. Like the red and yellow of the tiger-lily, the skin of one is brilliant against the star-lit darkness of a racial sister. From grace to strength, they vary in infinite degree, with traces of the race's history left in physical and mental outline on each. With a discerning mind, one catches the multiform charm, beauty and character of Negro women; and grasps the fact that their problem cannot be thought of in mass.

Because only a few have caught this vision, the attitude of mind of most New Yorkers causes the Negro woman serious difficulty. She is conscious that what is left of chivalry is not directed toward her. She realizes that the ideals of beauty, built up in the fine arts, exclude her almost entirely. Instead, the grotesque Aunt Jemimas of the street-car advertisements proclaim only an ability to serve, without grace or loveliness. Nor does the drama catch her finest spirit. She is most often used to provoke the mirthless laugh of ridicule; or to portray feminine viciousness or vulgarity not peculiar to Negroes. This is the shadow over her. To a race naturally sunny comes the twilight of self-doubt and a sense of personal inferiority. It cannot be denied that these are potent and detrimental influences, though not generally recognized because they are in the realm of the mental and spiritual. More apparent are the economic handicaps which follow her recent entrance into industry. It is conceded that she has special difficulties because of the poor working conditions and low wages of her men. It is not surprising that only the determined women forge ahead to results other than mere survival. The few who do prove their mettle stimulate one to a closer study of how this achievement is won in Harlem.

Better to visualize the Negro woman at her job, our vision of a host of individuals must once more resolve itself into groups on the basis of activity. First, comes a very small leisure group—the wives and daughters of men who are in business, in the professions and in a few well-paid personal service occupations. Second, a most active and progressive group, the women in business and the professions. Third, the many women in the trades and industry. Fourth, a group weighty in numbers struggling on in domestic service, with an even less fortunate fringe of casual workers, fluctuating with the economic temper of the times.

The first is a pleasing group to see. It is picked for outward beauty by Negro men with much the same feeling as other Americans of the same economic class. Keeping their women free to preside over the family, these women are affected by the problems of every wife and mother, but touched only faintly by their race's hardships. They do share acutely in the prevailing difficulty of finding competent household help. Negro wives find Negro maids unwilling generally to work in their own neighborhoods, for various reasons. They do not wish to work where there is a possibility of acquaintances coming into contact with them while they serve and they still harbor the misconception that Negroes of any station are unable to pay as much as persons of the other race. It is in these homes of comparative ease that we find the polite activities of social exclusiveness. The luxuries of well-appointed homes, modest motors, tennis, golf and country clubs, trips to Europe and California, make for social standing. The problem confronting the refined Negro family is to know others of the same achievement. The search for kindred spirits gradually grows less difficult; in the past it led to the custom of visiting all the large cities in order to know similar groups of cultured Negro people.

A spirit of stress and struggle characterizes the second two groups. These women of business, profession and trade are the hub of the wheel of progress. Their burden is two-fold. Many are wives and mothers whose husbands are insufficiently paid, or who have succumbed to social maladjustment and have abandoned their families. An appalling number are widows. They face the great problem of leaving home each day and at the same time trying to rear children in their spare time—this too in neighborhoods where rents are large, standards of dress and recreation high and costly, and social danger on the increase.

The great commercial life of New York City is only slightly touched by the Negro woman of our second group. Negro business men offer most of their work, but their number is limited. Outside of this field, custom is once more against her and competition is keen for all. However, Negro girls are training and some are holding exceptional jobs. One of the professors in a New York college has had a young colored woman as secretary for the past three years. Another holds the head clerical position in an organization where reliable handling of detail and a sense of business ethics are essential. For four years she has steadily advanced. Quietly these women prove their worth, so that when vacancy exists and there is a call, it is difficult to find even one competent colored secretary who is not employed. As a result of opportunity in clerical work in the educational system of New York City a number have qualified for such positions, one being appointed within the year to the office work of a high school. In other departments the civil service in New York City is no longer free from discrimination. The casual personal interview, that tenacious and retrogressive practice introduced in the Federal administration during the World War has spread and often nullifies the Negro woman's success in written tests. The successful woman just cited above was three times "turned down" as undesirable on the basis of the personal interview. In the great mercantile houses, the many young Negro girls who might be well suited to salesmanship are barred from all but the menial positions. Even so, one Negro woman, beginning as a uniformed maid, has pulled herself up to the position of "head of stock."

Again, the telephone and insurance companies which receive considerable patronage from Negroes deny them proportionate employment. Fortunately, this is an era of changing customs. There is hope that a less selfish racial attitude will prevail. It is a heartening fact that there is an increasing number of Americans who will lend a hand in the game fight of the worthy.

In the less crowded professional vocations, the outlook is more cheerful. In these fields, the Negro woman is dependent largely upon herself and her own race for work. In the legal, dental, medical and nursing professions, successful women practitioners have usually worked their way through college and are "managing" on the small fees that can be received from an underpaid public. Social conditions in America are hardest upon the Negro because he is lowest in the economic scale. This gives rise to demand for trained college women in the profession of social work. It has met with a response from young college women, anxious to devote their education and lives to the needs of the submerged classes. In New York City, some fifty-odd women are engaged in social work, other than nursing. In the latter profession there are over two hundred and fifty. Much of the social work has been pioneer[ing] in nature: the pay has been small with little possibility of advancement. For even in work among Negroes, the better paying positions are reserved for whites. The Negro college woman is doing her bit in this field at a sacrifice, along such lines as these: in the correctional departments of the city, as probation officers, investigators, and police women; as Big Sisters attached to the Children's Court; as field workers and visitors and for relief organizations and missions; as secretaries for travelers-aid and mission societies; as visiting teachers and vocational guides for the schools of the city; and, in the many branches of public health nursing, in schools, organizations devoted to preventive and educational medicine, in hospitals and in private nursing.

In New York City, nearly three hundred Negro women share the good conditions in the teaching profession. They measure up to the high pedagogical requirements of the city and state law and are, increasingly, leaders in the community. Here too the Negro woman finds evidence of the white workers' fear of competition. The need for teachers is still so strong that little friction exists. When it does seem to be imminent, it is smothered away, as it recently was at a meeting of school principals. From the floor, a discussion began with: "What are we going to do about this problem of the increasing number of Negro teachers coming into our schools?" It ended promptly through the suggestion of another principal: "Send all you get and don't want over to my school. I have two now and I'll match their work to any two of your best whom you name." One might go on to such interesting and more unusual professions as journalism, chiropody, bacteriology, pharmacy, etc., and find that, though the number in any one may be small, the Negro woman is creditably represented in practically every one. According to individual ability she is meeting with success.

Closing the door on the home anxieties, the woman engaged in trades and in industry faces equally serious difficulty in competition in the open working field. Custom is against her in all but a few trade and industrial occupations. She has, however, been established long in the dressmaking trade among the helpers and finishers, and more recently among the drapers and fitters in some of the best establishments. Several Negro women are themselves proprietors of shops in the country's greatest fashion district. Each of them has, against great odds, convinced skeptical employers of her business value: and, at the same time, has educated fellow workers of other races, doing much to show the oneness of interest of all workers. In millinery, power sewing machine operating on cloth, straw and leather, there are few Negro women. The laissez-faire attitude of practically all trade unions makes the Negro woman an unwilling menace to the cause of labor.

In trade cookery, the Negro woman's talent and past experience is recognized. Her problem here is to find employers who will let her work her way to managerial positions, in tea rooms, candy shops and institutions. One such employer became convinced that the managing cook, a young colored graduate of Pratt Institute, would continue to build up a business that had been failing. She offered her a partnership. As in the cases of a number of such women her barrier was lack of capital. No matter how highly trained, now how much speed and business acumen has been acquired, the Negro's credit is held in doubt. An exception in this matter of capital will serve to prove the rule. Thirty years ago, a young Negro girl began learning all branches of the fur trade. She is now in business for herself, employing three women of her race and one Jewish man. She has made fur experts of still another half-dozen colored girls. Such instances as these justify the prediction that the foot hold gained in the trade world will, year by year, become more secure.

Because of the limited fields for workers in this group many of the unsuccessful drift into the fourth social grade: the domestic and casual workers. These drifters increase the difficulties of the Negro woman suited to housework. New standards of household management are forming and the problem of the Negro woman is to meet these new business-like ideals. The constant influx of workers unfamiliar with household conditions in New York keeps the situation one of turmoil. The Negro woman, moreover, is revolting against essential domestic service. It is a last stand in her fight to maintain a semblance of family life. For that reason, principally, the number of day or casual workers is on the increase. Happiness is almost impossible under the strain of these conditions. Health and morale suffer, but how else can her children, loose all afternoon, be gathered together at night-fall? Through her drudgery, the women of other groups find leisure time for progress. This is one of her contributions to America.

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Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960): Primary Sources

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Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960): Primary Sources