Speech at the Meeting Which Organized
the National Birth Control League
March 1915 — Meeting to organize the National Birth Control League, home of Clara Gruening Stillman
Judging by the recent experiences of several groups of representative people, there can be little doubt that the time is ripe for this action this meeting is called to take.
Several groups have independently and spontaneously gotten together to do something, the impetus having been largely precipitated by the Sanger case.
Irrespective of the variation in the several programs suggested by these groups, there has been marked unanimity on one point, that is the absolute conviction of each individual that correct information about birth control should be freely attainable. And it is an encouraging fact that this conviction seems to be held by all kinds of people — from the most cramped conservative to the freeist [sic] radical. It is true that among radicals and conservatives there is to be found a certain timidity in regard to positive action which seems born of a fear that the sensibilities and prejudices of others must somehow be protected. Just what others no one seems to exactly know. They are mythical elusive people just round the corner who disappear when we really hunt for them. All we can find are people who say “Of course personally, I entirely believe in it, but I am sure that it wouldn’t do to say so just yet in any but a purely private way.” Now since almost nobody can be found except perhaps Comstock, who will say for his or her own self — “I think the present law is right,” the rest of us only need to [spontaneously] shed our “buts” and “ifs” which we have been holding for the benefit of the indiscoverable other people, and join together to push for the change we all believe in.
It is a shame to have a law on the statute books which is so seriously at variance with the degree of evolution already achieved by the race in the matter of the sex relation.
In spite of the all too many perverted and degenerating phases of sex life, which exist at present, it is still true that there has been a wonderful evolution that is perfectly logical, natural and desirable — that is that recognition of the value of other precious results from the sex relation beside children, — the physcological [sic] emotional and spiritual re[l]ations — and — also if I may venture to use that term without being misunderstood the moral reaction [sic].
For the highly developed civilized human being there is no such thing as natural sex relations, that is, in the animal sense. We do not — after the simple manner of the animals — have a mating season. We do not have an annual baby. It would be anything but ideal to do so. But instead we expand our creative impulses into other channels which are more beneficial and enjoyable for the race. We find creative scope in the whole side field of science art and community life. And along with this expansion we are developing a conscious and unashamed appreciation of the invaluable reactions upon the individual of the sex relation apart from the question of children.
This faculty of appreciation — this evolved use of the sex function seems to be peculiar to the human race — an evidence of its higher development [sic] and actual progress.
Therefore it is a specially grave mistake to allow a law to remain on the statute books, which not only has no place in modern thoughts or idealism, but which is positively pernicious in that it links up with crime, an element in education which is absolutely essential to individual and racial progress. It is already sneakily available for the well to do, but is still, alas, beyond the reach of most of the masses.
It is generally assumed — though often falsely so, that law does not exist till demanded by public opinion, and so the average mind is apt to more or less hold the law in respect. The result is that in instances like this, the respect becomes hypocritical and there is general shamefacedness in evading or defying the law, which is in itself demoralizing.
It is obviously a long job to make the statutes thoroughly reflect the best thought and ideals of the community, but that is no reason for postponing the effort. And the compulsion in regard to this law is peculiarly pressing, for every year that we delay, we are to that extent becoming partners with the law, in the horror of perpetuating the supply of unwelcome babies and the wretchedness of unwilling parenthood.
Source: Mary Ware Dennett, “Speech at the Meeting Which Organized the National Birth Control League,” March 1915, Papers of Mary Ware Dennett and the Voluntary Parenthood League, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (Women’s Studies Manuscript Collection microfilm, series 3, part B: reel 13, #679-81). This speech is in the public domain.