Taking the Message to Workingwomen"
August 1920 London
In order to convey the message of Birth Control to working women, the cordon of social workers must first be broken through. "Social science" as applied by that specialized class of persons known as "social workers" has erected a barricade against all progressive ideas. Endowed with the funds of "charity," which, as we know, come largely from ultra-conservative sources, these "workers" have established a self-assumed guardianship of the poor. Whatever individuals of this class may do, as a whole it maintains entanglements of moral and ethical barbed wire against anything which, in the opinion of themselves and those who furnish the funds to support them, is not "good" for the women workers and their children. This situation prevails as strongly in England as elsewhere, and it is one of the conditions which must be reckoned with by the Birth Control movement.
The reactionary moral guardianship exercised by "social workers" is responsible for the ignorance in which some of the most progressive of the working women of England are kept regarding matters of the utmost importance to them and their families. Take, for instance, the Women's Co-operative Guild. It consists of 3500 of the most advanced and intelligent working women here. They are married women whose husbands belong to trade organizations. They had never heard of Birth Control as a movement. Most of them have never heard of it as a scientific fact, until they attended lectures delivered by one outside of the circle of their "social guardians."
One woman, the mother of twenty children, nine of whom reached maturity and seven of whom are still living, came after the lecture and whispered: " It's a fine work you are doing, Missus. It's making 'istory you are, and good 'istory too. I wish I had known what you've told us here tonight when I was young. There wouldn't have been so many of mine in the grave." Her attitude was typical of that of the older women—women who should have known about Birth Control methods many years ago. All the older women–-those who have passed the age when knowledge of Birth Control methods is of use to themselves-–are anxious to help their daughters and their daughters-in-law. It is beautiful and inspiring to hear them carry the message to each other and direct their friends to still other women who are in need of the information-–to Mrs. So-and-So, mother of seven, with four dead: to Mrs. So-and-So, mother of ten and still young enough to bear many more.
These women, advanced as they are in many ways, know simply nothing of their own bodies. Even the names of the reproductive organs are a mystery to them and must be imparted. The location, the functions, the use and care of these organs must be explained to them, for, hard as it is to believe, they are ignorant of all these things.
Once the barricades are broken, these women are touchingly, splendidly, eager for this knowledge and for instruction in family limitation. It is inspiring to watch their faces. They are conscious of the fact that this subject has never before been talked of out loud. As they receive the knowledge, there is but a hair's breadth between hysteria and holiness in the atmosphere. They are ready for either, according to the words used. One can feel the falling away of ages of erroneous teaching and false shame, and as the light comes into their eyes, they seem younger and happier. Their womanhood begins to break the silence of the centuries.
They always ask for the practical methods of Birth Control. It is the first time these methods have been discussed or imparted in public meetings. " Here we are all women" they say, " we want to know what we can do to limit our families, what we can use, the cost of the necessary things and where they can be had." They contribute their own share toward breaking down the walls and letting in the light, for they quickly learn to give their own experiences in order to get more particularized advice and to help their sisters. They are eager to do anything which will help to bring the illumination of truth to a subject that for nearly two thousand years has been relegated to darkness and the gutter.
Among working women who are free from the influence of the accepted "social science" and who are, therefore, free to choose their own reading matter, there are many who have heard of Marie Stopes' books. Most of them, however, have heard very little about books, even the book "Maternity" published by the Guild, which includes many letters from mothers who know nothing of Birth Control and who suffer from the lack of that knowledge. Their time is taken with care of their children, getting meals, washing and making the husband's pay last until the end of the week. They have no time to think of books.
Light was shed upon the relation between large families and drunkenness among women by the replies made to questions at one of the Birth Control meetings at a branch of the Guild. I inquired if drunkenness had increased or decreased among women with the high wages and independent earnings which had come in since the outbreak of the war. The answer was that a woman takes to drink when children begin to come along so fast that she gets discouraged with constant working and trying to feed many mouths on the same amount of money that she got from her "chap" when there were but two or three to feed. Until this situation comes, the woman may " take a drink now and then with 'er ol' man," but does not get drunk. "It's 'er that's got to go without," they told me.
Even the children in large families know that the mother does not get the same kind of food that the father does, even though another baby is coming. Where there is not enough to go around, the father and the children are supplied and the mother goes without. The fact that women are talking about these wrongs and resent them means that they must go on. And they will go through Birth Control.
Nearly all my time in England thus far has been devoted to various branches of the Women's Co-operative Guild in London. This has been most satisfying to me because in these meetings for women only, one can have plain heart-to-heart talks in which one may tell plainly how to apply Birth Control methods.
Another fine thing about the work here is that one's energy is not taken for negative work. There is no necessity of fighting fossilized laws, of trying to do away with them. Information concerning contraceptives can be given openly and I am giving all that has come my way. Clinics would be better, because the instruction could then be adapted to the individual cases, but until the clinics arrive, the present means of imparting information serves as a step towards that goal.
Aside from the work with the women of the Guild, one of the most interesting meetings thus far was that held at the International Socialist Club. The hall was packed to the doors and this Birth Control meeting was by far the largest the club had held since the outbreak of the war. All kinds of questions were asked and many objections were raised by men–-old Marxians, all, with the arguments antagonistic to Malthus deeply rooted in their minds. What they wished most to know was whether Birth Control would help Labor. If a man had six children, was it not necessary that he should have higher wages than the man who has two? The gist of the argument was that the working class could increase their wages by increasing their needs.
How astoundingly futile and false is that argument in the face of the living facts. It was answered, apparently to the satisfaction of all those present, when it proceeded to bob up again and again in various guises. Finally several of the women jumped to their feet crying that the men did not want Birth Control because they wanted " to keep the women down." A chorus of "Hear! Hear!" came from the rest of the women in the audience, who called to me to agree with the charge. I was delighted at the spirit of the women but could not agree as to the motives of the men in opposing Birth Control.
I explained that I felt that the antagonism upon the part of the men was due to the impression that the only methods of preventing conception were one or two old ones which men generally dislike. When it was learned that methods are now known to be safe in which the man needs have neither concern nor part, all opposition fell away. This suggestion struck like lightning. Even the men agreed and gave a hearty round of applause. One wonders just how much of the "Marxian" opposition to Birth Control has its roots, not in logic, but in personal dislike for certain antiquated methods of preventing conception.
The spirit of this meeting was inspiring and out of it may come a widespread interest among the radical men and women. Rose Witcop was in the chair and managed the meeting magnificently. Guy Aldred spoke briefly on the need of education among the workers.
Last night, June 15th, there was a Birth Control meeting at the Emily Davidson club, which is named for the suffragist who was killed. This was for women only and the hall again was packed to the doors and out into the hall-ways. Many men came but were turned away. This meeting, too, brought out an interesting side-light. A third of the audience approved continence as a means of family limitation. One little elderly woman in a spirited voice insisted that men should be taught that sexual contact was solely for procreation and insisted that three or four contacts in the course of a lifetime were quite sufficient. It developed that nearly half of the audience were elderly, unmarried women. This explained the insistence with which they favored continence.
At this meeting I was showered with questions about our co-worker, Kitty Marion, who so bravely faces the Broadway crowds to sell THE BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW. Her old friends congratulated us upon having so courageous a woman in the movement, and blamed themselves roundly for allowing her to leave England. Emily Davidson and Kitty Marion were fast friends. Another meeting, to which men will be admitted, will be held at the Emily Davidson club on June 29th.
I am off now to lecture at Edmonton to the Women's Co-Operative Guild branch there. Tonight I deliver a lecture at eight on "The Psychology of the Birth Control Movement" at the Workers' Educational Association, under the auspices of the Society for the Study of Sex Psychology of which Edward Carpenter is president.
There is a splendid growing interest in Birth Control everywhere. I am most encouraged because the working women are spreading the message and calling for clinics where they can obtain the necessary materials. It is all going on quietly and gathering momentum as it goes. If the saying " What goes in England, goes over the world" is true, it is most encouraging to look into the future.