"London Birth Control Meetings"



On the night of June 29, I finished my London lectures for the time being. That meeting, the second under the auspices of the Emily Davidson Club, was perhaps the most thrilling and unusual of all because it was the first time practical preventive methods were explained and discussed publicly before an audience of both sexes. There were about sixty men and as many women present, the lecture having been advertised in a very small way and being given to compensate the men for having been turned away from a previous lecture given for women only.

After I had discussed the theoretical and economic side of Birth Control a man of about thirty-five years, arose.

"It's all very interesting and enlightening, what the lady speaker has told us" he said, "but really I and others have come here on purpose to have her tell us what methods she advises us to use. Won't she tell us while we are here for that purpose?"

"Hear. Hear!" cried part of the audience. "No! No!" came from others.

"Let the men go out--let her talk to the women!"

"No, No!" cried a man, "we have just as much right to know these things as the women!"

The men insistently demanded a vote upon the question. The chairman inquired if I were willing to address a mixed audience and I agreed, suggesting that those who did not wish to remain to hear the practical methods should depart while I continued the theoretical discussion. Only one couple left the room.

The attitude of both men and women during the explanation of methods was one of ease, confidence and reverence for the subject which means so much in their everyday lives. Afterwards, six men came seeking advice on other problems, saying that if they had known Birth Control methods a few years earlier they would have been spared great unhappiness and would not now be carrying backbreaking burdens without the help of understanding spiritual advisers.

Within less than six weeks I have given about twenty-two private lectures, reaching some twenty-five hundred women. All were working women, and all demanded and received information concerning the practical methods, which were discussed fully at each meeting.

The subject is being discussed everywhere and information concerning contraceptives is spreading like wildfire among the workers. One can feel the increased and increasing interest. One indication is the requests that are pouring in for lectures before labor organizations and other bodies. If I accepted all these invitations, I should have to remain here at least a year, working constantly.

The attitude toward Birth Control exhibited by various groups of people show some decidedly interesting contrasts. That of the working women may be described as "natural." They are vitally interested and they demand the knowledge of Birth Control, receiving it eagerly. The professional social worker is more likely to suspend his or her common sense and exhibit a good deal of hypocrisy. This is especially true of the official Labor leaders and officials are prone to deny entirely the call to plain economic necessity of Birth Control. Many radicals, too, ignore this phase of the matter, especially the older ones, who are wedded to oft-repeated phrases. The younger people, however, are almost entirely convinced that there is much in the Birth Control movement and at least have their minds open to it.

The fact that officialdom in labor circles and "social work" is strongly against the diminution of labor's misery is constantly shown by the arguments used in such groups against Birth Control.

"Let 'em have all the children they can. It will bring on the revolution all the quicker," said one spokesman of labor to me some weeks ago.

"Why do you fight for higher wages then?" I asked, "Why ask higher wages if you really want poverty and misery?"

He was silent at that, but he was forced to do some thinking just the same. On the other hand, the practical working man and the practical social worker are entirely in agreement with the practice of Birth Control and say so. But the official, the leader, turns a deaf ear to it.

One of the groups that is on the road to practical work on a very large scale is that under the direction of Mrs. Anna Martin at Rotherhithe. This is one of the most dilapidated and poverty-stricken districts of London. When, on June 22, I gave an informal address to Miss Martin's group there were present something over one hundred women from the neighborhood. I was surprised to learn that these women had small families--one or two, not more than three children. The explanation was that Dr. Alice Vickery had visited the neighborhood some ten years previously and had instructed some of the intelligent women of the neighborhood in Birth Control methods. Some of the more prosperous of these women purchased the necessary contraceptives and furnished them to their poorer neighbors, who reimbursed them upon the installment plan. The result was smaller families and children growing up with more advantages, including better health.

The benefits to the mothers were marked. These women were farther advanced than others who had been denied Birth Control information. They enjoyed a greater companionship with their husbands. They go to lectures; they have something of an intellectual life.

Miss Martin is a magnificent example of courage and understanding. Her work reflects both in a tremendous degree.

"I must get the mothers early," she said, in talking of the women of her neighborhood, "If I do not get them soon after the birth of the first or second child, it is almost certain that I never will. When other babies come close together, they bring with them discouragement and lower standards of life, for both parents."

These women are well aware that family limitations enabled them to give their children a chance in life and to protect their own well being. There was in this group a frankness, during discussion of Birth Control methods, markedly absent from ll other groups that I have addressed in England. These women were self-reliant, self-respecting, and independent. They might have been spiritless drudges, mothers of huge, hopeless families, if it had not been for the work of Miss Martin and Dr. Vickery.

One of the exceedingly interesting meetings was an "invitation" affair arranged by Mrs. Edith How Martin, a widely known County Council woman of Middlesex and Miss L. Thompson. To this meeting came social workers, women physicians and the like. Many of the Labor women were unable to come because of the Labor Conference at Scarborough, which demanded their presence. The audience, as has often happened, was divided upon the question of contraceptives versus continence, except when procreation is desired and the chief advocate of the latter view was a woman physician, who in a strong speech declared that to be her method of Birth Control and who took exceptions to my address on the ground that I represented the "American view point," which she declared was that there is a high spiritual element in the sex relationship. "That idea will not go down in England" she declared. Adjournment, taken when the meeting had run long past its time cut short a storm of protest against this view. It was not until later that I go the full significance of the meeting. Ten women wrote me saying that they can now see the futility of alleviative measures and asking if there is a place for them in the Birth Control movement. Others write saying that economic necessity keeps them in their present positions but that if they had means on which to live they would throw all of their strength into this cause!

I am quite convinced that if there were sufficient money here to carry on a Birth Control campaign of wide proportions the women would rally to this cause until the suffrage fight would be far surpassed in intensity and enthusiasm and the results would be immensely more constructive and far reaching.

On July 2, I was invited to speak before the Conference on Maternity and Child welfare at Brighton, the invitation coming through Miss Nora March, editor of Racial Health, by the good offices of Dr. Ira Prichard. Although Birth Control was not being discussed when I arrived, a place was made for me under the head of Child Welfare to talk five minutes which the chairman afterward extended to ten.

I had time to point out that there are three definite factors to be considered in a constructive campaign to aid the children of the nation and that these three factors had their roots deeply inbeded in other prevalent evils. First, the fear of pregnancy in the motherhood of the nation creates a condition of mind that must inevitably mean a child predisposed to a lack of health and courage. Second, this same fear in the mother leads to the use of drugs which poison the embryo at the beginning of life and induce in it a condition of ill health never entirely obliterated. Thirdly, frequent pregnancies cause the mother to bring forth weaklings, and that all these factors conspire to handicap the child from the very beginning of its existence. I emphasized the fact that unless the child welfare workers began to be thoroughly constructive and include Birth Control in their program, they were in a great degree wasting their efforts. They were beginning too late.

The time was far too short, but so great was the interest in the subject of Birth Control that dozens crowded around me to ask questions and request literature.

I go now to Glasgow, Scotland to spend two weeks. A meeting is planned for the Green on July 4, another the evening of the same day in a hall. A short hour of a lecturer's time is not much in which to break down the prejudices of ages and communicate a new message. But the time is ripe and both men and women are eager. The interest quickens constantly. The Cause moves on.