February 11

This Day in History

Crime

Feb 11, 1916:

Birth control pioneer arrested

Emma Goldman, a crusader for women's rights and social justice, is arrested in New York City for lecturing and distributing materials about birth control. She was accused of violating the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it a federal offense to disseminate contraceptive devices and information through the mail or across state lines. In addition to advocating for women's reproductive rights, Goldman, who was later convicted and spent time in jail, was a champion of numerous controversial causes and ideas, including anarchism, free speech and atheism. Nicknamed "Red Emma," the forward-thinking Goldman was arrested multiple times for her activist activities.

Goldman was born into a poor Jewish family in Russia in 1869. She fled her homeland as a teenager in 1885 and ended up in Rochester, New York. There she was employed at a factory and became involved in the labor movement, protesting poor working conditions and advocating for unions and an eight-hour workday. She was influenced by the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, in which a rally organized by anarchist workers turned into a violent confrontation with police. The anarchists were later convicted and four were hanged. Goldman later relocated to New York City, where she joined the anarchist movement and was romantically linked to anarchist and fellow Russian Alexander Berkman. In 1892, Berkman attempted to kill Henry Clay Frick, the owner of Carnegie Steel, following a violent workers' strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Berkman was sent to prison, but Goldman, who was believed to have known about the plan, went free due to a lack of evidence.

In New York, Goldman spent time working as a nurse and midwife among the poor. Her experiences convinced her that birth control was essential to women improving their lives and achieving economic and sexual equality. Goldman, a skilled writer, editor and orator, spoke publicly about contraception and was a mentor to Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer who founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. In 1916, Sanger opened America's first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, New York; law enforcement officials shut it down after 10 days. Sanger opened the first legal clinic in the United States in 1923. In 1936, in an amendment to the Comstock Act, American doctors gained the legal right to prescribe and distribute contraceptive devices through the mail and across state lines. In 1960, the FDA approved the first sale of a birth-control pill.

In addition to advocating for women's reproductive rights, Goldman was an anti-war crusader. In 1917, she was arrested, along with Berkman, for protesting America's involvement in World War I and the draft. Both spent two years in prison and were then deported back to Russia. Goldman lived the rest of her life in Russia, Europe and Canada, and died in Toronto in 1940 at age 70. She was buried in the German Waldheim Cemetery, near Chicago, the burial place of the Haymarket anarchists and other political radicals.

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