100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Havelock Ellis Writes To Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Higgens was born in Corning, New York, in September 1883. She was the sixth of the eighteen children her mother would have before dying of cervical cancer. Margaret became a trained nurse and married William Sanger, an architect, in 1902. She gave birth to three children. Over the next 12 years she devoted herself to being a housewife and mother. When her three children were old enough to go to school she returned to work as a social activist and public health nurse in the slums of New York.

After witnessing her mother’s experience, Margaret has always thought a woman should be able to space the birth of her children but strict laws prevented birth control at that time. In July 1912 she was summoned to a Grand Street tenement.

“My patient was a small, slight Russian Jewess, about twenty-eight years old, of the special cast of feature to which suffering lends a madonna-like expression. The cramped three-room apartment was in a sorry state of turmoil. Jake Sachs, a truck driver scarcely older than his wife, had come home to find the three children crying and her unconscious from the effects of a self-induced abortion.”

When Sadie Sachs died Margaret Sanger made a pledge to devote her life to making reliable contraceptive information available to women. “I threw my nursing bag in the corner and announced … that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for working women in America to have the knowledge to control birth.” Sanger came to believe that only by liberating women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy would the fundamental social change take place, she then proceeded to launch a campaign to challenge governmental censorship of contraceptive information.

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In 1912 she started writing a column on sexual education entitled “What Every Mother Should Know” and “What Every Girl Should Know” for the socialist magazine the New York Call. In 1914, she also started publishing a radical feminist newsletter THE WOMAN REBEL, one of her goals was to provoke a legal challenge to the federal anti-obscenity laws which banned dissemination of information about contraception. The postal authorities suppressed five of its seven issues. In August 1914 Margaret Sanger was indicted for violating postal obscenity laws by sending the The Woman Rebel through the postal system. Instead of standing trial with her marriage falling apart, she jumped bail and fled to Canada. Then, under the alias “Bertha Watson”, sailed for England.

Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis

Henry Havelock Ellis was born in February 1859. He came from a maritime family and sailed to Australia with his father where he became and teacher and a tutor. Ellis returned to England in April 1879. He had decided to take up the study of sex, and felt his first step must be to qualify as a physician. He studied at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School now part of King’s College London, but never had a regular medical practice. The 1896 Ellis published a book in German SEXUAL INVERSION which was published in English in 1897. It was the first English medical textbook on homosexuality, though Ellis later declared “‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it.” Ellis wrote the first objective study of homosexuality, as he did not characterize it as a disease, immoral, or a crime. He was also the first to write about auto eroticism and narcissism.

In December 1914 Sanger sent a letter to Havelock Ellis. He invited her to tea the following week and was startled to find her so pretty and so comparatively young. At first she was overwhelmed by his patriarchal beauty and his refusal to make small talk. Sanger fell in love with Ellis. “I was at peace, and content as I had never been before… I was not excited as I went back through the heavy fog to my own dull little room. My emotion was too deep for that. I felt as though I had been exalted into a hitherto undreamed-of world.” Soon afterwards Sanger tried to turn it into a sexual relationship. But it was not to be.

On January 5, 1915 the 56 year old Havelock Ellis wrote to the 32 year old Margaret Sanger :

“What I felt, and feel, is that by just being your natural spontaneous self you are giving me so much more than I can hope to give you. You see, I am an extremely odd, reserved, slow undemonstrative person, whom it takes years and years to know. I have two or three very dear friends who date from 20 or 25 years back (and they like me better now than they did at first) and none of recent date. I’m not the least good for gobbling up rapidly – really don’t repay the trouble! And I don’t feel a bit anxious to be gobbled up, while the gobbler is already unwinding her scarf to wave to someone else! I fear this sounds very rude and horrid and not at all as it is meant. “

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