The September Issues

no gods, no masters: planned

parenthood’s century of




One bright morning in October 1916, a thirty seven-year-old woman broke a law she considered unjust—and changed the world. Margaret Sanger, slight, dark-haired, and fierce, opened a clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where she had the audacity to tell poor and working-class women how to use birth control. On the first day of operation, women lined up around the block like their great-granddaughters might for a hot new Glossier product release. Sanger, along with her sister, Ethel Byrne, and fellow activist Fania Mindell, operated the clinic for ten days, serving 464 women in total. Then the police got word. Sanger was arrested, not for the first time, and taken to a women’s jail in Long Island City, Queens for 30 days. Her offense was a breach of the Comstock Law, named for Anthony Comstock, a Victorian-era New York salesman and “anti-vice” fanatic, which banned discussion of birth control on the grounds that it, like porn, was obscene. She bore her sentence stoically, and listened to the complaints and stories of her fellow inmates. Even in jail, she observed, “women are not treated as well as men.” She also made note of more quotidian details. “Wednesday. Cells open at 7, but bells rung at 6 o clock - breakfast oatmeal & salt, milk & coffee - two slices bread (unbuttered).” This is what Melaney Linton, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, means when she says, “Planned Parenthood was founded as a resistance movement.”

The story of Planned Parenthood is the story of the push-and-pull of progress, backlash, and resistance. It is also a violent story. In the one-hundred years since its inception, there have been zealots who, motivated by hate and fear, have torched clinics, thrown bricks through windows, harassed patients, and murdered physicians. Today, many Planned Parenthood health centers are protected by law enforcement.

And yet, Planned Parenthood survives and is here to stay. Like many Americans, I’m a Planned Parenthood patient, and I’ve had to pass jeering protestors holding signs plastered with bloody, raw images just to walk in the doors. Each year nearly three million of us visit their health centers, and they are the largest reproductive healthcare provider in the country. We go there for birth control, STD testing, cancer screenings, and abortions. We go there for hormone therapy and HIV prevention. We go there when we wake up in a cold sweat because we just realized our period is late. Without them, thousands of us probably wouldn’t know the details of our reproductive anatomy, or how we should ask for consent. Planned Parenthood is deeply woven into the fabric of American life. In March, a poll from Fox News—hardly a feminist organization—found that Planned Parenthood has a higher approval rating than President Trump, House Speaker Ryan, or Senate Majority Leader McConnell, all of whom are hell-bent on defunding it.

For the last year we’ve marched under the banner of #resist, but resistance has been around much longer.

When Sanger opened her Brownsville clinic, the neighborhood was predominately Jewish, and a majority of residents were recent immigrants. Sanger was a socialist, and chose the clinic’s location because she wanted to help women who were overworked, impoverished, and had little control over their bodies. She taught them what she’d learned visiting birth control clinics in the Netherlands—that to prevent pregnancy they should take, “before retiring, five or ten grams of quinine with a hot drink.” Today, the building’s windows are bricked over, but there is a Planned Parenthood in each of New York’s five boroughs, all providing birth control that is effective beyond what Sanger could have dreamed of, and true to the original mission: to provide accurate, reliable education about sexual health.

photo courtesy of ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our heroine grew up in a large, poor family from upstate New York. Young Margaret watched her mother become pregnant again and again, eighteen times in total. Eleven live births, seven miscarriages. At the age of fifty, after spending most of her adult life pregnant, Margaret’s mother died of tuberculosis. Her home town was split in two by the Chemung river, and as an adult Margaret remembered “all the workers and poor people of the factory”—including her family—“lived on the flats near the river surrounding or near the factory, while the owners and people of wealth lived on the hills away from the dirt, noise, and poverty. I noticed too, that the people down below had large families, and many children, while those on the hills had few.” She knew from childhood that women whose minds and bodies were wrecked by pregnancy after pregnancy, were women at the bottom of the class ladder.

In 1936, after two decades of fighting, something big happened: the Comstock Law was liberalized. It became legal to talk about contraception in public, and women flocked to clinics offering information. In the 1930s, unlike when Sanger first started her campaign, American women could vote (of course, Sanger was “ardent for Suffrage, for women’s emancipation” far before it was fashionable). But perhaps even more influential was the Great Depression. Many American families were struggling desperately to feed the children they already had, and having any more would be

impossible. In 1937, the American Medical Association—the mostly male organization which had carved its credibility out of campaigning against contraception and abortion seventy years earlier— endorsed birth control. The same women who were eager for birth control during the Depression also needed it during World War II. While their husbands, sons, and brothers went across the oceans to fight, over three million women helped the war efforts on the home front by working in factories to supply the soldiers with uniforms and weapons. These women couldn’t afford to spend their days at home taking care of an ever-increasing family—their country needed them. By 1942 there were more than 200 Planned Parenthood clinics in the country.

As a young woman, Sanger published a newspaper called The Woman Rebel. Its slogan: “No Gods. No Masters.” In June 1914, that’s where she laid out her guiding creed:

“A woman’s body belongs to herself alone. It is her body. It does not belong to the church. It does not belong to the United States of America or to any other Government on the face of the earth. The first step toward getting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for any woman is her decision whether or not she shall become a mother. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.”

Unfortunately, although Sanger’s birth control methods were cutting-edge at the time, they left much to be desired by way of effectiveness. The quinine she prescribed was better than nothing, but her vision didn’t become fully realized until 1960, when scientists developed the birth control pill.

At first the pill was only available to married women, and, according to Elaine Tyler May in her 2010 book America and the Pill, by 1964 there were at least six and a half million women taking it. For these women the pill meant liberation and control. When I cracked open the copy of America and the Pill that I had checked out of the library, I noticed that someone had left a sticky note on the first page. She wrote: “The hard work of women toward the success of the birth control pill resulted in the largest advancement of the women’s rights movement in 20th century America.” A few words were crossed out and the penmanship was shaky. Who was this woman, I wondered. Had she been around before the pill? Or did she, like me, sometimes feel a pang of fear about what her life could have been before, and gratitude for what it is now?

The pill also meant fashion. After the pill had been on the market for fifteen years, country singer Loretta Lynn released a song called “The Pill” where she sang, “This old maternity dress I’ve got / Is goin’ in the garbage / The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on / Won’t take up so much yardage / Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills / Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years / Since I’ve got the pill.”

But, as we know, sometimes the pill fails. It’s better—much better—than home remedies, but still, unplanned pregnancies happen. No country music star has written a catchy tune about reproductive rights’ next frontier: abortion.

photo courtesy of ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1973, the Roe v Wade Supreme Court case legalized abortion in the United States. We know the horror stories about pre-Roe clandestine abortions—coat hangers and knitting needles, sleazy men in back alleys, infertility, death. A new era had dawned, but almost immediately abortion rights were attacked. Three years after Roe, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, stipulating that no federal money could be spent on abortions, except in extreme cases like rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy. The result has been brutal and unjust: low-income women, many of whom are women of color, who get health insurance through the state, must pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for an abortion, a sum that makes abortion simply not an option for many. These are the very women Sanger opened her first clinics to help.

Despite the setback of the Hyde Amendment, the 1970s and 1980s were largely an era of progress. Many states actively worked with Planned Parenthood to open more health centers, including some of the states that are now the organization’s biggest opponents. “We had support from across the political spectrum in the 70s and 80s,” remembers Melaney Linton, who has worked at Planned Parenthood for nearly three decades. “Fast forward thirty years later, after decades of political attacks, we saw the state take away the very funding that they had offered up.”


These attacks were not just political. “Between 1977 and 1989, seventy-seven family-planning clinics were torched or bombed (in at least seven instances during working hours, with employees and patients inside),” writes Susan Faludi in Backlash, her authoritative 1991 analysis of the war on women’s rights after the second wave feminist movement. She continues: “117 were targets of arson, 250 received bomb threats, 231 were invaded, and 224 vandalized.” In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was murdered at his church in Kansas by an anti-abortion terrorist. In 2015, vandals smashed the windows of the last remaining abortion clinic in Kentucky twice in three weeks.

Linton began to observe backlash firsthand in the 1990s. The 1992 Republican National Convention was held in Houston, Texas, and thousands of abortion opponents descended on the city. The year before, Operation Rescue, one of the most notorious anti-reproductive rights groups, had swarmed to Wichita, Kansas for what they called the “Summer of Mercy.” At the time there were three clinics providing abortions in the city. On the advice of law enforcement, two of them closed for the protests. They were never able to re-open.

“So when we were working with our local lawn enforcment,” Linton tells me, “and they asked us about closing for that period of time during the Republican National Convention, when the protesters were going to be in town, we said absolutely not.”

It was resistance in action. They learned from what had happened in Kansas and refused to bend to the threats of the so-called pro-lifers.


One thing the Houston clinics did do, however, was call patients who had appointments scheduled during the protests and gave them the option to go to a different health center or reschedule for a different time. “There were going to be thousands of people in the streets trying to block their access to care, and we wanted to give them other options,” says Linton. “But you know what? People came anyway. It was an incredibly moving testament.” Not only did the staff refuse to stop providing care because of bullying and intimidation, but the patients refused to stay home.

Since the 1990s, the erosion of reproductive rights has been slow but steady. Dozens of clinics have been forced to shut down because of “TRAP”—targeted regulation of abortion providers—laws that do things like regulate the width of hallways and demand physicians have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The medical community agrees that these requirements are absurd, and prochoice activists maintain that they are nothing but thinly veiled attempts to shut down health centers. Reproductive rights advocates found some relief during the summer of 2016, when the Supreme Court ruled that these regulations are illegal. However, it takes more than a judicial ruling to change life on the ground—as Linton points out, it takes effort and it takes money. Buildings have to be rented and staff hired. “You can’t just turn that off and on.”

And shutting down health centers doesn’t just mean taking away access to birth control and abortion. One of Planned Parenthood’s central missions is sexual health education, and when health centers shut down, patients lose access to information about gender, sexuality, anatomy, consent, and healthy relationships. Planned Parenthood is one of the largest providers of healthcare to transgender people in the United States.

Despite what may seem like an endless flood of defeat, Linton and others are optimistic. Groups like Medical Students for Choice are seeing more young physicians interested in learning how to provide safe abortions, and the reproductive justice movement is thriving on campuses. “Young people are engaged in this issue in a way that they were not thirty years ago,” says Linton. Planned Parenthood is rolling out new technology to make quality sex education available online, which means patients can get accurate information no matter where they live, and in some states they’ve launched an app that will let patients video chat with doctors if they can’t get there in person. Most important, perhaps, every week supporters don pink, Planned Parenthood’s signature color, and rally in the streets. You can join them too—on the Planned Parenthood website there is a “Get Involved” tab, which takes you to a map of Planned Parenthood events around the country. Local clinics are looking for people to enter data, make fundraising calls, and write letters to politicians—it’s a simple email or Google search to figure out where and when to show up. Individually, these actions may seem small, but together, they affect change, and make all the difference.

illustration M RASMUSSEN