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To a modern American Margaret Sanger’s courage and importance can be hard to understand. She lived at a time when condoms and diaphragms were the only forms of birth control in existence and they were illegal in the United States. Birth control was considered immoral and advocating for it made you look like some kind of a sex fiend to many people. In fact, the view of birth control in the early twentieth century is instructive to the current fight over contraception. Then most people were perfectly willing to say that they opposed it because it let women enjoy sex without the burden of childbirth. Fewer people will admit that today, but I suspect it still underlies modern opposition to birth control.

Today, however, something like 98% of women use some form of birth control. In Sanger’s day that number would have been tiny. Sanger saw the effects of this first hand. Her mother had 11 children and 7 miscarriages, which took a terrible toll on her health and Sanger blamed all those pregnancies (and her father) for her death. Later Sanger became a nurse and saw many poor women patients in trauma due to illegal and unsafe abortions. Eventually she quit nursing and dedicated her life to making birth control available and effective. She started a number of clinics that would become Planned Parenthood with the purpose of providing birth control and was arrested for distributing diaphragms.

Eventually, largely due to Sanger’s work, the Comstock laws that made birth control illegal were repealed. Sanger was still unsatisfied because the only method of birth control that was controlled by women, the diaphragm, was awkward and difficult to use. She spurred and helped finance the research that led to the creation of the birth control pill. So if you’ve ever used a birth control of any kind, you owe Margaret Sanger a debt of gratitude for fighting to make it legal and easily acceptable. If you’ve used the pill you also should be grateful to her that it exists at all. And if you or anyone you care about has ever taken advantage of the wide range of health care services Planned Parenthood has made available to people who otherwise could not afford them, thank Margaret Sanger.

In the analysis of any historical figure one can find ideas they held that we clearly consider odious today. I’m a firm believer that history should be taken warts and all, but I also tend to think we shouldn’t judge past figures on present standards and that we shouldn’t throw out the positive legacy of a person because they were the product of a less enlightened time. Margaret Sanger actually fairs pretty well on this on any considered analysis of historical scholarship. Unfortunately, she is also the victim of a concerted effort to smear her legacy by a group of people who don’t like Planned Parenthood. To advance this agenda they take her statements out of context and in some cases, like Herman Cain, outright lie about her record. I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but what you need to know is that Margaret Sanger was associated to some extent to the eugenics movement, as were an extraordinary number of other progressive reformers of the time. They suffered from a gross misunderstanding of science and an excess of zeal to improve human life. Sanger’s involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with racism and, while she might have spoken in the language of a more racially insensitive time, her views on race were quite advanced for that time. The historical evidence absolutely shows that there is no evidence of her ever harboring any desire or plan to eliminate African Americans. Here is a good, brief debunking of such claims and here are three more sources on the subject.


Susan B. Anthony is perhaps the best known of the American suffragists. She had worked in the abolitionist and temperance movements for some time when she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and turned her attention to women’s suffrage and equality. Stanton and Anthony were close friends and a formidable team. Anthony was single and could travel freely to meetings and to lobby legislatures, while between trips she would baby sit for Stanton so she could write. Anthony was a great motivator and a key organizer who continued to work with other reform movements as well. She helped to smooth over political differences among suffragists and kept the focus on a constitutional amendment with the belief that states lacked the right to keep any American from voting.

I was planning to wait to mention Alice Paul until later in this project, even though a desire to learn more about her was part of my impetus in starting the project, but I’m so in love with this video that I can’t wait.

I’ve mentioned a few of the early suffragists already, but two of them have something rather sad in common beyond being suffragists: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton died before universal women’s suffrage was achieved in the United States. Susan B. Anthony, who I haven’t mentioned yet, also died before suffrage was achieved. Alice Paul led the next generation of women’s suffrage activists and, while she stood on the shoulders of those who came before, she was the one who saw the job done. Stanton and Anthony had written the text of what would become the Nineteenth Amendment and it was introduced in Congress in 1878. It languished in committee until it was voted on and rejected in 1887. It was not considered again until 1914, when it was rejected again.

After it was rejected again in 1915, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party got serious. It had been hoped that Woodrow Wilson would support the amendment, but he had not been the strong advocate many had expected. Paul led a picket in front of the White House, calling out Wilson for his failure to provide strong public support for the amendment. The picketers were arrested for “blocking traffic” and sentenced to seven months in prison. In the prison these women, arrested merely for marching with signs, were treated worse than violent criminals. Prevented from having visitors and exercise and given substandard food, Paul began a hunger strike until all the women received adequate food. Paul was taken to the prison hospital where she was offered milk and eggs by officials concerned that she would die on their watch. Paul refused until her fellow prisoners were offered similar quality food for the duration of their imprisonment. She was removed from the prison and placed in an asylum, where she was eventually force fed. As disturbing as the scene in the video above illustrating this is,  it is tame compared to the reality, in which a tube was forced into her throat and raw eggs poured down it.

The protest, arrests, and hunger strike finally had the desired effect, and Wilson appealed to the House to pass the amendment. It failed again, by one vote, but Wilson called a special session to reconsider and in 1919 the Nineteenth Amendment finally passed. It was ratified in 1920 when Tennessee became the needed 36th state in approval.

Alice Paul is still an inspiration to many protest movements. She also drafted the original Equal Rights Amendment that was introduced in congress in 1923. It would not be passed until 1972, and was never ratified. Sadly, 36 state legislatures could not be found willing to agree that: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” And we wonder why we’re still debating birth control now. Alice Paul died at the age of 93 in 1977.

A brief note about the video: It was produced by an education publisher, and I’m not really sure if they had political intent, or were just covering an important historical topic, but it is incredibly timely. The short version of my review is that I am amazed by how well they have taken the original song and video by Lady Gaga and maintained its unusual look and feel while at the same time using every element of the production, from costumes to sets, as well as the lyrics, to tell this story in a powerful way. You should really watch it, and also check out the educational resources on the company’s website.

In 1931 Jane Addams became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ms. Addams was a supporter of women’s rights, particularly women’s suffrage as well as an advocate for world peace, but she is perhaps best known as the founder of Hull House in Chicago. Hull house opened as a place where poor and immigrant women could get educational opportunities, but expanded over the years to provide a wide range of services to poor communities around Chicago. Addams filled many roles in Chicago advocating for education, for improvement of conditions for the poor, and for women’s rights.

Sadly, Hull House recently had to close, a victim of the economic crisis, but the impact it has had over the years since Addams founded it in 1889 will live on in the countless lives that were improved by the opportunities it provided.

There is a tendency when doing a project like this to focus on women who share the author’s politics, or who are mostly apolitical. But there have certainly been women who were significant in history and who improved opportunities for women by their achievements whose politics I disagree with.

Margaret Thatcher is the only woman ever to have held the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Known as the “Iron Lady” she was an influential force in the Cold War. She also made drastic cuts to many government social programs in the U.K. Some might argue that these cuts were necessary and that in spite of them the U.K. maintained a much stronger social safety net than the U.S.

Interestingly, unlike most politicians, especially in the U.S., Thatcher had a science background, having studied X-ray crystallography under Dorothy Hodgkin.

There is a serious problem in the United States that boys tend to be encouraged to go into science far more than girls (though even boys are not encouraged enough to go into science). Boys who show the least interest in science get chemistry sets, toy microscopes, all sorts of science related toys. In toy stores the science toys are in the “boys” area while girls get pretty pink tea sets and play kitchens. There’s nothing wrong with play kitchens, my boys enjoy theirs immensely, but this kind of separation of toys tends to guide girls away from science. Ask many Americans to name a woman scientist and they may come up with Marie Curie. That’s usually the best you’ll get. But in spite of the barriers placed in front of young women interested in science, there have been, and are, many great female scientists. I’ve mentioned Rosalind Franklin, who didn’t get nearly the credit she deserved, but some women, still unknown to most of the wider public, have received the accolades their work deserved.

Dorothy Hodgkin was a chemist who developed the field of protein crystallography using X-ray imaging. The techniques she discovered enabled scientists to see the most minute and intricate molecular structures. In 1964 Hodgkin received the Nobel Prize for her discover of the internal structure of vitamin B-12. Later she further refined her techniques until she was able to uncover the structure of insulin. She spent a great deal of time educating other scientists and the public about insulin and it’s relationship to diabetes. In addition to her scientific work, Hodgkin was an advocate for world peace and belonged to a number of international peace organizations.

*UPDATED – new links at the end.*

Mary Harris Jones lost her husband and her children to yellow fever. A few years later she lost her dressmaking shop to the great Chicago fire. Instead of retreating from life in the wake of these tragedies, she dedicated her life to the cause of labor. At a time when child labor was rampant, when coal miners and mill workers routinely lost body parts and their lives and worked long, long hours for little pay, Mary Jones worked to organize labor to fight for better conditions. She became known to the miners she fought tirelessly for as Mother Jones. She was arrested many times and labeled “the most dangerous women in America” by the attorney general of West Virginia. But she is perhaps best known for leading the Children’s March with 100 child workers from the Philadelphia mills to New York City and President Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island that, although the Roosevelt refused to meet with her, drew public attention and criticism to the inhumane child labor in textile mills.

Here are some links to some writing by Mother Jones:

Civilization in Southern Mills


A letter to the McNamara brothers in San Quentin Prison

Ohio allows voters to choose which party’s primary they will vote in at the poll, and I’m considering pulling a Republican ballot tomorrow.  The Democratic primary does have two candidates vying for the nomination for Ohio’s 1st district in the U.S. Congress and the chance to go up against Steve Chabot in the November, but I don’t’ think either one of them can beat Chabot and I don’t really want to vote for either of them anyway. One is anti-choice, the other explains every issue position in terms of his own bizarre, strict constructionist view of the constitution and doesn’t seem to understand separation of church and state.

The question then is whether to vote for the candidate least likely to be a terrible president (Romney, assuming he governs closer to his record than to his campaign rhetoric), to cast a spoiler vote for the Republican who stands the least chance of beating Obama in November (Santorum), or to vote for Ron Paul to avoid voting for Romney while hoping to put Paul delegates at the convention to vote on the Party platform. The problem with the spoiler approach is that it assumes you’re right about who can beat Obama. Santorum seems much less likely to win a general election than Romney, but maybe he’s not. Maybe I’m wrong that there’s no way someone who is so virulently anti-gay, anti-woman, and such a religious extremist could swing enough middle of the road voters to win. Maybe his ability to fire up the GOP’s religious right base he could be a real threat. In 2000 I thought there was no way the American people would elect someone as obviously stupid and unqualified as George W. Bush. In 2004 I thought there was no way they would make the same mistake again.

I was wrong about these things because, like most people, I live in a bubble. I know the Republican positions, certainly well enough to reject them, but I don’t have a real handle on how the American public feels about them. Polls are one way to gauge how people outside our bubble feel and polls tend to show that the majority of Americans actually tend to disagree with the most conservative Republicans on social issues and especially on birth control. What the polls don’t show is how willing people are to get out to the polls and vote based on those issues and I think that many middle of the road voters just aren’t focused on social issues and will largely ignore them in November. On the other hand, when you have a candidate like Santorum who is making those issues so central and sounds so far out of the mainstream, maybe he’s gone past the tipping point with middle of the road voters and really is unelectable.

Which option will I choose? I don’t know yet. I probably won’t know until I get the ballot in my hand tomorrow. That is assuming that I can bring myself to select a Republican ballot at the poll.

Two of the most famous names in science are Watson and Crick. Even if you don’t recall exactly what they’re known for, they probably sound familiar. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins, for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. You may not know the name of the woman whose work made the discovery possible and who probably deserves at least as much credit as Watson and Crick.

Rosalind Franklin grew up in a world where women were not supposed to seek higher education, but she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge. When she became a researcher at King’s College in London she was forbidden from the dining hall and the pubs where her colleagues socialized because she was a woman. When Maurice Wilkins returned from a sabbatical to find her running DNA research, he naturally assumed she was just a technical assistant and not one of his peers. Their working relationship never recovered from his gaffe.

Nevertheless, it was Franklin who made the first X-ray photographs of DNA in which its structure was visible. Wilkins apparently showed the images to James Watson, who promptly published an article in Nature describing the structure of DNA. Watson certainly knew what he was looking at and contributed plenty of his own scholarship to the work, but Franklin’s discovery was the key. By the time the Nobel was awarded Franklin had died and Nobels are never given posthumously. Those who study biology learn about Franklin, but most of the general public has never heard of this woman who was instrumental in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.

L.A. Theater Works has recorded a radio broadcast of their performance of a play, Photograph 51, about the competition and the relationships behind this discovery. I found it a bit hard to follow on the radio because there are so many similar voices. As a play you also have the playwright’s interpretation, the director’s interpretation, and the actors’ impersonations all between you and the facts. Still, it’s a fascinating story and worth checking out and I’d love to see a live production.

This may be the best song ever to come out of Schoolhouse Rock. I have always loved the way the backup singers sing “Lucretia” first and then the lead sings “Lucretia Mott”.

Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister, a teacher, a pacifist, a driving force behind the abolition and women’s suffrage movements, and a founder of Swarthmore College. Lucretia was a mentor to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the women’s rights movement. Before that she worked in the abolition movement and sought to include women, both black and white, in the movement. She was not content with the end of slavery, seeking full equal rights for black men and all women. For her role in the anti slavery movement she narrowly escaped a violent mob after an anti slavery meeting in Philadelphia.

Lucretia never wrote down her speeches, believing in the Quaker concept of an inner divine light to guide her speeches, so very little writing by Mott exists. The Lucretia Coffin Mott Papers Project is an effort to collect her writings in the form of letters written by and to her.