ON 11 FEBRUARY 1916, while on her way to deliver a lecture on atheism in New York City, a 46-year-old woman named Emma Goldman was arrested on charges of obscenity for lecturing on and dispensing information related to birth control. She was accused of violating the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it a federal offence for anyone, including doctors, to distribute information about contraception.
Born to a Jewish family in Russia in 1869, Goldman emigrated to the United States in 1885 and worked in New York as a nurse and midwife for 25 years. She soon realised that birth control would be crucial in the struggle for women to achieve economic and social equality, and she became an advocate for women’s reproductive rights.
Goldman—who was also known as “Red Emma”—was arrested multiple times for her political activism and anarchism; she was even deported to Russia in December 1919 for allegedly urging people against drafting in the World War. Her trial in 1916 sparked national discussions on birth control and attracted the support of many writers, artists and public intellectuals. After serving a two-week-sentence at a prison workhouse, she wrote a letter to the press in which she said, “While I am not particularly anxious to go to jail, I should yet to be glad to do so, if thereby I can add my might to the importance of birth control and the wiping of our antiquated law upon the statue.”
Over 3,000 people gathered for a meeting at the Carnegie Hall in May 1916 to celebrate Emma Goldman’s release and glean more information about birth control. Later that year, Margaret Sanger, an activist and women’s-rights campaigner, opened the first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, although it was shut down shortly after.