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Margaret Sanger: 100 Years of Planned Parenthood


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“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” – Margaret Sanger

Planned Parenthood celebrates it’s 100 birthday on October 16, 2016. Even though birth control is now more readily available, the battle for reproductive rights and sexual freedom still continues. Let’s look back at the origin of Planned Parenthood, and its founder Margaret Sanger.

Margaret Louise Higgins was born on September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York to Michael Hennessy Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins, the sixth out of eleven children. Margaret’s father made a meager living carving gravestones. He was an agnostic, an abolitionist, and supported suffrage. From an early age, Margaret and her siblings were encouraged to share their opinions. This was unheard of in a time where children were to be seen and not heard.

Despite Michael being open minded, the family still held to very traditional gender roles. Anne was a devout Catholic. She cooked, cleaned and cared for everyone in the household. On top of that, she went through 18 pregnancies in 22 years, with several miscarriages. Two didn’t survive to adulthood. By the time she died at the young age of 49, she had looked much older than her years. Margaret was desperate to get away from the overcrowded house, crushing poverty, and taunting by the other children. Her older sisters pooled their money together to send Margaret to Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896, despite their father’s disapproval. He felt nursing was an inappropriate career for his daughter to pursue She spent three years there then rushed home to take care of her ailing mother. She cared for her family after her mother died.

In 1900, Margaret went to New York City and became a nurse probationer at White Planes Hospital. There she met architect and aspiring artist, William Sanger. Margaret was smitten with Bill, and they married in 1902. Bill shared Margaret’s penchant for socialism and radical thinking. At first, they tried to settle down in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York but the builders of their new house had neglected to put an asbestos covering on the heating pipes causing a fire that destroyed their home. The Sangers moved to New York City in 1911 and became heavily involved in the artist community as well as workers rights and the labor movement.

Margaret worked as a visiting nurse in the slums of the east side during this time. There she saw the same issues she grew up with, large families living in poverty. Many mothers became so desperate they performed self-induced abortions. The curse of the working class, mostly immigrant women, was the lack of information about contraception. There wasn’t any way these women could learn how to stop getting pregnant; it’s was illegal and was considered an obscenity thanks to our old friend Anthony Comstock. Not only was it hard for the families to have so many mouths to feed with so little money coming in but also it took its toll on the women. Frequent pregnancies also meant more miscarriages and the steps they often took to end a pregnancy could be fatal. Margaret decided something had to be done and took on the crusade to give women more control and choice when it came to procreation.

This crusade came at a price. Margaret sought out all the information to could find about contraception. In 1912 she wrote What Every Mother Should Know then What Every Girl Should Know for the socialist magazine New York Call. Some welcomed the open discussion of sex while others were shocked by it. In 1913, she traveled to Scotland and France to do research on birth control. She would not return to the U.S. with Bill. Bill stayed in Paris to continue his work as an artist while Margaret returned to NY to pursue her work. Margaret and Bill’s separation sounds amicable in her autobiography. She did not want to keep him from pursuing his art, and he did not want her to have to stay and give up her mission. They finally divorced in 1921 and Margaret would marry again in 1922 to Noah Slee.

In 1914, Margaret and a group of friends came up with the new term “birth control” when they formed the National Birth Control League. She started a magazine called The Woman Rebel, which was considered obscene and thus illegal to distribute. Margaret found herself looking at jail time. When the judge and lawyers tried to pressure her into pleading guilty then promising not to break the law again in return for dismissal of the charges, Margaret decided to flee the country. This was a difficult decision since she now had two sons and a daughter and had been struggling with tuberculosis for some time.

Margaret spent her time in Europe learning everything she could about family limitation and sex education. She spent a great deal of time with Havelock Ellis, who’s Psychology of Sex was blowing everyone’s mind and the Neo-Malthusians. She traveled to England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands where she learned that other countries had a much more liberal attitude towards birth control, especially the Netherlands. Margaret mailed copies of The Woman Rebel while in Europe and prepared to publish her pamphlet, Family Limitation, upon her return.

Margaret eventually returned to the US. Being apart from her children for so long was difficult, and she was worried about her daughter’s health. Margaret managed to get the charges against her dropped despite Comstock tricking her husband into giving an undercover cop a copy of Family Limitation, which resulted in his arrest and jail time. She needed to offer more than the printed word, so she embarked on a cross-country speaking tour. Upon her return to New York, she set up a clinic to help women one on one. On October 16th, 1916, Margaret, her sister Ethel Byrne, and volunteer Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic, The Brownsville Clinic, in the US in Brooklyn. Nine days later they were arrested and put in jail. Their crime was distributing information about contraception, selling obscene books, and being a public nuisance.

In 1917, Margaret started The Birth Control Review, a scientific journal. 1921 saw the first American Birth Control Conference held in New York City. Margaret opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in 1923. She then started the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control to eliminate the Comstock laws. In 1939 the American Birth Control League merged with the Clinical Research Bureau to become the Birth Control Federation of America. Members of the BCFA decided to change the name to something more conservative so, in 1942, Planned Parenthood Federation of America was born.

Margaret lived to see the debut of The Pill in 1960 and birth control legalized for married couples in 1965 before she passed away on September 6th, 1966.

Want to read more about Margaret Sanger? Buy The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger.
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Sexuality in Fashion: The Codpiece


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I am a huge fan of the 1980’s British TV series, Blackadder. Comedian Rowan Atkinson plays Edmund Blackadder with each season taking place in a different time period. A scene in the first series involves The Black Adder’s (the 15th century Blackadder) clothing choices while getting ready to attend the announcement of the new Archbishop. He chooses the most ostentatious of clothing items, most notably his codpiece called The Black Russian since it always terrifies the clergy. The reveal of his magnificent codpiece shows a large stiff upward-curving shape.

The first Blackadder’s clothing choices are not too far from what some nobles might have done back in the day. Sexual display in male dress manifests in different ways over the millennia and many a noble was keen on some sexual display. They also like to show their power and virility. One of the more impressive displays from the past is the codpiece. These ornate protuberances started out small and practical then rose to decorative prominence then fell out of favor. How men decided to make their crotch such a fashionable focal point is an interesting evolution.

Western fashion before the 15th century consisted of tunics and hose. Hose being woven cotton, not the sheer nylon we use today. It started as two separate leg coverings that attached to a linen undergarment. The undergarment and chemise (shirt worn under the tunic) covered the crotch, which was also covered by the tunic. The tunic (called a doublet by the 15th century) kept creeping up until it barely covered the bottom, thus exposing the open space between the hose. When the tunic got short enough to be a risk when sitting or getting on a horse, they came up with the idea of sewing the hose together in the back and adding a triangular piece of fabric to the front. The front covering was attached to the hose at the bottom to create a flap then tied to the hose at the top with ribbons or cord. The new style of hose now tied to the doublet. As the doublet got even shorter the triangular flap, now more exposed, got bigger and more decorative. Dubbed the codpiece, it began to bulge and grow until it was almost as big as Edmund’s Black Russian as it became a symbol of virility, sexual prowess, or just to show off

The word codpiece comes from the Old English/Germanic word for bag, pouch or husk and the Middle English word for scrotum. The codpiece reached its peak in the mid-1500s, around the 1540s. At the beginning of the 16th century, hose became divided into upper stocks and lower stocks. They were attached to each other, but the upper stocks were made to look like a separate garment. The upper stocks evolved into breeches while the codpiece became more padded and pouch-like, so it protruded between the hose. It also may have emerged as a handy dandy pocket to store items like jewels, letters, or even, as legend has it, the occasional orange.

While the codpiece growth coincides with the spread of syphilis, it may not have been used or developed because of it. According to Anthropologist Grace Q. Vicary, the codpiece was padded out so that it didn’t press against a painfully syphilitic penis or provided space for an ulcered member wrapped in bandages. The codpiece also kept the unguents from staining the garment. This does not seem to be the case as surviving codpieces were not shaped in a way to accommodate these theories. It wouldn’t be the first time venereal disease inspires fashion as this happens more often than you think.

The codpiece was mostly the fashion accessory of the rich, the ranked, and the royal. Many Henry VIII portraits show him with a fashionable protuberance. He may have been enamored with a full stuffed codpiece because of certain insecurities. Henry was unable to produce a healthy male heir despite a parade of wives. His fascination with large codpieces was a way to let people know he did not lack in the bait and tackle. The rise of the codpiece is also seen in military dress, and some surmise may have started first in armor before clothing. Metal codpieces were a popular piece of military garb, so Henry had one as part of his ceremonial armor.

The padded codpiece is found in art from Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Spain. As the codpiece increased in size, it’s resemblance to the male member in the rest of Europe increased, especially in Italy. Paintings such as Portrait of a Halberdier by Jacomo Pontmoro, Pietro Maria Rossi – Count of San Secondo by Parmigianino dated 1535-39, Guidobaldo II della Rovere by Agnolo Bronzino dated 1530-32, and Portrait of Antonio Navagero by Giovanni Battista Moroni dated 1565 show that Italy was quite fond of the upwardly mobile, highly phallic, codpiece. You can find German woodcuts and paintings with the slashed look that was fashionable at the time, as were puffed out codpieces. Portrait of a Young Man by George Pencz, a German artist, dated 1544 has quite an impressive codpiece that seems to defy gravity.

As we enter into the Elizabethan era, from the mid to late 1500s, we see the codpiece start of whither. Well, not exactly whither but get overshadowed by other pieces of clothing. Emphasis goes away from the codpiece as the peascod belly doublet rises. The peascod belly, or goose belly, is a doublet padded in a way that resembles the chest of a bird. There is even peascod shaped armor. The puffed and padded doublet extended downward with most of the padding at or below the waist. Trunk hose now separate from the hose covering the leg, billowed out so that the fullness obscured the codpiece. Between the full belly and the full breeches, the codpiece faded into obscurity by the end of the 16th century.

Emphasis on genitalia in some way persisted until we get to the staid Victorian era. Around the 1920’s, fashion brought attention back to the body. The codpiece was resurrected in the 20th century, as seen in A Clockwork Orange, Kiss, and Cameo. We can still see it as a symbol of sexual voraciousness and the well endowed in the entertainment industry as bands from a variety of genres like heavy metal, alternative, and R&B sport modern codpieces. The prevalence for codpieces in Renaissance armor is seen on Star Wars characters and superheroes. It hasn’t made its way back into everyday clothing, but every once in a while it shows up on the runways. As a culture, we’re still obsessed with size and virility, except nowadays it’s more about pleasure than progeny.

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Sex and Censorship: Banned Books


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Since it’s Banned Books week, I found myself thinking about how sex is often the reason for censorship. Some books have been banned due to political subversion, questioning religion or disturbing violence but when you look at the list of reasons explicit sexuality comes up often. I decided to look into books banned for sexual themes to see what I could find. I found a long sex education books and novels people have been trying to censor from days gone by and even to this day. Some books are banned as soon as they are written; others only in specific countries and others were denied shipment by the US postal service due to the Comstock law. Some books didn’t get completely banned but challenged, which according to the American Library Association is a formal complaint to remove a book from a school or library.

Books about sex education were often banned for obscenity even though they were trying to educate and provide people with a more satisfying sex life. Marie Stopes wrote several books that were a hit with early 20th century housewives but the U. S. Customs Service felt was obscene enough to ban. The book “Married Love” was published in 1918 then banned in the U.S. until 1931. “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” by Alfred Kinsey, published in 1948, was often censored or banned from bookshelves because of it’s content. The public was shocked by Kinsey’s survey of men and women’s sex lives.

One often hears “promoting homosexuality and perversion” as a reason to ban a book. The book “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” published in 1971 by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, was challenged for ten years. Their recommendation to take a mirror and explore your vulva was a bit too much for some people, as was their open discussion of abortion and homosexuality. Alex Comfort’s “The Joy of Sex,” published in 1972, was challenged at times but “The Joy of Gay Sex” by Charles Silverstein was banned because it was a graphic how-to guide for, well, gay sex.

Sex education for kids remains difficult to keep on the shelves even today. “It’s Perfectly Normal” and “It’s So Amazing” by Robie Harris have been on a list of the ten most frequently challenged books nearly since it was released in 1994. “It’s Perfectly Normal” made it to number one on that list in 2005. Some parents had a problem with the “clothing optional” and in flagrante delicto characters of the book. Too much nudity and sex in a sex education book, even though it’s in a cute cartoon style. Naked cartoon characters and upfront description of sex also made people uncomfortable in the book “My Mom’s Having a Baby” by Dori Hillestad Butler.

Some books deal with censorship for centuries after they’re written. “The Decameron” was written in the mid-1300s by Giovanni Boccaccio and was burned and banned in Italy in 1497 and 1553. The book is about seven women and three men telling stories while hiding from the Black Death outside of Florence. They each tell a story every day for ten days. Some of the 100 stories have quite sexually explicit themes. Surprisingly, it would be banned in the US at the start of the Comstock Law in 1873, confiscated in Cincinnati in 1922, banned in Boston in 1933 and appeared on the National Organization of Decent Literature’s blacklist in 1954.

There is an extensive list of popular books banned for explicit sexuality. “Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe was published in 1722 and fell victim to the Comstock Law in 1873. “Fanny Hill” by John Cleland was published in 1748 and banned in 1821. It was the last book banned in the US when it was banned again in 1963. Marquise De Sade’s “Justine” (known by its original title “Les Infortunes de la Vertu”) was the first novel written by De Sade in 1791 and the first of his to be banned.

Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” a collection of poems published in 1855, cost Whitman his job in 1865. The book was informally banned, and most libraries refused to buy it. It was banned in Boston in the 1880’s. James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” published in 1922, was banned until the court case United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933. “Lady Chatterley ‘s Lover” published in 1928 by D.H. Lawrence was banned until it had its own court case in 1959. “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller was published in 1934 then banned soon after its release. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955, “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs in 1959, and “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg in 1956 were all banned because of sexual content.

We still have novels challenged due to their open discussion of sexuality. Books I remember from my youth like “Forever” by Judy Blume (which I read in Junior High along with “Wifey”) and “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier (which I remember reading in high school) to current books like “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier (which my daughter read and loved). It seems that every new sex education book that tries to give kids the information they need in a straightforward way is on the fast track to the banned list as soon as it’s released. Thankfully, Banned Books Week by the American Library Association has been reminding us since 1982 that preventing people from reading books to due controversial content is something we need to continue to fight against. We all need to celebrate the freedom to read.

Want to learn more about Banned Books? Check out  Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read, available on amazon, through the link below. While you’re there, pick up some of the banned books you haven’t read yet and help Sexual History Tour. Disclosure: this is an affiliate link.

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Hi! I'm Miko. I'm going to take you on a journey through time. An exploration of the history of sex.

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