In October of 1916, just under a hundred years ago, Margaret Sanger opened a clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY. Sanger, who as a nurse in the poorest areas of the city had witnessed enormous suffering, was determined to help women take control of their own bodies and their own lives. Sanger’s purpose with this clinic? To pass out information about contraception and human reproduction. Information, that was all, the sort of basic facts that might today be related in a high school health education class. Yet in 1916, the distribution of this information was illegal under the Comstock laws. Even doctors could not give such information to their patients. Women lined up for blocks to get these pamphlets, but Sanger was arrested, along with her sister Ethyl Byrne and their associate Fania Mindell. The clinic was closed, and and all three women were sent to jail.
Margaret Sanger eventually went on to found Planned Parenthood, but like the struggle for women’s suffrage (it took 72 years from the reading of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 until women earned the right to vote in 1920) the struggle to fully overturn the Comstock laws took decades. As recently as 1968, birth control was still illegal in some states–even for married couples.
All this history came alive for me while I was doing research for The Lake of Dreams.
The Lake of Dreams is really two stories, the story of Lucy Jarrett in 2006, and the story of her ancestor Rose, who was exiled from the family, and excised from all the family stories, due to her involvement in struggle for women’s suffrage between 1910–1920. Like many of the women of her time, Rose worked for the rights of women–rights we’ve come to take for granted–at great personal cost to herself.
In writing The Lake of Dreams, I was exploring what happens when the stories of women are silenced, within a family, within a culture, and within the church. Now, as the 2012 election cycle heats up and the talk has turned to limiting access to birth control and access to health care for women, especially for poor women, the stories of our strong and courageous ancestors matter more than ever.
The rights of women in this country were won only after decades of struggle, and they are more fragile than we want believe. Indeed, in state after state, they are being eroded as I write. It’s time to speak up, with our voices and our votes. We owe it to ourselves, to the strong women who came before us, and to the future we dream for our daughters.