The Margaret Sanger Papers


National Birth Control League (1915-1919)

Formed in New York in March 1915 by Mary Ware Dennett, the aim of the National Birth Control League (NBCL) was to lobby for an amendment to the state and federal Comstock laws that would legalize birth control by removing it from the category of obscene materials and information. Its organizers were liberal, rather than radical, activists and included Jessie Ashley, Bolton Hall and Gertrude Minturn Pinchot, who served as the first president. Rather than pursuing the law-defying, direct action tactics aimed at forcing judicial reinterpretation that Margaret Sanger favored, Dennett's NBCL opted to use a legislative lobbying campaign to persuade lawmakers to revise the legal codes. Viewing Dennett as her rival for leadership of the movement, Margaret Sanger initially remained aloof from the NBCL, declining an offer to join its executive committee. This polite distance soon turned to hostility when the NBCL resisted providing financial support for Sanger's legal defense and appeals and Sanger eventually refused to endorse the NBCL's legislative campaign. While Sanger continued to capture most of the publicity surrounding birth control after her return to face trial for The Woman Rebel, as well as during the sensational trials and judicial decision that followed her opening of the Brownsville Clinic in 1916, the NBCL conducted a moderate campaign to remove the term "preventing conception" from all of the obscenity statutes and to add a clause affirming that contraception was not obscene. Unable to win any legislative victories, and with public attention continually focused on Sanger and her flamboyant activities, the NBCL was soon was facing severe financial difficulties. By 1918 Dennett had resigned and in 1919 the NBCL was dissolved. Soon after, Dennett founded the Voluntary Parenthood League to lobby for total repeal of all federal obscenity statutes.
References: Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992); David Kennedy, Birth Control in America: the Career of Margaret Sanger (1970); and Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (1976).