Sanger and her friends began smuggling diaphragms into the United States, in preparation for the 1916 opening of the country’s first birth control clinic. Only nine days after it opened, the clinic was subject to its first raid. Margaret was arrested, paid her $500 bail, and went right back to work. Police came a second time later in the month and arrested her and her sister Ethel Byrne.
Ethel was sentenced to thirty days in a work house. When she went on a hunger strike she became the first female prisoner to be force fed, a tactic which became common against suffragists. After ten days and a promise not to break the law, she was released. Margaret was likewise sentenced to thirty days of hard labor. She was offered a more lenient sentence in exchange for a promise not to repeat offend, which she refused to give.
The publicity of their arrests, trials, and imprisonment brought the topic of contraception to the front page of papers across the country. Doctors wrote editorials in support of the sisters and philanthropists gave Sanger money to continue fighting for birth control. She used some of those funds to begin publishing a monthly periodical, Birth Control Review in 1917. In 1918 an appeal in the New York Court of Appeals ruled doctors in that state could prescribe diaphragms and information on how to use them, so long as there was a medical reason for doing so.
The 1920s were a decade of prolific activism for Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. It was a more moderate and middle class endeavor than her pre-War Greenwich Village radicalism. It used appeals to monogamy and child welfare and invoked the spectre of sickly children to garner respectability and the endorsement of women with greater social power: middle class married white Protestant Christian women. The League’s mission statement read:
“We hold that children should be (1) Conceived in love; (2) Born of the mother’s conscious desire; (3) And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.”