A Struggle Preserved in Sepia
The unidentified woman with six children greeting Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne in the iconic 1917 photograph accompanying Anna North’s thoughtful, informative review of Sex and the Constitution [May 22/29] is our grandmother, Rose Heiman Halpern (1881–1976), and the children at her side and in her arms are our parents.
Halpern had been a patient at the Brownsville birth-control clinic managed by Byrne, and a “community organizer” who distributed leaflets under doors and stopped women pushing baby carriages to discuss the clinic’s services. The New York Times reporter at Byrne’s criminal trial informed its readers that, while there were prominent women attending, “There was also a poorly clad woman with six children ranging in age from sixteen months to ten years, who said she was Mrs. Rose Halpern of 375 Bradford Street, Brooklyn, and that she had come as a ‘demonstration’ of the need of information on birth-control among the poor. Her husband was a garment worker and made only 17 dollars a week.”
That 1917 trial, memorialized in this photo, marked the beginning of the long relationship between Sanger and Halpern. Its high point came in Halpern’s 1934 testimony before a US Senate subcommittee considering the repeal of post-office regulations prohibiting the sending of birth-control information through the mail. Sanger often called upon Halpern to be the voice of working-class women, and this hearing was no exception. Halpern concluded her testimony with the words: “The doctors are afraid of your laws. But you gentlemen can change the laws. In the name of mothers, in the name of children, do something.” As she walked back to her seat, she was greeted by applause that made her blush, the Chicago Tribune reported the next day.
Halpern had emigrated from the vibrant Jewish community of Vilna, Lithuania, in 1904. Married a year later, she and her husband William were active members of the American Socialist Party. Her lifetime commitment to the birth-control movement and its modern incarnation in Planned Parenthood was rooted in the belief that unplanned pregnancy was a threat to women’s health. She believed that concerted political activity was the only way to establish and defend women’s reproductive rights. She personifies precisely the strategy that Geoffrey R. Stone in Sex and the Constitution and North in her review find essential to the preservation of reproductive rights, which were so hard won and are now in danger of being lost.