A few years ago, a memory resurfaced in a workshop about ‘where our values come from,’ about a pivotal moment from my childhood. I have told this story several times since, but because it was pivotal … it gets repeated.
A neighbor vigorously objected that visiting gospel singers from Chicago were staying in our home for a few days. I was then about eight years old. It was my first exposure to Black people, and my first exposure to racism. I could not understand why skin color mattered to someone I otherwise knew as an affable small-town bus driver.
These visitors were not costing anything to our community, for the few days they were in town providing music at our Catholic church. There was something fundamentally odd to me that someone would be so upset about people who did not affect his life. For me, it was the first piece in a puzzle I have pondered for decades each time similar stories come up: Why do people judge whether another human being is “acceptable?”
If I had been a bold and inquisitive eight-year-old, I might have asked him why he didn’t like people he had never met. I might have asked him some simple questions that potentially could have inadvertently helped him ponder where his values came from, and if they made any sense when spoken out loud.
But, I was a shy and quietly curious child, so I simply noticed his odd behavior and backed away from it. Honestly, I do much the same today, despite a career made from asking people questions about who they are, what they do, and why.
The reason I founded Changemakers Alliance in 2022, as an extension of Minnesota Women’s Press, is to give people around the state a way to connect around values and goals — perhaps to help us all become more inquisitive and bold in questioning why things are and how they might be improved upon.
The hard part is coming face-to-face with our own biases. Who do we forgive, and who do we cancel? Whose mindsets do we try to transform, and who do we give up on?
As we close out another calendar year, and my thoughts shift to wondering how society might evolve in 2024 — always optimistic about what is around the corner — I am pondering the mixed thoughts that stem from a group conversation I recently co-hosted at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.
The following is a story about that conversation. It starts with a social issue that was debated 100 years ago.
Historical Story About Birth Control
Large families needed support in the late 1800s, which partly led to child labor. This was in the days before the government enacted social welfare policies to help families pay for basic needs.
This was also at a time when men were seeking out prostitutes partly so they could have sex without burdening their family with more kids.
My friend Madalyn Cioci learned this doing research for her master’s in social work a few years ago. She and I recently hosted a conversation at First Unitarian Society (FUS) in Minneapolis, where we are members, about the notable role of FUS in the birth control movement of the early 1900s.
As Cioci explained to the group about her research, Margaret Sanger saw the effects of self-induced abortion attempts. Many women also were dying in childbirth because of the strain of too many pregnancies. She opened the first birth control clinic in New York in 1916 and was jailed nine days later because of it. In 1921, she founded the precursor to Planned Parenthood.
By 1930, she was attempting to reverse the 1873 Comstock Act, which was named after the leader of New York’s Society for the Suppression of Vice. The Comstock Act made it illegal in the U.S. to send through the mail or over state lines obscenity, “filthy” books, personal letters with sexual content or of an “indecent character,” and anything “intended for preventing conception or producing abortion.”
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, the First Unitarian Society Women’s Club had created a maternity room in 1886 to support low-income women in childbirth. A few years later, they hosted Jane Addams, a social welfare reformer who was creating wraparound services for immigrant families. Some of these women formed the Motherhood Protection League in 1928 to attempt to make it legal in the state constitution for doctors to offer birth control information to married couples. They also attempted to repeal the Comstock Act and to convince the state to open a birth control clinic. Neither attempt succeeded.
In 1930, Sanger gave several talks at FUS, at a time when few groups around the country welcomed her. Rev. John Dietrich told FUS members in a Sunday address that he invited Sanger because no one else would. He said that the sex education department at the University of Minnesota had few members of faculty willing to talk about the subject of birth control with students.
Dietrich said that no other ministers were willing to talk openly about sexuality, and that the local newspaper had refused the usual weekly ad for his talk because it was titled “The Conspiracy of Silence About Sex.”
FUS members are proud of the lineage to Dietrich, who is considered the father of congregational humanism (which is a departure from traditional Christianity), because he was progressive in so many ways. His Sunday addresses reached thousands in written pamphlets and lecture halls. Some of his views:
- Euthanasia should be an option for the terminally ill. “We may not wish to die with our boots on, but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.”
- In 1917, before women had the right to vote, “The trouble with our government is that it is a government of men, by men, and for men, with the result that it is not so much human as masculine. What is our country without the influence of woman stamped upon it?”
- In 1926, regarding crime, prison as punishment made sense if the end goal is vengeance; if the goal is to reduce crime, it does not. “Anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, are furnishing us with volumes of information about the springs of human conduct. … I believe an offender should be detained as long as he is a menace to the public safety, but he should be detained for only one reason: to restore him to physical, mental, and moral health.”
- In 1928, “The democratization of marriage depends upon the establishment of the economic independence of the wife. No one has complete control over his personality who is an economic dependent, for men have a way of wanting to control those whom they support. Domination develops into exploitation, and exploitation destroys confidence, trust, and love.”
When Dietrich spoke about the right to birth control in April 1930, he said:
- “Statistics show that intelligent Catholics practice birth control in about the same proportion as people with similar intelligence in other denominations. Their attitude is well illustrated by the remark of the woman who said, ‘Sure, I practice birth control, and nobody’s going to stop me. The priests who argue against it don’t have to bear the kids.’”
- “If we had better access to birth control, men and women could use the experience of sex not merely to procreate the race, but also to express the devotion that binds them to one another.”
- “Life should only come into being at such times and under such circumstances as affords the best possible chance for its development, success and happiness.”
But there is a twist.
Dietrich also said this in his talk: “Most hazardous is the haphazard way in which the population increases. While our better stock is practicing birth control, we deny it to the great masses, which include the insane, feeble-minded, criminals, paupers, and the general mass of human wreckage. … Many of these are beyond all reasonable hope of salvage. They cannot give their offspring the proper mental or physical inheritance. They cannot give them the proper guidance and training. It is quite generally conceded that something must be done to discourage indiscriminate breeding.”
Dealing With the Reality
Madalyn and I led a conversation with FUS members to discuss Dietrich’s talk, titled “The Ethics of Birth Control.” Congregants were shocked at learning how Dietrich, ahead of his time in so many ways, characterized social class and mental health.
In the group discussion, someone pointed out that people did not know in the early 1900s as much as we do now about behavioral changes that can come from wraparound mental, financial, and healing services. Education about genetics and mental health then — and for some still today — was limited to thinking that everything we are and can be is related to genes, and is unchangeable.
It seems to be human nature for many to resist the idea that social policy can give people the support they need to succeed. It can be easier to believe that some people simply need to be “out,” or confined to a controlled space.
Is it a resentment about “paying for others” — not recognizing how much more it costs society to leave issues untreated, and that the return on investment can yield a much greater return? Or does it boil down to a fundamental sense of superiority that others do not deserve what we seek to have for ourselves?
I think back to the neighbor from my childhood. Although his reaction happened decades ago, and I never saw him again after I moved to college, what sticks with me — shocks me still — is the sense of superiority in an otherwise humble person. I react the same way now, when I think of Dietrich’s words about “indiscriminate breeding.”
Because of a past research assignment, I have read nearly everything Dietrich said during his two decades as a Sunday humanist minister. It is difficult to justify offensive thoughts and words that come from someone I otherwise respect, who died before I was born. Dietrich was the same man who stated a few years earlier that people convicted of a crime are able to be rehabilitated. So then why the exclusionary nature about who should be born, who should not, and who gets to decide?
In the group discussion, our collective shock about Dietrich’s words gave way to a few excuses, to try to balance the cognitive dissonance. Yet I have to recognize that we don’t always give the same leeway to others. Some people are dismissed because they “should know better,” while others are forgiven because “they didn’t know better.”
The group generally concurred that if Dietrich were living today, he would have a different point of view. In fact, we know he would. Hitler’s Nazi Germany sent many in the U.S. birth control conversation — including Sanger and Dietrich — adjusting a few of their arguments about the merits of birth control, after they saw where the eugenics and sterilization movement was heading. On January 1, 1934, Germany enacted sterilization as one of its legal reforms to create a world populated only by what it deemed to be a superior race.
Today, society continues to have a range of ideas about what would make things “better.” Although many in the U.S. have not attempted to rollback rights to birth control, abortion continues to be a dividing line: Who has the right to decide if a woman has a baby? And what, really, is behind the argument about ‘why’?
In the recent FUS conversation, we talked about contradictions in values in the U.S. today. One person pointed out that some countries collectively support what is needed to raise a healthy child, regardless of the individual resources of the family of origin.
Another participant said, “We haven’t gotten past the fact that once this precious child is given life then that’s it — we [collectively] don’t have to take care of it and nurture it. That’s the part that is so frustrating. You’ll hear about One Minnesota, and we should be together working, then you hear about the pushback: ‘We can’t pay for all kids to have breakfast and lunch.’”
In the end, where I land, as Minnesota Women’s Press prepares to usher in our Healthy Collaborations theme of 2024, is this: We are more than the sum of our genes. It is in the sharing of ideas and knowledge — the strengths of our culture — that moves people.
That is why I founded Changemakers Alliance in 2022 — for people who recognize the value in supporting all life, including those who are struggling in this moment. The more Minnesotans can align as inspiration to each other, devising solutions and acting on them together, the more change will evolve.