|Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) by Barbara Kruger (The Broad, Los Angeles)|
I'm on vacation this week. One great thing about this job is meeting fascinating people who've spent their long lives doing important work. Peggy Carr passed away only in 2016, at age 103.
Peggy Carr was born in 1913 on Chicago's South Side, the third child in four years.
"My poor mother," said Carr, 83, who has devoted much of her long life to helping women plan their families through an organization that came to be known in Chicago, 50 years ago this month, as Planned Parenthood.
Three years after Carr was born, her child-weary mother slipped off to a South Side meeting held by contraception pioneer Margaret Sanger.
Sanger was the New York nurse who started the movement leading to Planned Parenthood and, it might be argued, should be listed as one of the founders of 20th century life, for good or ill, along with Freud and Darwin and Marx.
Carr's mother had to go in secret because in 1916 a woman could be arrested in Chicago not only for speaking about contraception, but also for hearing about it.
That sort of oppression is worth remembering in the complicated present, since those who moon for the days of farm wives and their 12 kids churning butter forget that misery often went hand in hand.
Peggy Carr remembers. While opponents of Planned Parenthood often give lip service to their love of children, sympathy for the plight of children led Carr, and others, to form the group in the first place.
"My mother was president of the Chicago Orphan Asylum," said Carr. "Here were these neglected, unwanted children. We used to have the children come and play with us; the old orphanage was not far from where we lived on 48th Street. It was always so sad for these children nobody cared for."
Then, as now, society found it more convenient to ignore unwanted children than to try to keep them from being born.
"Lots of convents had a revolving door, you put the baby on a little shelf and rang a bell," said Carr. "They came and turned the door around and took the baby away."
In 1939, Carr joined what was then the Illinois Birth Control League and served as its last president. At the time — and, in fact, until the 1960s — most states had laws either banning or restricting the spread of information about contraception.
"Women begged their doctors to tell them how not to have another baby, and the doctors told them to tell their husbands to sleep on the roof," said Carr.
Acting in the margins of the law, the Birth Control League held clinics and women just seemed to know when to show up.
"They had never heard of birth control, but somewhere they found out and came to us. They may have already had nine children when they came, it meant so much to the women," said Carr. "You saw constant child bearing -- women had 10, 12 babies, and so many babies died."
Though not a professionally trained nurse, Carr would help in the clinics to teach wives about reproduction and how to prevent it using methods available at the time, condoms and diaphragms.
"Our clinics were only for married women," she said. "It never occurred to me that we would offer birth control to unmarried women."
Even when money for professional health workers was available, the workers were not always willing in the early years.
"You could hardly get anyone to work 50 years ago," she said. "They'd hardly dare tell what they were doing. It took a lot of courage."
Carr remembers when Red Cross volunteers got in trouble for attending Planned Parenthood programs.
"They were told never again to appear at a Planned Parenthood program in uniform," she said. "That's how much we were shunned."
She also remembers the husband of one important Planned Parenthood advocate being called on the carpet and told that unless his wife curtailed her activities, he'd be fired.
Another longtime Planned Parenthood worker, Geneva Hayden, who joined in 1966, remembers there being a constant struggle just to find a room to hold a clinic.
"In Markham, we had to set up in the judge's chambers," said Hayden, 60. "There was no other place."
To focus on the dismal past is to imply the situation is much better today, and it isn't. Simply because you can listen to Peggy Carr without fearing jail doesn't mean that her message isn't blunted in other ways.
Ad agencies, for instance, that do pro-bono work for other social service groups still shun Planned Parenthood out of fear that clients will object.
Television, which runs the vilest garbage, can barely bring itself to run ads for condoms. And while accepting the "Life: What a Wonderful Choice" ads from the religious right, TV stations refuse Planned Parenthood's most benign offerings, such as the one that boldly states: "Children have the best chance at a healthy life when they're born into a loving home."
With such opposition, the next half century will hardly be easier. But as Carr noted, observing a fact that seems to elude so many of Planned Parenthood's opponents: "You can't go back."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 22, 1997