As a change from all the news stories we’ve been watching about the immigrant crisis on the border between Mexico and the U.S.,perhaps it’s time to celebrate some of our immigrants. Not all of them entered the country willingly or even legally, but many of them have enriched our society.
This week some newspapers carried the story of the death of Zoia Horn who died at the age of 96 in Oakland, California. In the 1970s her actions started a movement that has revitalized the library profession. During the hectic anti-Vietnam War period, she refused to testify or give out information about the library borrowing records concerning an alleged plot by antiwar activists, including Daniel Berrigan. She was surprised and shocked to discover that the FBI had been tapping her phone to try to find out whether she knew about the plot. For her refusal to testify, Zoia Horn was imprisoned for a short time, but more importantly she made people aware of the danger of government intrusion into the privacy of communications between individuals.
Although the American Library Association did not support Zoia Horn’s refusal at first, the organization later honored her for her work in supporting intellectual freedom. Libraries have been in the forefront of institutions that defend the privacy of their clients and refuse to make borrowing records available to government agencies. Today we worry about large tech companies that are under pressure to share information with various governments. Libraries have shown the way in which institutions can protect citizens against unwarranted intrusion. They have led the way by erasing records of past library use as soon as they are no longer needed and by refusing to be bullied into removing useful materials that may be offensive to some members of the community. The stereotype of the mousey little librarian has been disproved over and over again by the steadfastness of library support of intellectual freedom over the years.
For the last thirty years Zoia Horn worked in the cause of intellectual freedom. She has been honored by the California Library Association which named its intellectual freedom medal after her. You can find the autobiography of Zoia Horn in the Open Library of the Internet Archive. It makes lively reading for anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century. Horn tells the story of how she and her family left Russia and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. Their final destination was the United States and they found a friend willing to smuggle them across the border. Their entrance into the country was not quite according to immigration laws, but their lives enriched America. We should keep that in mind when we consider how immigrants at our borders should be treated as they try to find their path into this country. Many of them would surely become valuable citizens and make our lives better just as Zoia Horn did.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case has started a lot of people thinking about how access to contraception has changed women’s lives. The Hobby Lobby decision allows some companies to refuse to pay for all forms of contraceptive care for their employees. If all of the owners of a “closely held corporation” declare that they do not approve of some forms of contraception on religious grounds, then they don’t have to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. The talk about this decision and how it may affect healthcare for all Americans has started a lot of people thinking about the struggle to get any form of contraception approved.
When Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) started working as a nurse in New York City, she saw a number of women who were suffering from their inability to keep from becoming pregnant over and over again. Doctors were not allowed to tell women how to avoid unwanted pregnancies; so many families were doomed to poverty and poor health because they could not afford large families. With contraceptives declared illegal and therefore unavailable to any except the wealthy, many poorer women resorted to abortionists or tried to abort a fetus themselves. When Margaret Sanger, who had seen her own mother die at 48 worn out by twelve pregnancies and weakened by tuberculosis, realized how many women were sacrificed because of their inability to control births, she determined to devote her life to changing the law.
By starting a newsletter, lecturing, and then opening the first birth control clinic in America, Sanger tried to introduce contraception to women. Both she and her sister were arrested at their Brooklyn clinic and charged with distributing obscene literature—information about birth control. Margaret Sanger served a short jail term for the crime, but she received a great deal of publicity and the issue was brought before the public.
It is hard today to remember how the lack of birth control affected women’s lives during the years when it was forbidden. Employers discriminated against married women, refusing to hire them because they might become pregnant at any time. Graduate schools refused to admit married women students with the excuse that their education was wasted because an unplanned pregnancy could derail a degree at any time.
Margaret Sanger fought for many years to make contraception available in the United States. It was a long struggle. By 1965 when the Supreme Court finally decided in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that contraception should be available, Sanger was 85 years old. A year later she died.
Some of Margaret Sanger’s legacy was unfortunate. She believed in eugenics and favored larger families for well-educated, middle class families. The poor and especially nonwhite people, she believed, should strictly limit their family size. Many of the statements she made during her later years were repugnant, and they have been seized upon by conservative politicians to blacken her reputation. But the major battle she fought—to enable women to have some control over their bodies and the size of their families—was an important one. Much of the freedom enjoyed by women today has come about because of the struggle of Margaret Sanger and her associates.
Today, on the Fourth of July, when we celebrate the legacy of our Founding Fathers—a legacy deeply tarnished by the racism and prejudices of their ideas—is surely a good time to assert again that we can celebrate the achievements of many individuals despite their flaws and mistakes. None of our heroes or heroines were perfect, but we can accept the good that they did at the same time that we cast aside the bad.
The Supreme Court is much like our individual heroes. Some of their decisions have contributed decisively to Americans’ welfare and freedom; others have needed to be modified as time revealed their flaws. As for the Hobby Lobby decision, it seems quite likely that the best that can come from it may be the movement toward having single payer healthcare in the United States so that the health and happiness of Americans depend on themselves, through their elected government, and they are freed from the idiosyncratic and sometimes irrational beliefs of their employers.