Category Archives: The 1960s


Episode 016 The History of Women Seeking the White House – Convention Edition!

subscribe-buttonThis week, as the Democratic National Convention prepares to make history by nominating a woman for the presidency, In The Past Lane takes a close look at women who have sought the nation’s highest office. Here’s the lineup:
1) First, I bring you a short segment on a curious voting controversy that few people have ever heard of.
2) Next, I speak with historian Ellen Fitzpatrick about her terrific new book, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.
3) Finally, I speak with William Hazelgrove, author of a forthcoming book, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Wait, does that mean the United States already had a woman president? Listen and learn!

Ellen Fitzpatrick - The Highest Glass CeilingFurther Reading

Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed; Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition 40th Edition (2010)

Ellen Fitzpatrick, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency (Harvard University Press, 2016)

William Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson (forthcoming, Regnery History, October 2016)

Myra MacPherson, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age (2014)

Hazelgrove - Madam President cover copyPatricia L. Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention (1996)

Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (1999)

Gloria Steinem, The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull (1995)

Barbara Winslow, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (2013)

Dinesh Sharma, “America’s Exceptional Lack of a Female President,” The New Republic, May 12, 2016

Pew Research Survey – Despite progress, U.S. still lags many nations in women leaders


Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, River Meditation (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)


Episode 005 Where Have You Gone, Robert F. Kennedy?

subscribe-buttonThis week at In The Past Lane, the podcast about history and why it matters, we take a close look at Robert F. Kennedy. Here’s the lineup:
1) First up, it’s a short feature on the basics of the life of RFK.
2) Next, I speak with author Larry Tye about his new book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of A Liberal Icon (2016, Random House). Tye is the author of many best-selling biographies and he’s at his best in this new look at RFK. One of the myths he’s eager to dispel is the notion that there were two, polar opposite Bobby Kennedys – the bad boy in the 1950s who worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and later waged war on organized labor and the saintly good guy in the mid-1960s who fought for social justice.
3. And we bring you two remarkable audio clips from the 1960s. First, an excerpt from RFK’s 1968 speech, “The Mindless Menace of Violence” and second, Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for RFK two months later.
4. Mercy Street Rewind: Historian Megan Kate Nelson drops in for her weekly review of PBS’s historical drama, “Mercy Street,” We call this segment, Mercy Street Rewind.  This week, we talk about season 1, episode 5. PLEASE NOTE: to avoid dropping spoilers on unsuspecting listeners, this Mercy Street Rewind feature appears as a separate segment.  You’ll find it listed as MSR S1Ep05 in your iTunes cue, right after In the Past Lane Episode 005.

Larry Tye - Bobby Kennedy - book cover copy 2About Larry Tye
His website

Further Reading and Links

Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America

Robert F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times

Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life

Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of A Liberal Icon (2016, Random House).

RFK’s 1968 speech, “The Mindless Menace of Violence”

Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for RFK, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, June 8, 1968


Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Epoch” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)




The Myth of the Great Blackout of 1965 Baby Boom

The Blackout of 1965 plunged 30 million people into darkness for ten hours.

The Great Blackout of 1965
While the power outages in the NY-NJ region caused by hurricane Sandy made life difficult for millions, a far larger blackout in November 1965 plunged some 30 million Americans across eight states into darkness. In New York City 800,000 people were trapped during the evening rush hour in underground subway cars. Power was eventually restored after just 10 hours. Read about the cause of the the Great Blackout of 1965

The Myth of the Blackout Baby Boom
And read about one of the great myths associated with the blackout — that nine months later hospitals in the eight affected states reported a sudden spike in births. The myth began with a series of three August 1966 articles in the New York Times that reported a sudden rise in births at 3 New York area hospitals.  While it’s certainly fun to think of an overnight blackout inspiring couples to “make the best of it,” leading to spike in the birthrate, a major study in 1979 cast cold water on the myth.
Read about that study and how the myth got started.



Iconic Images – Olympics, Mexico City, October 17, 1968                                                                            by Edward T. O’Donnell

Tommie Smith and John Carlos make the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos make the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Today in History – October 17, 1968 – African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their hands to make the Black Power salute during the medal awards ceremonies at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. They also wore no shoes to symbolize the poverty of black Americans and black beads to honor those who died at the hands of lynch mobs. These expressions of solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement sparked outrage from Olympic officials. They denounced the “politicization” of the Olympics, calling it “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Many American politicians criticized the men for making the salute during the playing of the national anthem. Smith and Carlos were summarily expelled from the Olympic village. They returned to the U.S. to face harsh criticism and years of hostility from white Americans.
The charge that these tow men were guilty of politicizing the Olympics reflected the widely believed mythology that the Olympic Games had always operated outside of political influence. A quick look at the historical record (for example, the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany or the 1980 ice hockey game between the U.S. and Soviet Union) makes it clear that the Olympics have always been influenced by politics. Today this photo of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics is considered by many Americans an iconic moment of courageous protest that marked the Civil Rights movement. And Smith and Carlos are properly regarded as important contributors to that movement.

Margaret Sanger and the Struggle for Women’s Rights

InThePastLane                                                                         by Edward T. O’Donnell

Sanger spoke often in favor of birth control. Occasionally her opponents managed to have her lectures cancelled. In this photo, Sanger put on a gag to protest her being banned in Boston in 1929.

Americans have spent a lot of time and energy in recent years arguing about birth control. The debate has centered not on the morality of contraception, but rather, in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers’ health insurance must cover contraception, who should pay for it. While we wait for the matter to be settled in the courts, it’s instructive to look back on the history of birth control in the United States.

For it was a mere 96 years ago this week in 1916 that Margaret Sanger and several other women were arrested and thrown in jail for opening the nation’s first family planning clinic.  Sanger was undaunted and thanks to her efforts, American women eventually gained full access to birth control. Indeed, Sanger lived long enough to play a key role in the development of The Pill.

Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Higgins in 1879 in Corning, NY, the sixth of an eventual eleven children. Her parents provided two very different inspirations for the radicalism that would one day make her famous. Her father, an atheist, set her on the path to rejecting all religious authority.  Her mother, a devout Catholic, died at age 48—a direct result, Sanger always believed, from the physical toll of bearing and raising eleven children. This tragedy compelled her to find a way to empower women to control how many children they chose to bear.

More than a million New Yorkers lived in squalid tenements in the early 20th century when Margaret Sanger began working among the poor as a nurse. This photo was taken by Jesse Tarbox Beals.

Sanger attended college for two years (1894-1896) and then studied nursing at White Plains Hospital in New York.  In 1902 she married William Sanger, an architect, and started a family (they eventually had three children).  As a nurse Sanger worked in the slums of New York, ministering to the immigrant poor who lived desperate lives in unhealthy tenements.  This work brought her into contact with reformers and settlement house workers and eventually, with a community of radicals living in Greenwich Village. This group included legendary radicals like Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Eugene Debs.  Sanger soon joined the Socialist Party and worked on behalf of women’s rights and other radical causes, all the while continuing to work as a nurse among the poor.

It was in the course of her daily visits to the impoverished families of the Lower East Side that Sanger began to focus on what would become her life’s work.  Increasingly she came to believe that women’s emancipation from inequality, poverty, and poor health would only occur when women learned how to prevent pregnancy and limit the size of their families

Anthony Comstock, the nation’s leading purity crusader in the late 19th century, successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation barring the use of the US mail to send “immoral” and “indecent” materials, including information about contraception.

There was, of course, one problem.  Most Americans in the early twentieth century, regardless of religious denomination, opposed contraception.  They believed it would undermine the family and promote immorality.  The Comstock Law, passed back in 1873, prohibited the distribution of information about contraception through the mail.  By 1914 some twenty-two states had laws that similarly curbed the distribution of such information.

Undaunted, Sanger plunged into the study of contraception and in 1914 started a radical newspaper aptly named, The Rebel Woman, with a masthead that included the slogan “No Gods, No Masters.”  From its pages Sanger urged women to stand up for their rights and to “act in defiance of convention.”  At the same time she published a pamphlet on contraception entitled “Family Limitation” in which she coined the phrase “birth control.”  But when the police shut down her paper and seized copies of her pamphlet, Sanger fled the country for Europe to avoid arrest.

Sanger established The Woman Rebel in 1914 to advocate for women’s rights, including the right to contraception.

She returned eighteen months later (after the indictment against her had been dropped) committed to a new strategy.  Recognizing the broad cultural and political conservatism that suffused much of American society, Sanger decided it was unwise to present birth control as a revolutionary feminist demand.  Rather, she would promote it as a basic medical necessity.  Physicians, she argued, should be allowed to provide information on contraception just as they did other forms of medical advice.

But Sanger was not content to wait for the anti-contraception laws to change.  On October 16, 1916 she joined with her sister Ethyl Byrne, and a third woman named Fannie Mindell, to open a family planning clinic in Brownsville, a largely immigrant and working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn.  In reality, it was little more than a storefront operation that offered free counseling, medical consultations, and literature on contraception techniques.  No contraceptive devices (such as they existed) were distributed.  Nonetheless, the police soon raided the facility and threw the women in jail for thirty days.

Despite this setback, the winds of change began to blow in Sanger’s favor.  The judge who upheld her 30-day sentence sided with her contention that physicians be granted greater freedom to disseminate information on contraception to their patients.  Inspired by this development, Sanger soon published a book on contraception, What Every Mother Should Know (1917). She also founded the Birth Control League to lobby for legal reforms regarding doctors and contraception.  In 1921 she took this effort nationwide with the founding of the American Birth Control League.  With remarkable speed, Sanger’s crusade to legalize birth control gained popular support.

Sanger spoke often in favor of birth control. Occasionally her opponents managed to have her lectures cancelled. In this photo, Sanger put on a gag to protest her being banned in Boston in 1929.

Sanger’s greatest opposition came from the Catholic Church which stood by its traditional teaching against contraception.  Sanger’s chief antagonist was Monsignor John A. Ryan, a priest many considered quite radical for his writings in defense of labor unions and a living wage.  Despite his progressive positions on most social issues, on the matter of birth control Ryan stood firmly on conservative ground, defending Church teachings and denouncing Sanger’s crusade as a distraction from real social reform causes.  “To advocate contraception,” Ryan told a congressional committee, “as a method of bettering the condition of the poor and unemployed, is to divert the attention of the influential classes from the pursuit of social justice.”

Others would find different reasons to criticize Sanger.  Initially, she supported birth control as a means of liberating women and raising the health and living standards of the poor.  But she soon grew increasingly infatuated, as did many Americans in this era (and later Hitler and the Nazis), with eugenics, a movement that championed “race improvement” by reducing (via forced sterilization) the population of groups deemed genetically inferior.  Birth control, Sanger declared, would reduce the population of undesirable immigrants and racial groups.  “More children from the fit,” Sanger wrote in 1919, “less from the unfit — that is the issue.” Sanger eventually rejected these views.

Despite unbending opposition from many quarters, Sanger and her crusade continued to gain public support.  In 1942 the Birth Control League took on the more familiar name Planned Parenthood Foundation and continued the drive to eliminate laws restricting the distribution of information regarding contraception. It also raised money for scientific research into contraceptives. In the 1950s Sanger played a central role in raising the necessary funds and bringing together the key scientists who ultimately developed The Pill.

The developments of The Pill is widely viewed as one of the most important developments in the history of women’s rights in the U.S.

News of The Pill’s approval by the FDA on May 9, 1960 came to eighty-year old Margaret Sanger as she was having a quiet breakfast in her Tucson, AZ home. As son and granddaughter remembered the event, Sanger just sighed and said, “It’s certainly about time.” Then suddenly smiling, she said, “Perhaps this calls for champagne.”

Sanger remained active in the cause until her death in 1966 at the age of 87.  By then the debate over women and reproductive rights had shifted to the more contentious ground of abortion rights.

Sources and Further Reading:

Jean H. Baker, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (Hill & Wang, 2011)

Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America (University of Illinois Press, 2007).

Margaret Sanger, The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger (Norton, 1938)

Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (Hill & Wang, 2002)