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Sanger, Margaret Higgins

SANGER, MARGARET HIGGINS

A feminist and founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret Higgins Sanger battled the government and the Roman Catholic Church to establish the legitimacy of birth control.

Sanger was born September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York, to Michael Higgins, an Irish stonecutter, and Annie Purcell Higgins, the daughter of an Irish day laborer. Sanger's mother, who had five more children and suffered chronic tuberculosis, died at the age of fifty in 1899. Sanger blamed her death on the strain of bearing eleven children.

Following her mother's death, Sanger began nursing training at White Plains Hospital. She often accompanied doctors to patients' homes to deliver babies, and she frequently had to deliver children herself. Many of the new mothers asked Sanger what they could do to prevent another pregnancy. She, in turn, asked the doctors, but they gave her no information and took little interest in the women's dilemma.

While completing her nursing training, Sanger met William Sanger, an architect, whom she married in 1902. He was a German Jew and a socialist who was active in the radical causes of the day.

By 1912, the Sangers and their three children had moved to Greenwich Village, where the couple became involved in politics and the arts, and entertained some of the most radical intellectuals of the time. Sanger became deeply involved with the Socialist party. While recruiting for the organization, she visited many working-class families with six and seven children that were forced to make their home in two- and three-room tenements. She found that the women lived in dread of having more children and the resulting increase in poverty, and she concluded that women needed the right to control their own bodies.

She soon began speaking publicly on the problems of family life, connecting the size of the family with the economic problems of the working class. Her speeches became so popular that she was asked to turn them into a series of articles for the Call, a New York socialist newspaper. In her twelve-week series, entitled "What Every Woman Should Know," Sanger explained puberty, the reproductive organs, and sexually transmitted diseases. After the paper printed an article about gonorrhea, the authorities threatened that if it published a planned article on syphilis, its mailing permit would be canceled under the Comstock Act of 1873, a strict censorship law that barred the mailing of "obscene" material. The law was named for Anthony Comstock, a special agent of the post office with authority to open the mail and determine whether materials were obscene.

Along with her speaking and writing, Sanger returned to nursing in New York and spent much of her time assisting with home births and living with the families for several weeks afterward. She observed that the women had repeated pregnancies and were obsessed with methods of preventing conception. They sought illegal and cheap abortions, which often caused injury or death, and tried dangerous cures of their own, such as drinking turpentine and inserting instruments into the uterus. After one woman died following her second self-induced abortion, Sanger was distraught and walked the streets for hours before returning home. That night, Sanger decided to devote her life to educating women about their bodies and methods of contraception.

Sanger began her work by scouring libraries for information on preventing conception. After months of reading and research, she was convinced that no practical information existed in the United States, and she traveled to France with her family. In Paris, Sanger found that French women were well versed in contraceptive methods. She talked to druggists, midwives, doctors, and working women, and noted formulas for suppositories and douches, which she planned to write up as a pamphlet for U.S. women.

Returning home to New York, she began publishing a monthly magazine called the Woman Rebel. She deliberately decided to use the publication to engage in a frank discussion of women's liberation from the fear and reality of unplanned pregnancies, knowing that she would soon run afoul of Anthony Comstock. Sanger realized that the new movement needed a name, and after much discussion, she and a group of supporters agreed to call it birth control.

In April 1914, four weeks after the first issue of the Woman Rebel was published, the post office notified Sanger that the magazine was unmailable under the Comstock Act. While she skirmished with Comstock over her magazine, Sanger worked on her pamphlet on contraceptive techniques, called Family Limitation, in which she described the practical knowledge she had gathered in Europe. Sanger visited twenty-two printers in one week, trying to find someone who would produce the pamphlet. Finally, one hundred thousand copies were printed, addressed, and stored in San Francisco, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, to be mailed on her prearranged signal, when she thought she would be safe from Comstock's interference.

In August 1914, Sanger was indicted on charges of violating the Comstock Act. When it became clear that the judge hearing her case was biased against her, she fled to Europe to gain time to prepare her case properly. She sailed from Canada under a false name and without a passport. From the ship, where she was safely

outside U.S. legal jurisdiction, Sanger sent telegrams containing the prearranged code word that indicated it was time to send out her pamphlet on contraception. After landing in Liverpool, she traveled on to London, where news of the Woman Rebel had made her a celebrity in radical circles. She later moved to Holland, which had the lowest infant death rate in the world and where all mothers were taught about contraception. There, Sanger learned how to examine women and advise them on which of the fifteen available birth control devices were appropriate. As a result of her experience in Europe, she learned the necessity of the medical community's involvement in the birth control movement and the importance of keeping thorough records and conducting follow-up studies.

In October 1915, Sanger sailed home. She contacted the district attorney about her case, and a hearing was scheduled for the following January. But in November 1915, the Sangers' daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia, and Sanger sank into a severe depression. She insisted on going ahead with her trial, however, and received an outpouring of support from people across the country who had heard of her loss. Eventually, the charges were dismissed on the grounds that they were two years old and that Sanger had not made a practice of publishing obscene articles. Although this dismissal prevented the Comstock Act from being challenged in the courts, the publicity surrounding Sanger's case made the entire country aware of the birth control movement.

Sanger next notified her supporters of her intent to establish free clinics throughout the country, at which women could receive instruction in birth control. Sanger rented a storefront tenement in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where many newly arrived immigrants lived. The three women printed five thousand circulars in English, Yiddish, and Italian, advertising the clinic and offering contraceptive information for ten cents, and posted them around the neighborhood. The posters read, "Mothers! Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them?"

In October 1916, Sanger, along with her sister Ethel Byrne, who was a nurse, and another supporter, Fania Mindell, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. After only nine days, over four hundred women had come to the clinic for assistance. Among them was an undercover policewoman, who arrested Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell and confiscated all the patient records, pamphlets, and contraceptives. The women were charged with disseminating birth control information and maintaining a public nuisance. Byrne was found guilty and sentenced to thirty days in jail, where she nearly died from a hunger strike before the governor pardoned her. Mindell was found guilty of selling copies of "What Every Woman Should Know" and fined fifty dollars. Sanger was convicted and sentenced to thirty days in the work-house, where she gave lectures on birth control to the other inmates and taught them to read and write.

After her release, Sanger decided to focus on changing the laws on contraception and educating women about birth control techniques. Her conviction for running the birth control clinic had been upheld by the New York Supreme Court in People v. Sanger, 179 App. Div. 939, 166 N.Y.S. 1107 (1917), and she appealed to the state's high court, the New York Court of Appeals. In January 1918, in an opinion that became known as the Crane decision after the authoring judge, Frederick Crane, the appellate court upheld the lower court (Sanger, 222 N.Y. 192, 118 N.E. 637). But the court interpreted the criminal laws broadly, holding that doctors could give out birth control information to any married person to protect his or her health. This meant that clinics could operate freely and that they would be under the supervision of medical personnel, where Sanger thought they belonged.

By 1920, over twenty-five birth control leagues were operating, and Mindell's conviction for distributing literature about contraception was reversed, which meant that pamphlets and books could more easily be distributed. In 1921, Sanger formed the American Birth Control League. The Catholic Church came to lead the opposition to Sanger's efforts, and she continued to battle the church throughout her life.

"A free race cannot be born of slave mothers."
—Margaret Sanger

Sanger attacked the Comstock law, establishing the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control, headquartered in Washington, D.C., to gather support for federal legislation dubbed the Doctor's Bill. By 1931, hundreds of medical, political, religious, and labor organizations supported the bill. When Sanger appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Judicial Committee in February 1931, she testified that based on statistics for the period since the Comstock Act took effect in 1873, one-and-a-half million women had died during pregnancy and childbirth; seven hundred thousand illegal abortions had been performed each year; and fifteen million children had died during their first year because of poverty or their mother's poor health. But the proposed legislation was vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church, the Patriotic Society, the Purity League, and other groups, and was defeated.

After further attempts to pass the legislation were unsuccessful, Sanger decided to turn to the courts. In 1933 she had had a new type of pessary (vaginal suppository) sent to Dr. Hannah Stone, in New York, and the package had been seized under the Comstock Act. Stone filed charges. After a trial, the court ruled that the doctor was entitled to the package (United States v. One Package, 13 F. Supp. 334 [S.D.N.Y. 1936]). The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which upheld the lower court, ruling that the aim of the Comstock law was not to "prevent the importation, sale, or carriage by mail of things which might intelligently be employed by conscientious and competent physicians for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well being of their patients" (One Package, 86 F.2d 737 [2d Cir. 1936]). In 1937 the american medical association adopted the position that all doctors should receive information about the legal dispensation of contraceptives and that new contraceptive techniques should be studied.

In 1939 the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the Birth Control League merged into the Birth Control Federation of America, which was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Sanger continued her work, initiating birth control programs in rural clinics. Here, she decided that the relatively expensive and difficult-to-use diaphragm was impractical and that women needed a birth control pill or injection. In the 1950s, she supported the work of Dr. Gregory Pincus, whose research eventually produced the birth control pill.

In 1966 at the age of eighty-two, Sanger received the Presidential Medal of Valor from lyndon b. johnson. Later that year, she died in Tucson, Arizona.

further readings

Chesler, Ellen. 1992. Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Coigney, Virginia. 1969. Margaret Sanger: Rebel with a Cause. New York: Doubleday.

Reed, Miriam. 2003. Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words. Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books.

Sanger, Margaret. 2004. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover.

Topalian, Elyse. 1984. Margaret Sanger. New York: Watts.

cross-references

Griswold v. Connecticut; Women's Rights.

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Sanger, Margaret

Margaret Sanger

Born: September 14, 1884
Corning, New York
Died: September 6, 1966
Tucson, Arizona

American author, nurse, and activist

The pioneering work of Margaret Sanger, an American crusader for scientific contraception (birth control), family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.

Influenced in childhood

Margaret Higgins Sanger was born Margaret Higgins on September 14, 1884, in Corning, New York. Her father was a fun-loving freethinker. Her mother was a devoted Roman Catholic who had eleven children before dying of tuberculosis, a deadly disease that attacks the lungs and bones. Margaret was greatly influenced by her father's political views in support of women's suffrage (the right to vote) and tax reform (improvements), although these and other beliefs caused the family to be seen as radical (extreme) in the eyes of their neighbors.

After graduating from the local high school and from Claverack College at Hudson, New York, Margaret took a teaching position in New Jersey, until she was forced to return home to care for her dying mother. Her mother's death in 1896 left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. Soon afterwards Margaret moved to White Plains, New York, where she took nurse's training. She then moved to New York City and served in the extremely poor conditions in the slums of its Lower East Side. In 1902 she married William Sanger. Although Margaret herself was plagued by tuberculosis, she had her first child, a son, the next year. The couple had another son, as well as a daughter who died in childhood.

Begins work in birth control

Margaret Sanger's experiences with slum mothers who begged for information about how to avoid more pregnancies transformed her into a social radical. She joined the Socialist Party, a political party that believes the government should own and distribute all goods, began attending radical rallies, and read everything she could about birth control practices. She became convinced that oversized families were the basic cause of poverty. In 1913 she began publishing a monthly newspaper, the Woman Rebel, in which she passionately urged family limitation and first used the term "birth control." After only six issues, she was arrested and charged with distributing "obscene" literature through the mails. She fled to Europe, where she continued her birth control studies, visiting clinics and talking with medical researchers.

Sanger returned to the United States in 1916 and, after charges against her were dropped, she began nationwide lecturing. In New York City she and her partners opened a birth control clinic in a slum area to give out materials and information about birth control. This time she was arrested under state law. She spent a month in prison, as did her sister. Leaving prison in 1917, Sanger intensified her activities, lecturing and raising money from a group of wealthy patrons (supporters) in New York, and launching the Birth Control Review, which became the voice of her movement for twenty-three years. Encouraged by a state court decision that loosened New York's anticontraceptive law, she shifted her movement's emphasis from direct action and open resistance to efforts to secure more flexible state and federal laws. Although regularly in trouble with New York City authorities, she continued lecturing to large crowds and keeping in touch with European contraceptive research. Her visit to Japan in 1922 was the first of several Asian trips. A year later she and her friends opened clinical research bureaus to gather medical histories and dispense birth control information in New York City and Chicago, Illinois. By 1930 there were fifty-five clinics across the United States. Meanwhile Sanger divorced her husband and married J. Noah H. Slee.

Later work

Margaret Sanger's fame became worldwide in 1927, when she helped organize and spoke before the first World Population Conference at Geneva, Switzerland. She and her followers continued to lobby for freer state and federal laws on contraception and for the distribution of birth control knowledge through welfare programs. By 1940 the American birth control movement was operating a thriving clinic program and enjoying general acceptance by the medical profession and an increasingly favorable public attitude.

For most Americans, Margaret Sanger was the birth control movement. During World War II (193945), when European forces and the United States clashed with Germany, Italy, and Japan, her popularity continued to grow, despite her opposition to American participation in the war. (Sanger strongly believed that wars were the result of excess national population growth.) In 1946 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This was one of her last great moments. She was troubled by a weak heart during her last twenty years, but she continued traveling, lecturing, and issuing frequent statements. She died in Tucson, Arizona, on September 6, 1966.

For More Information

Bachrach, Deborah. Margaret Sanger. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1993.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970.

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger; an Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1938. Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999.

Whitelaw, Nancy. Margaret Sanger: "Every Child a Wanted Child." New York: Dillon Press, 1994.

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Margaret Higgins Sanger

Margaret Higgins Sanger

The pioneering work of Margaret Higgins Sanger (1884-1966), American crusader for scientific contraception, family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.

Margaret Higgins was born on Sept. 14, 1884, in Corning, N.Y. Her father was a thoroughgoing freethinker. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic who had eleven children before dying of tuberculosis. Although Margaret was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. After graduating from the local high school and from Claverack College at Hudson, N.Y., she took nurse's training. She moved to New York City and served in the poverty-stricken slums of its East Side. In 1902 she married William Sanger. Although plagued by tuberculosis, she had her first child, a son, the next year. She had another son by Sanger, as well as a daughter who died in childhood.

Margaret Sanger's experiences with slum mothers who begged for information about how to avoid more pregnancies transformed her into a social radical. She joined the Socialist party, began attending radical rallies, and read everything she could about birth control practices. She became convinced that oversized families were the basic cause of poverty. In 1913 she began publishing a monthly newspaper, the Woman Rebel, in which she passionately urged family limitation and first used the term "birth control." After only six issues, she was arrested and indicted for distributing "obscene" literature through the mails. She fled to Europe, where she continued her birth control studies, visiting clinics and talking with medical researchers.

Sanger returned to the United States in 1916 and, after dismissal of the indictment against her, began nationwide lecturing. In New York City she and her associates opened a birth control clinic in a slum area to give out contraceptive information and materials. This time she was arrested under state law. She spent a month in prison, as did her sister. Leaving prison in 1917, Sanger intensified her activities, lecturing, raising money from a group of wealthy patrons in New York, and launching the Birth Control Review, which became the organ of her movement for 23 years. Encouraged by a state court decision that liberalized New York's anti contraceptive statute, she shifted her movement's emphasis from direct action and open resistance to efforts to secure more permissive state and Federal laws. Although regularly in trouble with New York City authorities, she continued lecturing to large crowds and keeping in touch with European contraceptive research. Her brilliantly successful visit to Japan in 1922 was the first of several Asian trips. A year later she and her friends opened clinical research bureaus to gather medical histories and dispense birth control information in New York City and Chicago. By 1930 there were 55 clinics across the United States. Meanwhile Sanger obtained a divorce and married J. Noah H. Slee.

Margaret Sanger's fame became worldwide in 1927, when she helped organize and spoke before the first World Population Conference at Geneva, Switzerland. She and her follower continued to lobby for freer state and Federal laws on contraception and for the dissemination of birth control knowledge through welfare programs. By 1940 the American birth control movement was operating a thriving clinic program and enjoying general acceptance by the medical profession and an increasingly favorable public attitude.

For most Americans, Margaret Sanger was the birth control movement. During World War II her popularity continued to grow, despite her opposition to United States participation in the war based on her conviction that wars were the result of excess national population growth. In 1946 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This was one of her last great moments. She was troubled by a weak heart during her last 20 years, although she continued traveling, lecturing, and issuing frequent statements. She died in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 6, 1966.

Further Reading

Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938) incorporates much of Sanger's earlier My Fight for Birth Control (1931). The most recent biography is Emily Taft Douglas, Margaret Sanger (1969), a carefully researched and sympathetic account. See also Lawrence Lader, The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control (1955). David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), focuses on her public career and examines the whole controversy over birth control. Less solid but of possible interest is the fictionalized biography by Noel B. Gerson, The Crusader (1969). Brief treatments of her are in Mary R. Beard, Woman as a Force in History (1946); Mark H. Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (1963); and Donald K. Pickens, Eugenics and the Progressives (1968). □

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Sanger, Margaret

Sanger, Margaret

Margaret Sanger (1883-1966) was the founder of the birth-control movement in America. She fought long-established attitudes about birth control and provided information to women, both rich and poor, about birth control methods.

Sanger was born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York. She trained as a nurse in White Plains and Manhattan. In 1900 she married William Sanger and kept his last name, even after divorcing him and getting remarried.

Planned Parenthood

In her nursing work in New York City, Sanger saw much suffering among the poor due to a lack of birth control information. Deaths from self-induced abortions and high infant mortality were commonplace. In large part because of what she witnessed, Sanger decided to devote her life to making birth control informationincluding material about safe birthing practicesand products available to anyone who wanted them.

In 1914, Sanger founded the National Birth Control League, an organization that offered lectures and print information about birth control. Soon after forming the National Birth Control League, Sanger was arrested for distributing birth control information in violation of the Comstock Law (a law named for anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock which made it illegal to distribute or mail information about sexual topics, including birth control). After her release, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. This organization eventually became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Work Overseas

Not content to change attitudes about birth control in America, Sanger expanded her crusade with a World Population Conference in Switzerland in 1927. She later went to India and Japan to promote family planning.

Sanger continued to be controversial, even after laws were changed that made it easier to obtain birth control products. Some critics claimed that Sanger just wanted to make sure that poor, uneducated peoplethe focus of much of her early worknever got the chance to reproduce. Her personal life was also controversial. She was divorced in a time when it was frowned upon and stated that she didn't believe marriage was a sacred institution. She also believed in free love and free (or open) sexual relations.

Controversial attitudes aside, Sanger's courage and persistence in advocating birth control choices gave women the freedom to plan their families, improve their health by avoiding risky pregnancies, and pursue interests and talents outside the role of motherhood.

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Sanger, Margaret

SANGER, MARGARET

Born in Corning, New York, Margaret Sanger (18831966) became a public health nurse and a pioneer in the birth-control movement when contraception and any publications dealing with it were illegal. Her concern about prevention of repeated pregnancies and the heavy toll of sickness and premature deaths they caused among working-class women was aroused when she worked in the poorest neighborhoods of New York early in the twentieth century. She traveled to Europe and trained in aspects of human sexuality with Havelock Ellis. Upon returning to the United States, she embarked on a campaign to improve access to family-planning information for women in their childbearing years. In 1915 she was indicted for sending birth-control pamphlets through the U.S. mails, and in 1916 she was arrested for conducting a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn. She set out her manifesto on family planning in many books and pamphlets, including What Every Girl Should Know (1913). This contained chapters on girlhood; puberty; the sexual impulse; reproduction; some consequences of ignorance and silence (such as venereal diseases); and menopause. There were oblique but not direct references to ways that the risk of pregnancy could be reduced, but these and her frankness about taboo topics such as masturbation were enough to make her reviled among leaders of the medical and nursing professions of the day. However, her enlightened attitudes ultimately prevailed. Her first family planning clinic opened in New York in 1923; she organized national (1921) and international (1925) conferences on family planning. She founded the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and presided over this committee until it was disbanded after federal birth control legislation was enacted in 1937. She traveled widely, lecturing on birth control on many countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia and helping to establish family planning clinics in many of them. Her life's work immensely enhanced the lot of women everywhere.

John M. Last

(see also: Abortion; Condoms; Contraception; Family Planning Behavior )

Bibliography

Sanger, M. (1927). What Every Boy and Girl Should Know. New York: Bretano's.

(1938). Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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Sanger, Margaret Higgins

Margaret Higgins Sanger, 1879–1966, American leader in the birth control movement, b. Corning, N.Y. Personal experience and work as a public-health nurse, much of it on New York City's Lower East Side, convinced her that family planning, especially where poverty was a factor, was a necessary step in social progress. She studied in London with Havelock Ellis and others and, back in the United States, began her campaign almost single-handedly. Indicted in 1915 for sending birth control information through the mails and arrested the next year for conducting a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, Sanger gradually won support from the public and the courts. A clinic opened (1923) in New York City functioned until the 1970s. She organized the first American (1921) and international (1925) birth control conferences and formed (1923) the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control. She was president of the committee until its dissolution (1937) after birth control under medical direction was legalized in most of the states. In the 1960s, Sanger actively supported the use of the newly available birth control pill. She visited many countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics. Her books include Woman and the New Race (1920), Happiness in Marriage (1926), and an autobiography (1938).

See biographies by L. Lader (1955, repr. 1975), E. Chesler (1992), and J. H. Baker (2011); studies by D. M. Kennedy (1970) and E. T. Douglas (1975); L. V. Marks, Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill (2001); bibliography by R. and G. Moore (1986).

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Sanger, Margaret

Sanger, Margaret (1883–1966) US social reformer, founder of the first birth control clinic in North America. She became convinced of the necessity of birth control to prevent dangerous, illegal abortions and, more generally, to alleviate poverty. She founded the National Birth Control League in 1914 and, after a long battle, opened a clinic in Brooklyn in 1916.

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