Born September 14, 1879 (Corning, New York)
Died September 6, 1966 (Tucson, Arizona)
"By word and deed, [Sanger] pioneered the most radical, humane, and transforming political movement of the century."
Gloria Steinem, journalist and feminist
Outspoken in her defense of women's rights to control their reproductive lives, Margaret Sanger was a leading founder of the U.S. movement to make birth control widely available. It was during the Roaring Twenties—a time of great social change, when sexual matters were starting to be more openly discussed, and women began demanding the same sexual freedoms that men had always enjoyed—that Sanger opened the first physician-directed birth control clinic in the United States. Although Sanger was not the first or only advocate of family planning, she was certainly among the most energetic and dedicated. Fighting opposition from government and church leaders, as well as public opinion, she helped to change attitudes about birth control.
Influenced by mother's life and death
Sanger was born Margaret Louisa Higgins into a large Irish American family in Corning, New York. Her father, Michael Hennessey Higgins, was a stonecutter with unconventional, liberal views who was more interested in political arguments than in making a steady income for his family. Her mother,
Annie Higgins, was a devout member of the Roman Catholic religion, which forbids the use of birth control. Consequently Annie endured eighteen pregnancies and eleven live births (Margaret was the sixth), while at the same time suffering from tuberculosis, a serious lung disease that was usually fatal.
Sanger would watch as her mother, worn out from many difficult births, from her illness, and from the pure exhaustion of looking after eleven children, died before she reached fifty. This tragedy would strongly influence Sanger's views about the effects of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies. The unequal relationship between her strong-willed father and meek, obedient mother also shaped her ideas about men and women.
After a negative encounter with an eighth-grade teacher, Sanger's older sisters paid for her to attend Claverack College, a private academy. She had to work in the school's kitchen to help pay for her room and board, but she much preferred life at school to being at home. After three years, however, she had to return to her family to help nurse her mother through her final days. Mounting tensions between Sanger and her father, and her mother's death, propelled Sanger into her next step. Lacking the money to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, she enrolled in nursing school at White Plains State Hospital, where she spent much of her training time in the maternity ward.
A young nurse, wife, and mother
Having completed two years of training, Sanger was ready to begin work on a three-year nursing degree program. Meanwhile, however, she had met an architect and artist named William Sanger, who was eight years her elder. He persuaded her to marry him, which she did rather reluctantly. Soon she was pregnant. During her pregnancy, Sanger began showing signs of tuberculosis infection, and after the birth of son Stuart in 1903, the young family moved to Westchester County, a suburb of New York City.
Sanger had two more children: son Grant was born in 1908, and daughter Peggy in 1910. She was restless in the life of a suburban homemaker, however, and eventually she and her husband moved with their children to an apartment in Manhattan, a neighborhood of New York City. There they became involved in a radical political group, many of whose members believed in Socialism, a political and social system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods are owned by the community as a whole, rather than by individuals. Some of the most famous members of this group included activist Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and revolutionary poet and journalist John Reed (1887–1920).
Emma Goldman: Anarchist Crusader
While living in New York City in the decade before the Roaring Twenties, Margaret Sanger met an older woman activist who encouraged her work in promoting the use of birth control. Emma Goldman was strongly committed to social change, and she paid a high price for her beliefs.
Goldman was born in 1869 in the eastern European country of Lithuania, which was then part of Russia. A rebellious young woman, she became interested in radical causes even before her arrival in the United States. She moved to Rochester, New York, in 1885 to live with a married sister. After twice marrying and divorcing, Goldman moved alone to New York City. Goldman's opposition to capitalism, the system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, led to her involvement with the anarchist movement, made up of people who believe that all forms of government are undesirable.
Goldman became a passionate political activist, even taking part in a failed assassination attempt against an industrial tycoon. Arrested in 1893 for her role in a protest demonstration in New York City, she spent a year in prison. After her release, she went to Europe to obtain training and certification as a nurse and midwife who assists women in childbirth.
Returning to New York, Goldman began working among the poor while speaking out on such issues as international peace and free love (by which she meant not casual sex but a committed love and sexual relationship outside of marriage, which she considered too restrictive to women's freedom). In 1906 Goldman founded the publication Mother Earth as a forum for all the causes in which she believed, including anarchism and free speech. Between 1906 and 1916 she wrote and delivered hundreds of lectures, particularly advocating access to birth control as an essential right that women should have.
Goldman's outspoken opposition to World War I and her previous political activity made her an obvious target of the government's actions against radicals just before the Roaring Twenties began. She was one of more than two hundred individuals who were tried and deported for holding beliefs considered anti-American. Forced to live in Russia, Goldman traveled frequently around Europe and Canada. She was able to return to the United States only briefly, for a 1934 speaking tour. She died in Toronto, Canada, in 1940.
Witnessing women's suffering
Sanger became a union activist (someone who fights for the right of workers to organize into unions, which give them more power to bargain for better wages and working conditions). She also started working as a visiting nurse and midwife among the poor people living in New York's Lower East Side. She witnessed firsthand the poverty, misery, and desperation endured by women who were forced to go through repeated, unwanted pregnancies. It was clear to Sanger that the inability to control their reproductive lives robbed these women of their health, their economic stability, and in some cases even their lives.
The first few decades of the twentieth century were like the hundreds of years preceding them, in that sexual matters were not open to public discussion, and doctors were not even taught about contraception (devices and methods for avoiding pregnancy) in medical school. Many people believed that it was wrong or even sinful to interfere with the natural process of reproduction. They thought that women should submit to intercourse whenever their husbands desired it, and that families should be as large or small as the resulting pregnancies made them. There were strict laws to enforce this view, and the Roman Catholic Church was especially active in promoting it.
Sanger's work made her aware of what she increasingly viewed as needless suffering and waste of life. She was especially shocked by the death of an immigrant woman named Sadie Sachs, who had repeatedly begged her doctor to advise her on how to avoid another pregnancy. The doctor's only suggestion was that Sadie's husband not sleep with her. A few months later, Sachs died from blood poisoning after a self-induced abortion. Indeed, Sanger knew that this was only one of many deaths resulting from a woman's strong desire to terminate a pregnancy, often performing abortions under unsanitary, extremely dangerous conditions.
This tragedy spurred Sanger to set herself the goal of one day establishing centers where women could come for information and guidance on how to take charge of their reproductive lives. At the same time, she noticed that despite all their talk about building a better world, many of her radical friends failed to take the special needs of women into account. Her belief that the ability to limit family size was an even more important reform than achieving higher pay or improved working conditions caused friction between Sanger and other labor activists, including her own husband. Sanger was particularly outraged by the fact that birth control, though illegal, was already available and widely used by people with the knowledge and money to obtain it, but not by the poor and uneducated.
Devoted to the cause
In 1912 Sanger quit her nursing work to devote herself to the cause of reproductive freedom. That November she began writing articles on women's health and sexuality for The Call, a weekly socialist newspaper that published Sanger's writing in a column titled "What Every Girl Should Know." Soon, however, Sanger found herself in trouble with the law. In 1873, at the urging of postal official Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), a federal law had been passed that made it illegal to send obscene or pornographic materials through the mail. Printed material about birth control was included in this category because of the widespread belief that birth control was evil. In addition to the federal Comstock Law, many similar state laws were in effect. In early 1913, after the appearance of Sanger's article on syphilis (a serious sexually transmitted disease), the U.S. Post Office placed a ban on The Call.
During the summer of 1914, Sanger traveled to Europe for the first time, where she investigated the birth control practices used in countries like France, where family planning was accepted and common. Returning to the United States, Sanger started a publication called The Woman Rebel, through which she intended to inform people about what she had learned. Soon, however, Sanger was charged under the Comstock Act with sending obscene material through the mail. If convicted, she might face as many as forty-five years in jail. Sanger fled to Europe, but not before publishing a sixteen-page pamphlet called Family Limitation, which provided direct instructions, including diagrams, on ways to avoid pregnancy.
In Europe Sanger met with a number of activists, physicians, and other birth control advocates. One of these was the famous psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), who had studied and written extensively about human sexuality. It was partly through her contact with Ellis, with whom she had a love affair, that Sanger began to develop the view that women were capable of enjoying sex and had as much right to such enjoyment as men. Ellis advised Sanger that if she softened her approach to the birth control cause, she would be more likely to attract support from rich, powerful people.
While in Europe, Sanger visited clinics in the Netherlands, where she learned about a new, spring-loaded device called the diaphragm that was proving very successful in preventing pregnancy. Sanger became convinced that the diaphragm was the best birth control method available.
The birth control movement gains support
Meanwhile, troubling events were occurring at home. Sanger's husband was arrested and jailed for thirty days for giving a copy of Family Limitation to an undercover agent. Even more heartbreaking was the death of Sanger's five-yearold daughter Peggy from pneumonia. Sanger returned to the United States. Soon it appeared that her well-publicized troubles had gained her sympathy among the general public. The charges against her were dropped, and some speculated that this was because the government did not want to create any more support for Sanger by prosecuting her. In any case, Sanger went on a tour of the nation to promote the use of birth control.
In the fall of 1916 Sanger, along with her sister Ethel Byrne, opened a birth control clinic in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn (a part of New York City). The clinic had been open for only ten days, during which time almost five hundred women came for birth control literature and advice and to obtain contraceptive devices, before it was raided by the police and shut down. Both sisters were arrested and tried for "maintaining a public nuisance." Although Sanger spent a month in jail, the whole sequence of events had attracted national and mostly positive attention.
When Sanger's case was appealed, the judge ruled that doctors could offer patients contraceptive devices if their purpose was the prevention of disease and not to avoid pregnancy. This was a small step in the right direction. From now on, Sanger began to take a very practical approach that sometimes brought her into conflict with other birth control advocates, who felt she was trying too hard to appeal to conservatives. In an effort to gain the support of doctors, since she considered their participation crucial and envisioned physician-run clinics in the future, she focused on lobbying for their right to give out birth control information. She also sought the backing of wealthy philanthropists (those who donate money to help others).
Controversy and progress
What was even more controversial, however, was Sanger's apparent support for some of the views of the eugenics movement. A pseudoscience that gained popularity during the 1920s, eugenics involved a belief in the inferiority of anyone who was not of northern European descent, as well as those with mental or physical defects. Eugenicists warned of the dangers of what they called "mongrelization," or the mixing of superior white blood with that of people deemed inferior. (Their focus, however, was more on promoting a higher birth rate among healthy whites than on urging the use of birth control.) Although Sanger never supported racist views, she did express the idea that uncontrolled pregnancies led to increased rates of babies with mental and physical disabilities, and at various times she approved of the sterilization (depriving of the ability to reproduce by removing or blocking sexual organs) of mentally ill and physically disabled people.
In 1920 Sanger divorced her husband, and two years later she married millionaire J. Noah Slee, who supported both her independent spirit and her cause. With Slee's financial support, Sanger was able to begin smuggling diaphragms into the United States. She established the American Birth Control League in 1921 (it would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942) and continued to fight not only for easy access to birth control but also for more attention to the issues of global overpopulation, dwindling food supplies, and international peace.
In 1923 Sanger opened the Birth Control Research Bureau in New York City, with Dr. Hannah Stone (1893–1941) as director. This was the first physician-run birth control clinic in the United States, and it was a model for what would eventually be a nationwide network of similar facilities. In addition to offering contraceptive devices and information for patients, the clinic kept detailed records to document how well different methods of birth control worked, and it offered training for doctors. Over the next fifteen years, more than three hundred such clinics would be established across the country.
The loosening of restrictions on birth control came about gradually. A major milestone was reached in 1936, when a court decision made it legal to mail contraceptive materials to physicians. Another step forward occurred a year later, when the American Medical Association, a powerful lobbying group for doctors' interests, officially recognized the dispensing of contraceptives as a legitimate medical service that physicians should learn about in medical school. Meanwhile, Sanger continued to expand the scope of the birth control movement by organizing national and international conferences, achieving worldwide fame as she traveled as far away as Japan, China, and India to talk about family planning.
By the early 1940s Sanger had slowed down her efforts, moving with her husband to a retirement home in Arizona. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, concerns about the dangers of world overpopulation brought Sanger into the spotlight again. She was one of the founders, and the first president, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which was established in 1952. It was around this time that she also helped to find funding for the work of biologist Gregory Pincus (1903–1967), which would lead to the development of the birth control pill. This highly effective contraceptive would become available to women in the early 1960s.
Sanger died in a Tucson nursing home in 1966. After her death, feminists (those who believe in equal rights for women) credited Sanger with influencing the women's movement immeasurably through her insistence on a woman's right to control her own body and destiny. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy extended to a woman's choice to end a pregnancy, making abortion legal. Many considered this a major victory that would save the lives of the many women who would otherwise have sought illegal abortions; others, however, continued to believe that abortion is wrong. According to feminist leader Gloria Steinem (1934–) in an article written for Time magazine, "By word and deed, [Sanger] pioneered the most radical, humane, and transforming political movement of the century."
For More Information
Bachrach, Deborah. The Importance of Margaret Sanger. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1993.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Cigney, Virginia. Margaret Sanger: Rebel with a Cause. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
Douglas, Emily Taft. Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Moore, Gloria. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement: A Bibliography, 1911–1984. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986.
Sanger, Margaret. An Autobiography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1938.
"Biographical Sketch." The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. Available online at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/msbio.htm. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
"Margaret Sanger." Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. Available online at http://www.plannedparenthood.org/pp2/portal/files/portal/medicalinfo/birthcontrol/bio-margaret-sanger.xml. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
Steinem, Gloria. "Margaret Sanger: Her Crusade to Legalize Birth Control Spurred the Movement for Women's Liberation." The Time 100. Available online at http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/sanger.html. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
Sanger, Margaret Higgins
SANGER, MARGARET HIGGINS
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."
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.
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.
Born 14 September 1879, Corning, New York; died 6 September 1966, Tucson, Arizona
Daughter of Michael and Anne Purcell Higgins; married William Sanger, 1902; J. N. H. Slee, 1922
Margaret Sanger's mother died, leaving 11 children, when Sanger was seventeen. Profoundly affected by her mother's death, Sanger would later refer to women like her as "breeders," and would dedicate Women and the New Race (1920) to her. Although her life was undoubtedly molded in great degree by her iconoclastic and atheistic father, Sanger felt simultaneous fear, anger, and love for him, while expressing love and compassion for her mother. She would later assert her mother was a victim of her father's lust; and her writings suggest that she, like others born in the 19th century, believed women are threatened by men's sinister dual nature that at times can divide itself precipitously into benevolent husband and father and sexual aggressor.
Sanger trained as a nurse, married William Sanger, an architect, had three children, and lived in suburban Hastings-on-Hudson for ten years. After the destruction of their new home (an event which Sanger was later to see as symbolic), the Sangers moved to New York City and became involved in socialist and union activities. This activity and her earlier experiences led to Sanger's feminist writings. The Sangers' 1913 trip to Europe spelled the end of their 11-year marriage. After visiting Glasgow to research an article on the benefits of municipal ownership for women and children, Sanger went to France where she discovered that, in contrast to Scotland and America, contraceptive information was available and poverty was limited. After some time of "inactive, incoherent brooding," Sanger returned to America, with her three children but without her husband.
On her return Sanger took up the cause of woman suffrage, linking it loosely to birth control. In 1914 she founded the journal The Woman Rebel, written by women and for women. Contributors included Voltairine De Cleyre and Emma Goldman. The first issue was an unfocused burst of rage, with a rather sharp statement of feminist community and less concern for birth control than for emancipation. Although The Woman Rebel never included much birth control information, sending any through the mail was illegal, so Sanger was arrested and forced to flee to Canada and Europe until the charges were dropped.
In 1916 Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. She also established the Birth Control Review, a publication greatly superior to The Woman Rebel. Sanger's feminist rage had become sharply focused on the problem of birth control. Birth Control Review continued until 1928.
Sanger's greatest successes came with her association with America's health professionals in achieving the legalization and availability of birth control. With physicians, social workers, and technicians to staff it, she opened the Clinical Research Bureau. When the police raided the clinic in 1929 and seized the confidential physicians' records, the medical profession defended its right to dispense birth control information. In 1936 a U.S. District Court upheld this right, which had been denied previously by the Comstock Law. In 1932 Sanger had rallied individuals across the nation to join the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and in 1937—one year after the court decision—the American Medical Association publicly endorsed birth control, bringing American physicians and their prestige to the side of Sanger's cause. The National Birth Control League and Sanger's clinics were combined in 1942 to form the Planned Parenthood Association of America.
Sanger's many publications consistently express her view that women are victims and need to "free themselves from involuntary motherhood." Concerned mainly for working-class women, Sanger believed they were victimized by their husbands, their doctors, and their priests. They suffered from the sexual appetites and insensitivity of the first, from the passivity of the second, and from the doctrine of the third. Sanger writes in Woman and the New Race : "Women are determined to decide for themselves whether they shall become mothers, under what conditions and when. This is the fundamental revolt…. It is for woman the key to the temple of liberty."
In Happiness in Marriage (1926), Sanger claims men are the sexual aggressors, while women are sexually passive. Female sexuality, she maintains, has not been expressed; if it were, it could become a creative force; and birth control is the means by which it could be released. Influenced by Havelock Ellis, Sanger asserts that only through birth control could the whole female nature be dealt with and the importance of female sexuality be recognized.
Even after her marriage to Slee, a wealthy industrialist, Sanger continued to address the problems of working-class women. Motherhood in Bondage (1928) is based on 5,000 of the 250,000 letters she claimed to have received in response to The New Woman. The letters are arranged in chapters entitled "Girl Mothers," "The Problem of Poverty," "The Trap of Maternity," "The Struggle of the Unfit," and "The Sins of the Fathers."
To Sanger, the birth control movement meant not only prevention of unwanted babies and abortions but, more importantly, the rational control of the individual woman's body and spirit, synthesized into female sexuality, as well as the subsequent lessening of war and of suffering. Her numerous publications, starting from the premise that women had always been the victims of men and society, are devoted to changing that role.
What Every Girl Should Know (1913). Family Limitation (1914). What Every Mother Should Know (1914). Dutch Methods of Birth Control (1915). Appeals from American Mothers (1921). Sayings of Others on Birth Control (1921). The Pivot of Civilization (1922). Problems of Overpopulation (1926). Religious and Ethical Aspects of Birth Control (1926). What Every Boy and Girl Should Know (1927). My Fight for Birth Control (1931). Woman of the Future (1934). Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938). "From Which I Spring" in Women Without Superstition…: The Collected Writings of Women Free-thinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1997). "The Goal" in Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women About Mothers and Daughters (1999).
Chesler, E., "Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement" in Against the Tide: Women Reformers in American Society (1997). Chesler, E., New Woman, New World: The Life of Margaret Sanger (dissertation, 1990). Chesler, E., Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1993). Dash, J., A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married (1973). Douglas, E. T.,Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future (1970). Edwards, N. A., "Margaret Sanger: The Transitional Years, 1912-1916" (thesis, 1985). Forster, M., "Birth Control: Margaret Sanger 1876-1966" in Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939 (1984). Grant, G., Killer Angel: A Biography of Planned Parenthood's Founder Margaret Sanger (1995). Gray, M., Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control (1978). Johnson, M. S., Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in Japan, 1921-1955 (dissertation, 1989). Kennedy, D., Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970). Mansfield, A. K., Imperious Women: Margaret Sanger, Blanche Ames and the Birth Control Movement in the United States 1928-1935 (1995). Miller, R. M. and P. A. Cimbala, American Reform and Reformers: A Biographical Dictionary (1996). Moore, G., Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement: A Bibliography, 1911-1984 (1986). Nadler, P. F., "Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation Pamphlet: A Rhetorical and Historical Analysis" (thesis, 1990). Raible, R. E., "Conquering Comstock Law: The Combined Efforts of Mary Ware Dennett and Margaret Sanger" (thesis, 1997). Roldan Ruiz, M., "Margaret Sanger's 'First victory': A Rhetorical Analysis" (thesis, 1981). Topalian, E., Margaret Sanger (1984).
Margaret Sanger (microfilm of diaries and correspondence, 1988). The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collections Series Guide (1995). The Margaret Sanger Papers: Documents from the Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives, Smith College (Series 2) (micro-film, 1994). The Margaret Sanger Papers: Collected Documents Series (1997). The Margaret Sanger Papers: Collected Documents Series (microfilm, 1996). Margaret Sanger: A Register of Her Papers in the Library of Congress (1977). The Papers of Margaret Sanger (microfilm, 1976).
—JULIANN E. FLEENOR
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.
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 (1939–45), 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.
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.
Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), born in Corning, New York on September 14, was an internationally renowned leader in the movement to secure reproductive rights for women. Founder of the first birth-control clinic in the United States and later, of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Sanger was a controversial figure with militant feminist and socialist views, working for change in areas of strong traditional values and cultural resistance.
Sanger was the sixth of eleven children born to a devout Catholic Irish-American family. To escape what she saw as a grim class heritage, she worked her way through school and chose a career in nursing. Although she married and had three children, Sanger maintained an intellectual and professional independence. She immersed herself in the radical bohemian culture of intellectuals and artists that flourished in New York City's Greenwich Village. She also joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party and participated in labor strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World.
Working with poor families on the Lower East Side of New York City, Sanger increasingly focused her attention on sex education and women's health and reproductive rights. She argued that a woman's right to control her own body was the foundation of her human rights, that limiting family size would liberate working-class women from the economic burdens associated with unwanted pregnancies, and that women are as much entitled to sexual pleasure and fulfillment as men.
Sanger's ideas have remained controversial. Those who oppose family planning point to her adherence to certain popular ideas of her time as proof that the movement is fundamentally flawed. Sanger advocated birth control as a means of reducing genetically transmitted mental and physical defects, even going so far as to call for the sterilization of the mentally incompetent. But her thinking differed significantly from the reactionary eugenics that eventually became the centerpiece of the Nazi party platform. Sanger never condoned eugenics based on race, class, or ethnicity, and in fact her writings were among the first banned and burned in Adolf Hitler's Germany.
Sanger called for the reversal of the Comstock Law and related state laws banning the dissemination of information on human sexuality and contraception. In 1914, indicted for distributing a publication that violated postal obscenity laws, she fled to England, where she was deeply influenced by the social and economic theories of Britain's radical feminist and neo-Malthusian intelligentsia. Separated from her husband and exploring her own sexual liberation, Sanger had affairs with several men including the psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) and the author and historian H. G. Wells (1866–1946). She returned to the United States in 1915 to face the charges against her, hoping to use her trial to capture media attention. But the sudden death of her five-year-old daughter generated public sympathy, and the government dropped the charges. She then embarked on a national tour and was arrested in several cities, attracting even greater publicity for herself and the birth-control movement.
Sanger founded a number of important organizations and institutions to advance the cause of reproductive rights. In 1916 she opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Nine days later, Sanger and her staff were arrested. She then opened a second clinic, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, staffed by female doctors and social workers, which became important in collecting clinical data on the effectiveness of contraceptives. In 1921 Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later merged with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to form the Birth Control Federation of American, forerunner of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1930 she founded a clinic in Harlem, and she later founded "the Negro Project," serving African Americans in the rural South. Of Sanger's work, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) said, "the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her."
After World War II, Sanger shifted her concerns to global population growth, especially in the Third World. She helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, serving as its president until 1959. Sanger helped find critical development funding for the birth-control pill and fostered a variety of other research efforts including the development of spermicidal jellies and spring-form diaphragms. She died only a few months after birth control became legal for married couples, a 1965 decision that reflected the influence of Sanger's long years of dedication to radical, visionary social reform.
Chesler, Ellen. (1992). Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
King, Martin Luther Jr. (1966). "Family Planning—A Special and Urgent Concern." King's acceptance speech upon receiving the Margaret Sanger Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Valenza, Charles. (1985). "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" Family Planning Perspectives 17(1): 44–46.
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. Available from http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/index.html.
In an effort to protect the health of women, Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879–September 6, 1966) began the birth control movement in the United States. One of eleven children of a Roman Catholic Irish-American family in Corning, New York, Margaret Higgins blamed her mother's early death on poverty and the rigors of bearing so many children. Determined to escape a similar fate, she enrolled in the White Plains Hospital School of Nursing in 1900. Margaret planned to become a registered nurse but her 1902 marriage to architect William Sanger ended her formal training. She bore two sons and one daughter who died at the age of four. The marriage proved troubled and the couple separated in 1914, finally divorcing in 1921 at a time when such actions were rare. Sanger would embark on a second marriage to wealthy oilman Noah Slee in 1922.
In an argument that she would repeat for the remainder of her life, Sanger maintained that women could not benefit from educational and political advances unless they also had the ability to control their own bodies. In 1914, she coined the term birth control in the pages of her magazine, The Woman Rebel. Days after opening the first U.S. birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, Sanger was arrested. The subsequent court case gave physicians the right to prescribe contraception to women when medically indicated. The decision provided Sanger with the legal basis for the 1923 establishment of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (later renamed the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau), a contraceptive distribution system of doctor-staffed clinics.
In the 1920s, Sanger joined other intellectuals in supporting eugenics. She challenged conservatives who worried that whites from the better classes would commit race suicide by using contraception. Sanger argued that all women, rich and poor, would limit childbearing if given the option to control their bodies because of the economic and health benefits of smaller families. She voiced support for negative eugenics that would weed out the physically and mentally disabled by mandating contraception but disdained positive eugenics that would promote the growth of the elite class.
Sanger spent most of the Depression trying to secure government funding for birth control as a benevolent social policy and a public health measure. She wheedled money from the rich for her clinics and political efforts by focusing on the impact of the economy on women. One form letter described a woman who, after her husband lost his job, resorted to an illegal abortion rather than raise another hungry child. Along with appealing to the sympathies of the rich, Sanger played on the anxieties of conservative donors over the potential costs of supporting an increasingly dependent population.
In 1932, a packet of contraceptives sent to Sanger by a Japanese physician was confiscated by U.S. Customs. The resulting court case led to a victory in 1936 when the U.S. Court of Appeals in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries ruled that physicians were exempted from the ban on the importation of birth control materials. This decision effectively legalized the distribution of birth control for medical use.
With this victory, Sanger began to scale down her efforts. Her lobbying group, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, disbanded in 1937. In its place, Sanger helped establish the Birth Control Federation of America. Deeming "birth control" too radical a concept, the organization changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Angry about the name change partly as a matter of sentiment but also because the term family planning seemed to lack the force and conviction of birth control, Sanger retired to Tucson, Arizona.
After World War II, Sanger resumed a public life. She sought to establish an international birth control movement to help foster economic development and social stability. In 1952, Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Increasingly frail, she retired to Tucson for the last time in 1959.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and theBirth Control Movement in America. 1992.
Gray, Madeline. Margaret Sanger: A Biography of theChampion of Birth Control. 1979.
Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. 1970.
Caryn E. Neumann
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.
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). □
Born in Corning, New York, Margaret Sanger (1883–1966) 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 )
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.
Pioneer of the birth control movement in America, and internationally, Margaret Sanger arguably achieved more for reproductive choice than any other person in the twentieth century. The sixth of eleven children, Sanger was strongly influenced by her Freethinker, Irish father, Michael Higgins. Working as a nurse in New York, she saw what she called "the turbid ebb and flow of misery," and became convinced of women's need for birth control information. The 1873 Comstock Law prohibited distribution of such information through the U.S. mail. In 1914, Sanger was prosecuted under this law for the content of her magazine The Woman Rebel, although the case was eventually dropped. In 1916, she founded the American Birth Control League and was imprisoned briefly for opening a birth control clinic, the first in America, in Brooklyn. By curtailing her socialist views, she garnered substantial middle-class support for her cause. Partial victory was achieved in the Crane decision of 1918, in which the law was amended to permit contraceptive advice as a medical therapy.
Sanger had fled to England in 1914 to avoid prosecution and during that time she associated with members of the Malthusian League and with English psychologist and writer Havelock Ellis (1859–1939). In the 1920s, her interest in world population issues grew. Like many in her generation, she espoused eugenics. She was instrumental in setting up the first World Population Conference, in Geneva in 1927, which brought together the leading demographers of the time. Birth control, however, was deemed too sensitive to be discussed, and her own role in the meeting was kept at a low profile, although she did edit the published proceedings. An outgrowth of this conference was the establishment of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population Problems.
Sanger was a timid but effective speaker and a master of publicity. Her 1938 autobiography, a number of laudatory biographies, and a tract from a Catholic publisher (entitled Killer Angel), focus on her early turbulent years. However, two of Sanger's greatest achievements came when she was over 70. In 1951, she challenged Gregory Pincus, the reproductive physiologist, to develop the "perfect contraceptive." With financial help from Sanger's friend, the philanthropist Katherine McCormick, Pincus and his colleagues went on to develop the first birth control pill in 1960. In 1952, in Bombay, Sanger played a key role in founding the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and became its first president.
Powered by an unshakeable belief in her cause, Sanger's protest against an unjust law grew into a crusade that changed the way women in America–and in a growing number of other countries–live.
selected works by margaret sanger.
Sanger, Margaret. 1970 . An Autobiography. New York: Maxwell.
selected works about margaret sanger.
Asbell, Bernard. 1995. The Pill: A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World. New York: Random House.
Gray, Madeline. 1979. Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control. New York: Richard Marek Publishers.
Moore, Gloria, and Ronald Moore. 1986. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement: A Bibliography, 1911–1984. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
David Malcolm Potts
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.
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 information—including material about safe birthing practices—and 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.
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 people—the focus of much of her early work—never 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.