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Margaret Louisa Higgins Sanger

Margaret Louisa Higgins Sanger

1879-1966

American Nurse and Birth Control Advocate

Margaret Sanger was an early champion in the struggle for women to gain control of their own reproductive systems. She opened the first birth control clinic in America, braved frequent arrest and censorship by civil authorities and lifelong persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, and founded the two organizations that later merged into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

She was born into an Irish Catholic family in Corning, New York, the sixth of eleven children. Her father, Michael Hennessy Higgins, was an immigrant stonecutter and a decorated veteran of the American Civil War. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a sickly, passive, obedient woman, completely devoted to the idea that the husband was the natural lord and master of the house. Margaret never accepted that idea.

The family fortunes declined after 1894 when Michael, a political radical and iconoclast, alienated the local Catholic constituency by engaging the atheist socialist Robert Ingersoll to speak at a public meeting in Corning. A Catholic priest would not let Ingersoll into the meeting hall and the Higgins family was pelted with rotten fruit. Thereafter, a local Catholic boycott of Michael's business was in effect, and the family was ostracized.

Margaret Higgins always hated the provincialism of Corning and longed to escape that environment. She wanted to become a physician, but finances prevented it. Her second choice was to become a nurse. With financial help from her sisters, Margaret enrolled at the Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896 to finish her secondary education, then began the nurse training program at White Plains (New York) Hospital in 1900. She received her nursing credentials in 1902 and the same year married architect William Sanger.

The Sangers lived in suburban Westchester County, New York, until 1910, when they moved to Manhattan. There they became involved in a prominent socialist circle including activists Emma Goldman and John Reed and author Upton Sinclair. Margaret worked as a visiting nurse midwife on the Lower East Side. Her patients were women suffering from too many children, inadequate reproductive health care, frequent miscarriages, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion. These conditions were much worse than any she had experienced in Corning. She had watched her own mother deteriorate into an early grave from the strain of too many pregnancies. She blamed her father for her mother's death and never forgave him for his sexual tyranny. Incensed by the misery of impoverished, sick, and downtrodden mothers in New York City, Sanger quit nursing in 1912 to devote full time to the cause of freeing women from the medical and economic afflictions of unwanted pregnancy.

In 1912 she began writing a sex education column for The New York Call. Her first monthly issue of The Woman Rebel, a journal subtitled "No Gods, No Masters," appeared in March 1914, but it was soon suppressed. In 1917 she founded Birth Control Review. In the next twenty years she wrote dozens of political pamphlets and books.

With her sister, Ethel Higgins Byrne, and Fania Mindell she opened a clinic in Brooklyn, New York, in October 1916 to distribute family planning literature and contraceptive devices. Because sex education was considered legally obscene, the clinic was almost immediately raided and both sisters spent time in jail.

She divorced William Sanger in 1920 and two years later married J. Noah H. Slee, who gave significant financial support to the birth control movement. In 1922 she founded the American Birth Control League and the next year the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau.

Sanger worked tirelessly for pro-contraceptive legislation and the social acceptance of women who use contraception. She retired to Tucson, Arizona, in 1942. Some historians claim that she was forced out of the movement by those who thought she was too radical to attract mainstream citizens.

ERIC V.D. LUFT

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