Sanger, Margaret 1879–1966

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Sanger, Margaret

Margaret Sanger, who was born on September 14 in Corning, New York, founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was in the forefront of the fight for women's reproductive rights. Sanger believed that women should have access to the materials they needed to control their fertility safely and effectively. She spread the message that American women—and women around the world—should be able to choose when and whether they wish to have children. She died on September 9 in Tucson, Arizona.


Margaret Louisa Higgins was born into a large working-class family. She attended nursing school and later served as an obstetrical nurse in the Lower East Side of New York City. From her experiences as a child among eleven in her family of origin and as a nurse, she recognized the connection between the inability to regulate fertility and families' economic struggles. Later in life Sanger recalled stories of women who begged her for information on how to avoid having more children and women who fell ill and in some cases died as a result of a botched, illegal abortion.

In the early twentieth century abortion was illegal in all states in most circumstances, and the provision of contraception was banned under the "Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use" (Comstock Law of 1873). Sanger's efforts to find information on safe, effective means to regulate women's fertility merged easily with her socialist perspective. It was in her socialist-feminist periodical The Woman Rebel that she coined the term birth control in 1914. In the same year Sanger wrote and published a pamphlet on methods of contraception, Family Limitation, that was based on her research on techniques and technologies available around the world.

Because the publication of information on contraception violated the Comstock Law, Sanger was indicted for distributing obscene materials through the U.S. Postal Service. She realized that her response to those charges could challenge and perhaps dismantle laws that restricted a woman's ability to determine her reproductive life. She fled from the United States under an assumed name, leaving her husband, William Sanger, and three children behind. In her travels throughout Holland and England, Sanger met with both medical and social advocates of birth control and conducted research on how the birth rate changed when contraception was available. In Holland, for example, contraception was both legal and widely available. Coincidentally, Sanger found declining infant and maternal mortality rates and smaller families with higher economic status in Holland.

By 1916, with the charges against her having been dropped, Sanger returned to the United States. Armed with her improved knowledge of contraceptive methods, she opened the first American birth control clinic in New York City. That led to her arrest and a brief prison term, but she managed to keep the birth control clinic open despite continued police harassment. In 1917 Sanger began to publish the periodical Birth Control Review. For more than a decade, the Birth Control Review provided readers with news and information on the fight for the legalization of contraception both in the United States and overseas.

Sanger also traveled widely as an advocate of contraception. She embarked on speaking tours throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia, including India; lobbied Congress; and organized birth control conferences. Those conferences included regional and national meetings in the United States and international meetings in 1925, 1927, and 1930. At the conferences Sanger coordinated the effort for the legalization of contraception and gathered both social and medical advocates for birth control. She utilized her international and national celebrity to draw attention to the need for legalized contraception, with a focus on the economic benefits of fertility regulation for individual families and for nations that faced problems as a result of overpopulation and limited resources. In the international arena Sanger also connected the ability to contain population growth with prevention of the next war. The pressure of population growth could drive a nation to seek additional resources to sustain the population or could lead a nation to expand its borders to accommodate the increased population. In the interwar era, Sanger identified both Germany and Japan as the nations at greatest risk of beginning the next war, because these were the two nations with the highest population growth rates.

By the mid-1930s restrictions on access to and information about contraception in the United States for the most part had been struck down in the courts. Sanger merged her American Birth Control League (founded in 1921) with other organizations to create the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. She became the president of International Planned Parenthood Federation when it was founded in 1953. In addition to her work as a birth control advocate in the United States and throughout the world, Sanger was a prolific writer: She published and edited the Birth Control Review (1917 through 1929) and wrote a number of books, including two autobiographies (Sanger 1938), in the 1920s and 1930s.


Sanger remains a controversial figure in American history. Because she founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, critics of abortion connect her work with the abortion services offered at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. In vilifying its founder, they attempt to discredit her organization. However, Sanger repeatedly disconnected the provision of abortion from contraception; she believed that contraception was the best way to prevent abortion. Throughout her career she never advocated the termination of pregnancy. A second link that continues to surface is the assertion that Sanger was racist; this is the result of her reliance on eugenics discourse in her speeches and articles in the 1920s and 1930s. Her support for the provision of contraception in the African-American community and overseas (in China, for example) has added fuel to this argument. Eugenics, however, has a long history, and before World War II it was a term invoked by many in mainstream society, from politicians to physicians to professors. An examination of Sanger's discussions of eugenics reveals that her focus was on health and economic improvement for families and was not connected to race.


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

Katz, Esther; Cathy Moran Hajo; and Peter C. Engelman, eds. 1996. Margaret Sanger Papers: Collected Documents Series. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.

Katz, Esther; Cathy Moran Hajo; Peter C. Engelman; and Anke Voss Hubbard, eds. 1995. Margaret Sanger Papers: Smith College Collection. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.

McCann, Carole R. 1994. Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916–1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sanger, Margaret. 1938. Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sanger, Margaret. 1920. Woman and the New Race. New York: Brentano's.

                                           Julie L. Thomas