Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966)

views updated

Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966)

American feminist and flamboyant social activist who led the modern birth-control movement, founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and was instrumental in distributing contraception information and opening birth-control clinics around the globe. Born Margaret Louisa Higgins on September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York; died of arteriosclerosis on September 6, 1966, in the Valley House and Convalescent Center in Tucson, Arizona; sixth of eleven children of Michael Hennessey Higgins (a stonemason) and Anne (Purcell) Higgins; attended St. Mary's Catholic School until 8th grade, Claverack College and Hudson River Institute (1896–98), and nurses' training program at the White Plains Hospital (1900–02); married William Sanger, in August 1902 (divorced, after lengthy separation, in October 1921); married James Henry Noah Slee, on September 18, 1922 (died 1943); children: (first marriage) Stuart (b. 1903); Grant (b. 1908), and Margaret "Peggy" (b. 1910).

Attended nurses' training school at the White Plains hospital (1899–1902); married William Sanger and was forced to leave nursing school (1902); lived a conventional life in Hastings-on-Hudson as a wife and mother of three (1902–10); relocated with family to New York City and became involved in Socialist activities, with particular interest in issues of health and sexuality for poor women (1910–14); published The Woman Rebel, indicted for violating obscenity laws, and fled to Europe where she met Havelock Ellis (1914); returned to U.S. (1915); opened the first birth-control clinic, was arrested, and spent 30 days in prison (1915–16); published The Birth Control Review (1917–28); published first book, Woman and the New Race (1920); incorporated and became president of the American Birth Control League (1921); published second bestseller, The Pivot of Civilization (1922); established the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (1923); sponsored the World Population Conference in Geneva, Switzerland (1928); organized the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control (1930–36); with Dr. Hannah Stone, won court battle to license physicians to dispense birth-control information through the mails (1936); traveled to Hawaii, China, and India on behalf of the birth-control movement (1935–36); served as president of the Birth Control International Information Centers, London, England (1930–36); served as vice-president of the Family Planning Organization (1939); was honorary chair of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (1942); was first president of International Committee on Planned Parenthood (1946); organized the Cheltenham Congress on World Population and World Resources in Relation to the Family (1948), which resulted in the formation of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF, 1952).

Awards and honors:

received the American Woman's Association Award (1931); the Award of honor of the Town Hall Club, New York City (1936); honorary LL.D. degree from Smith College (1949); the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (1950); the City of Tucson, Arizona, proclaimed Margaret Sanger Week in March (1965); 3rd class Order of the Precious Crown from Japan (1965); honorary LL.D. degree from the University of Arizona (1966); the Planned Parenthood Federation of America created the Margaret Sanger Award (1966).

In the summer of 1912, while working as a home nurse, Margaret Sanger received a panicked call from Jake Sachs whose wife was dying of blood poisoning after attempting a self-induced abortion. For two weeks, Sanger nursed Sadie Sachs back to health in the couple's tenement apartment in the slums of New York's Lower East Side. When Sadie explained to her doctor that she could not afford physically, financially, or emotionally to have more children and asked what she could do to prevent further pregnancies, he patted her on the back and recommended that she persuade Jake to sleep on the roof.

When he left, in tears Sachs begged Sanger to teach her some reliable methods of contraception. Sanger knew there was little information available but promised to do what she could. Busy with her own three children and her work, she forgot about her promise. In October, Sanger received another call from Jake: his wife had attempted another self-induced abortion. Sadie Sachs died ten minutes after Sanger reached their home. By her own recollection, she left the apartment to wander the streets for hours, "thinking, regretting, dreading to stop; fearful of my conscience, dreading to face my own accusing soul." That night she resolved not to "go back again to nurse women's ailing bodies while their miseries were as vast as the stars." Rather than work to lessen the pain of the poor women she served in the crowded homes of New York's tenements, she would make it her mission to bring knowledge of contraception to women of all classes, races, and creeds. In this effort, she went on to lead the modern birth-control movement as an internationally known champion of a woman's right to information about her own body.

Margaret Sanger was born on September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York, the sixth child of Michael and Anne Purcell Higgins . Though tubercular and frail from her illness, Anne had five more children after Margaret, while Michael, not a wealthy man, helped deliver them at home. Margaret witnessed these births and with them her mother's weakening condition. All accounts indicate that her parents had a supportive, loving relationship; nonetheless, the coming of children year after year into the Higgins household made an impression on young Margaret about the connections between childbirth, poverty, and women's ill-health.

Michael Higgins was an outspoken freethinker and atheist in a community of devout Catholics. His unpopular political opinions did nothing to help his career as a stonemason, particularly in a community where a stonemason's largest business came from the local Catholic cemeteries. More interested in a good political discussion than in earning money to support his ever-growing family, he had a penchant for supporting radical causes and spending what little funds the family had in lavish gestures. Sanger always maintained that her father left a positive legacy for the Higgins children in terms of his emphasis on independent thinking as well as his encouragement to challenge authority and to leave the world a better place than they found it. But his freewheeling spending and lack of support for the family were not lost on her, nor was the way in which the arrival of each new child overburdened her ailing mother and contributed to her death at 49. Michael, in contrast, lived past 80.

Faced with poverty, the older siblings in the family took jobs to help support the younger ones. Growing up bearing the taunts and harassment of their contemporaries who were taught that the Higginses were "children of the devil," Sanger actively strove to be courageous and to challenge her own fears. To overcome the dread of a certain railroad bridge, for instance, she attempted to traverse it. But she was only halfway across when a train came and was forced to hang from a support between the tracks while the train screamed by overhead. A local farmer helped her back up; she then successfully finished crossing the bridge.

While in 8th grade at a Catholic school, Sanger was ridiculed by a teacher for being tardy and wearing a pair of new, fancy gloves (a present from her sister who worked as a nanny for a wealthy family). The young Sanger marched out of the school, vowing never to return. When she could not be convinced to change her mind, her two oldest sisters, Mary and Nan , scraped together enough money to send her to Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, a private, preparatory boarding school across the state. Sanger's sisters took care of her tuition while she worked in the school kitchen to pay for her room and board. The years she spent at Claverack (1896–98) were happy. Sanger thrived in the secure atmosphere where she was removed from the daily worries of helping support her struggling family. She performed particularly well at elocution and had a reputation as a leader who encouraged others to challenge the rules of the school. Later she would credit a lecture from the headmaster, after she challenged the school's curfew, with changing her thinking about her own leadership abilities. The headmaster commended her for her charismatic personality but also reminded her that with leadership comes responsibility. Suddenly, the link between developing one's own views on politics and society, and using one's abilities to improve the world (sometimes missing in her father's politics), became clear to Sanger.

Sanger was prevented from finishing her final year at Claverack for lack of funds, and in 1898, age 19, she returned home to help nurse her mother who was in the final stage of tuberculosis. With the harsh reality of her family's poverty, and with her father growing more and more controlling after her mother's death in 1899, Sanger realized that she would have to give up her goal of becoming a doctor. Settling instead on nursing, she entered a training program at the White Plains Hospital. After completing two years there, she began taking summer courses at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, probably to make up credits she had missed while fighting her own bout with tuberculosis, to prepare for the final year of schooling that would allow her to become a registered nurse. She was 23 when she met William Sanger. Ten years older than Margaret, William was an architect and aspiring artist who whisked her up in a whirlwind of romance and aggressively sought her hand in marriage. The wedding took place in August 1902 and shortly thereafter she wrote to her sister: "I'm very sorry to have the thing occur, but yet I am very, very happy." She was then dismissed from the nursing program at White Plains because married women were not permitted there.

Six months after her marriage, Sanger was pregnant. She was also dealing with a tubercular flare-up and spent the last months of her pregnancy in an Adirondack sanitarium before returning to New York to give birth to a son, Stuart, in 1903. After another stint at the sanitarium to help her regain her health, she returned to the home William was building for them in Hastings-on-Hudson, a town well removed from the pollution and bustle of Manhattan. The couple worked hard on the house, taking pride in a leaded-glass window above the staircase, and were just beginning to move in when the entire dwelling was destroyed by fire due to a faulty furnace. The Sangers rebuilt the home, lived there for eight years, and had two more children, Grant in 1908 and Margaret (Peggy) in 1910. Sanger would later claim that the fire had taught her a valuable lesson about the futility of material things.

During this suburban interlude, Sanger focused on her roles as wife and mother but felt increasingly dissatisfied with her life. Hoping to overcome the onset of some serious rifts in their marriage, the Sangers decided to return to New York City in 1910. From their Manhattan apartment, both Margaret and William involved themselves in the radical labor movement and Socialist politics. She began to work as a home nurse on the city's Lower East Side, meeting Sadie Sachs and watching her die, and encountering many distressing instances of women weakened by childbirth and poverty-induced substandard living conditions. She became involved in the International Workers of the World (IWW) strikes and in 1912 led a group of striking workers' children out of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Her participation in this cause brought her national attention. As the urgency of women's health issues became more clear to her, she was disappointed with the male leadership of the radical political community. Sanger wrote two columns for the socialist newspaper The Call—"What Every Mother Should Know" and "What Every Girl Should Know"—which detailed facts of anatomy and of sexually transmitted diseases. "If the unions [are] fighting for better wages and shorter hours," she wrote, "they should be equally concerned with the size of the workingman's family." Influenced by the radical feminist Emma Goldman (with whom she later would form a rivalry), Sanger began to draw away from the causes of her radical Socialist friends who continued to focus on economic issues. She increasingly regarded "family limitation" as the defining issue of her political activities, and separated herself somewhat from the feminists who were working for suffrage.

Meanwhile, her relationship with William grew more troubled. As his dream of becoming a painter took precedence over supporting the family financially, Sanger was distressed by the seeming similarities between her husband and her father. Her relationships with friends in the labor movement also fueled the breakdown of her marriage. Many of these male friends were anarchists who did not believe in social institutions such as monogamy and marriage, and Sanger now made the sexual freedom of women part of her feminist consciousness as well as part of her own life's practice. In the hopes of rekindling their struggling relationship, in October 1913 the Sangers traveled in France where William studied painting while Margaret investigated the ways in which French women managed to limit their families. Purchasing samples of tampons, suppositories, and douches, Sanger took detailed notes about their uses and was anxious to return to the United States to pass along her knowledge. Likely in recognition that she and William could no longer continue their marriage, Sanger encouraged him to stay in Paris to paint while she returned to New York with the children.

Before going to France, in February 1913 Sanger had come in contact with censorship and the 1873 Comstock Act for an article she wrote about syphilis in The Call. Named for its principal supporter Anthony Comstock, the law prevented "obscene materials," including birth-control information, from being distributed through the U.S. mail. Upon her return to New York in 1914, she set out to challenge the notion that information about contraception was obscene. She began to publish a militantly feminist journal, The

Woman Rebel. The radical newsletter, which introduced the now-common term "birth control," published eight issues dealing with such topics as child labor, social hygiene, population growth, and the exploitation of women in industry. Her aim, as cited in the first issue, was "to stimulate women to think for themselves and to build up a conscious fighting character." The post office quickly declared the publication unmailable.

Sanger was indicted on nine counts of violating federal statutes, creating a media firestorm, and faced up to 45 years in prison. Fearing a harsh judgment, she fled the country in October 1914, before going to trial. She left behind 100,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled "Family Limitation," which gave the most detailed instructions on birth control and contraception techniques then available in English. Many of the methods, such as the use of laxatives to induce menstruation, were criticized as ineffective or outdated, but Sanger's pamphlet marked the first effort to bring national attention to the necessity of all women having access to available information about birth control.

I would be heard. No matter what it should cost. I would be heard.

—Margaret Sanger

While in exile, Sanger toured Europe where she learned that different cultures had different attitudes and methods of family limitation. She spent long hours in the British Museum studying overpopulation. She also traveled to Holland, where she learned about the diaphragm and the Dutch populace's open advocation of birth control as necessary to the quality of life, and to other European countries to discuss with women how they maintained small families. During this year abroad, the 35-year-old Sanger met sexologist Havelock Ellis. Though he was married, they had an affair, then went on to maintain a close friendship. Ellis influenced many of Sanger's permissive ideas about sexuality in general and her feminist consciousness about sexual liberation for women in particular.

Determined to foster a Dutch-style attitude (that birth control was part of a nation's quality of life) to the practice of providing birth-control information in the U.S., Sanger prepared to return home in 1915. In her absence, William Sanger had been imprisoned for distributing a copy of her "Family Limitation" pamphlet, and Sanger had a growing sense of doom. Upon her return, however, she was surprised to see that U.S. public opinion on contraception had taken a more liberal slant; the term "birth control" was in fairly wide use and Anthony Comstock, the author and enforcer of the obscenity laws, was dead.

Because Sanger's direct-action politics were considered lawless, she did not receive the support of the new president of the National Birth Control League, Mary Ware Dennett . But the unfortunate illness and death of Sanger's young daughter Peggy increased public support for her. Although Sanger was offered a postponement of her trial, the family tragedy had made her even more determined to pursue her cause, and she declined. With hundreds of letters coming to the judge from women who had been helped by Sanger's information, and with support from liberals and feminists in Europe and the U.S., Sanger was determined to strike a victory over the Comstock laws. Seeing how much the tide had turned in favor of open discussion of birth control since Sanger's indictment a year earlier, the prosecutor tried to settle out of court, which Sanger would not do. In February 1916, he dropped all charges against her, and she was free to begin the open, public championing of her cause.

At a dinner in her honor, she said:

I realize that many … cannot sympathize with or countenance the methods I have followed in my attempt to arouse working women …. They tell me that The Woman Rebel was badly written; that it was crude; that it was emotional and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty.

She did, however, maintain that birth control was not a new or a radical notion, for it had been in existence since Aristotle. It must be made available, she noted, to all women, especially to those of the poor working class.

Sanger had begun to realize the value of broad public support and to understand that the elite liberal constituency could do a great deal for her cause. In 1916, she toured the nation, speaking in Rochester, Detroit, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Denver, and Los Angeles as well as many smaller towns in between. In all, she gave her lecture 119 times, always to full crowds eagerly awaiting knowledge of contraception. Though meeting opposition from the Catholic Church and some women's clubs, Sanger continued to advocate civil disobedience as a means of achieving greater justice in the availability of birth-control information, but she also continued to court the support of the elite liberal feminists, who were mostly white and upper class. During this time, she was struggling with Dennett, who advocated legislative reform and scorned Sanger's more militant tactics. Oddly, while Dennett advocated the total repeal of the obscenity statutes on free-speech grounds, Sanger was instead happy to promote only reform of the statutes which would allow properly licensed doctors and nurses to be responsible for providing birth-control information to working-class women through organized clinics. Her vision was in part spurred by the Dutch system of socialized public health care that the U.S. would only begin to debate seriously in the last part of the 20th century.

Convinced that it was action, not legislation or speeches, that would bring her goals to fruition, Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne started the first birth-control clinic in the United States. The clinic, located in Brownsville, Brooklyn, opened on October 16, 1916, and some 140 patients waited in line for hours to see the sisters. Nine days later, the clinic was raided and closed down, and Margaret and Ethel were jailed. Ethel promptly went on a hunger strike, asserting that she would "die, if need be, for my sex." The story created a sensation in the New York City press. Supporters crowded the courtroom, but this time public opinion did not sway judicial action. Sanger's open acknowledgement of circulating birth-control information and her unwillingness to promise not to do so again—"I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect"—earned her a guilty verdict and 30 days in jail.

On appeal, the Sanger decision was upheld, but the appeal nonetheless won a significant victory for the birth-control cause. Although Judge Frederick Crane of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York upheld Section 1145 of the obscenity law that prevented laypersons from distributing birth-control information, the door was opened to an interpretation that doctors and pharmacists might distribute such information not only in the treatment of venereal disease. This victory was an important one in light of Sanger's goal of establishing doctor-run birth-control clinics. Realizing that working-class women were too enmeshed in the struggles of daily life to give energy to her cause and that they had no dispensable income to contribute, Sanger strengthened her courting of elite feminists and began downplaying her more radical past. With the financial help of friends, she founded The Birth Control Review, which she would edit and publish until 1928.

In 1919, Sanger was living in a small apartment in New York City, giving most of her income to The Birth Control Review and growing fatigued. She still grieved over her daughter's death and struggled to find time to be with her two sons, who were in boarding schools much of the year. Given an advance to write a book, she took her son Grant to California and there wrote Woman and the New Race, which was published in 1920. In 1921, with the help of her wealthier friends, she founded the American Birth Control League (which in 1942 would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America), and served as the organization's first president. After finally receiving the divorce she had demanded from William Sanger (1920), she married millionaire J. Noah Slee in 1922. The marriage seems to have been one of convenience for Sanger from the beginning, but also one of mutual need. In return for time with Sanger, Slee grudgingly agreed to respect her autonomy and also gave enormous financial support to the birth-control cause. Sanger maintained intimate relations with other men but stayed married to him until his death in 1943.

After a world tour in 1922—in which she organized birth-control clinics in Hawaii, China, and Japan and lectured in England, Scotland and Germany—Sanger returned to the U.S. and began planning for the International Birth Control Conference. In 1923, her newly enhanced financial and social status allowed her to open the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City, the first birth-control clinic in the United States to be staffed by doctors. The Birth Control Conference was held in New York City during 1925 and was attended by over 18,000 delegates from more than a dozen nations. Sanger followed this victory by resigning as the president of the American Birth Control League and organizing the World Population Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. This conference, which brought together prominent social scientists from all over the globe, resulted in the creation of a small committee focused on international population.

The Geneva conference tapped not only a great deal of Sanger's strength, but also much of Noah Slee's fortune. She returned to the United States to see the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau raided by police in 1929. The raid and ensuing arrest of eight staff members—resoundingly denounced by the press, the medical profession, and upper-class liberals—provided Sanger's longtime attorney Jonah Goldstein with an opportunity to establish that married women had a right to obtain birth-control information under the law as written, which required that a woman have a medical reason for such information.

In the years between 1930 and 1936, Sanger and others launched a serious effort to write a bill that would establish a woman's right to such information under the auspices of a group entitled the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Though they were unsuccessful in 1931 and again in 1934, their attempts kept birth control at the forefront of public attention. A major victory for the Committee came in 1936 in United States v. One Package, a case in which Dr. Hannah Stone , who ran Sanger's New York Birth Control Bureau, was arrested for receiving a package of contraceptive materials through the mail. The decision in favor of Stone marked the repeal of the last vestiges of the Comstock laws and the beginning of many such decisions, including the American Medical Association's 1937 resolution to accept contraception as a legitimate medical option that needed to be included in medical-school curricula.

By age 56, Sanger had achieved enormous status as the early champion of a cause whose time had come. During the 1930s, she published two autobiographies, My Fight for Birth Control (1931) and Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938). While these are valuable in what they reveal about how Sanger wanted her life to be viewed, neither accurately portrays her childhood and early radicalism in the labor movement. (Decades later, Ellen Chesler 's biographer of Sanger, Woman of Valor, would correct many factual errors, some of which Sanger had encouraged.) Sanger traveled extensively, attending such functions as the All-India Women's Conference in 1935 and visiting Hong Kong, Rangoon, and China. While in the U.S. in 1936, she received the Town Hall Club award in the same building which had once locked its doors to one of her meetings.

In 1939, the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau merged to become the Birth Control Federation of America. In partial retirement after 1939, Sanger witnessed the reaction against birth control and the trend toward "family planning" in this organization. When the Birth Control Federation of America then became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942, Sanger was elected its honorary chair. In 1946, Sweden's Elise Ottesen-Jensen convened an international conference in Stockholm that resulted in the founding of the International Committee on Planned Parenthood; Sanger was its first president. In 1948, she sponsored the Cheltenham Congress on World Population and World Resources in Relation to the Family, which resulted in the 1952 formation of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the largest provider of birth-control information in the world.

With many of her dear friends aging and dying—including Havelock Ellis in 1939, Hannah Stone in 1941, and Noah Slee in 1943—Sanger retired to Tucson to spend time with her children and grandchildren but never quit politicking for more advancements in birth-control techniques, including the birth-control pill. She traveled to Japan three times and made a return trip to India in 1959. In the U.S., she continued to receive pressure from Catholics who did not support birth control or her flamboyant lifestyle. Sanger received many tributes late in life, including honorary LL.D. degrees from Smith College (1949) and the University of Arizona (1966) as well as the highest honor given to women in Japan, the 3rd class Order of the Precious Crown (1965). Other honors include the Margaret Sanger Award created by Planned Parenthood Federation of America for people who demonstrate commitment to the principles of social justice and the Margaret Sanger Medallion for community-level contributions, both created in 1965. Sanger died on September 14, 1966, shortly before her 87th birthday. "When the history of our civilization is written," wrote H.G. Wells, "it will be a biological history and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine."


Anticaglia, Elizabeth. 12 American Women. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1975. Baskin, Alex. Woman Rebel. NY: SUNY at Stonybrook, 1976.

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

Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart. Women's America: Refocusing the Past. 3rd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lader, Lawrence. The Margaret Sanger Story, and the Fight for Birth Control. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1955.

Muccigrosso, Robert, ed. Research Guide to American Historical Biography. Vol. III. Washington, DC: Beacham, 1988.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Sweeney, Patricia E. Biographies of American Women: An Annotated Bibliography. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1990.

Tinling, Marion. Women Remembered: A Guide to Landmarks of Women's History in the United States. CT: Greenwood, 1986.

suggested reading:

Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body: Woman's Right. NY: Viking, 1976.

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

Reed, James. The Birth Control Movement and American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. NY: W.W. Norton, 1938.

——. My Fight for Birth Control. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931.

related media:

"Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story," starring Dana Delany as Sanger, first aired on Lifetime network, 1995.

"Woman Rebel," a film about Margaret Sanger, written and directed by Francis Gladstone for "Nova," sponsored by PBS, aired in 1976.


Correspondence and personal papers are housed in over 500 boxes in the Library of Congress collection, which is on microfilm and has a reference guide.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, involving Smith College, the Library of Congress, New York University, and the Institute for Research in History, is currently searching out, collecting, and microfilming all available Sanger correspondence and archival materials under the direction of Esther Katz of New York University.

Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, has papers of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Margaret Sanger Bureau, and the personal papers of many of her close colleagues.

Sharon L. Barnes , Ph.D. candidate, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio

About this article

Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966)

Updated About content Print Article