Margaret Sanger was a birth control activist, writer and nurse. Her efforts to popularise birth control led to the legalisation of contraception and a revolutionary change in family planning. She established the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and encouraged George Pincus to develop the contraceptive pill. She is considered the founder of the modern birth control movement.
Margaret Sanger was born in 1879 in Corning, New York. Her parents were Irish-American. Her mother, Anne, was Catholic, but her father Michael was more of a free thinker who became an activist for women’s suffrage. Her mother gave birth 18 times – 7 of whom died early. When she was only 50 years old her mother passed away from tuberculosis, Margaret, who nursed her mother during her final years, felt the suffering of repeated childbirth contributed towards her ill health and early death. At her mother’s funeral, she said to her father “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.”
Margaret attended St Mary’s school in Corning and was embarrassed at her poverty and tattered clothing compared to her classmates. Seeking to escape the closed family life of her home town, she left Corning and studied to be a nurse in the Catskills. She gained work as a nurse visiting slum housing on the East side of the city. The experience of visiting the slums illustrated the depth of poverty in America and she became active in left-wing politics. She joined the New York Socialist Party and took part in supporting industrial action by striking textile workers. She also supported women’s suffrage campaigns.
Her work as a nurse also illustrated the impact of unwanted pregnancies on young girls. She was particularly concerned about the dangers of backstreet abortions which were common at the time. In her role as a nurse, she often had to deal with the consequences of young girls who visited back-street, illegal abortions. Also, she had to nurse those girls who couldn’t afford the $5 for an illegal abortion and tried rudimentary home methods of abortion.
“It was the dawn of a new day in my life. … I went to bed knowing that no matter what it might cost … I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers, whose miseries were as vast as the sky.” (Sanger, Autobiography 1938, 92)
She was also shocked at the lack of basic knowledge amongst young people regarding sex, reproduction and sexuality. In response, she wrote open, frank articles including “What Every Girl Should Know“. These were published in the socialist magazine New York Call. Even for a radical left-wing magazine, her frank discussions of sexuality were shocking to some readers, but also deeply appreciated by others. At the time, there was a great taboo for talking about sexuality and reproduction, and Sanger felt this lack of knowledge caused misfortune – especially for girls who found themselves with unwanted pregnancies.
In 1873, a federal Comstock law had outlawed any printed materials about contraception on the grounds of ‘obscenity’. Sanger realised that there was no reliable information on contraception that could be found even at a local library. Under New York City law it was also illegal to distribute contraceptives. Sanger claims that in one case a women was desperate to avoid pregnancy, but the only advice given by a doctor was for her husband to sleep on the roof.
Sanger felt that providing knowledge about birth control was essential for liberating women, especially in the poorer working class. She began a campaign to challenge Federal laws banning any material on contraception. She published pamphlets and newsletters, which gave information on how women could undertake ‘birth control’ – a relatively new term that she is credited with popularising. In August 1914, she was charged with disseminating obscene material through the postal system. (the obscene material being advice on contraception) Wishing to avoid standing trial, she fled to England. In the next year, her husband William Sanger was convicted for sending a copy of Family Limitation to an anti-vice politician. He spent 30 days in prison and the trial raised contraception as a civil liberty issue.
“Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.”
“Morality and Birth Control”, February-March, 1918,
In England, Sanger became involved in the Neo-Malthusians movement. This was a movement based on the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus – that the world was heading for overpopulation and this would lead to a decline in living standards and poverty. A key element of Neo-Malthusian conferences was the desirability of promoting birth control to reduce population growth. The target for birth control was particularly focused on poorer sections of society. In England, she also met fellow pioneers in the birth control Movement. Marie Stopes asked for her advice on contraception. Stopes included this in her groundbreaking sex manual “Married Love” (1918) which was influential in breaking taboos and bringing birth control into the wider public sphere. She also met Havelock Ellis who was an influential figure in promoting a more permissive attitude towards sexuality.
“Woman must have her freedom; the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she shall be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers; and before it can be his, it is hers alone.” Chapter 8, “Birth Control; A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?”
Sanger was encouraged by her supporters in Europe and also the knowledge that most European countries had more liberal laws on contraception. The imprisonment of her husband has also helped to swing public opinion in favour of her promotion of birth control. Sanger returned to New York and opened a family planning clinic in Brooklyn, New York. It was the first of its kind and also involved breaking the law. Shortly after it was opened, Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne were arrested. Out on bail, Sanger returned to the clinic until she was arrested a second time, and also charged with being a public nuisance. Sanger was arrested a total of eight times during her life for challenging the law on contraception. She argued it was both a civil liberty for women to be able to choose contraception and also essential for public health.
At her trial in 1917, the judge argued that women “did not have the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.” She was offered a lenient sentence if she promised not to break the law again, but she replied that she could not agree with the law as it stood. She was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse.
The trial created significant media attention and also caused rapid growth in interest in birth control. Many offered their public support and financial backing. In 1918, court proceedings related to her appeal led to a ruling that doctors could prescribe contraception. It was a major boost for the campaign on birth control.
After the First World War, Sanger allowed her socialist activism to lapse as she concentrated solely on birth control. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League which sought a broad-base of support for family planning and birth control. The principles of ABCL were based on a women’s right to choose when she would conceive a child
We hold that children should be
(1) Conceived in love;
(2) Born of the mother’s conscious desire;
(3) And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.
Sanger began an extensive nationwide tour speaking to a diverse group of Americans from churchmen to women’s clubs with the aim of bringing safe and effective birth control into American society. It was controversial and she experienced opposition from the Catholic Church and conservative-minded politicians. In 1929, she was banned from speaking in Boston. However, she stood on stage with a gag around her mouth and her speech was read out by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. As a result of her nationwide campaign, she received hundreds of letters from women desperate to avoid unwanted pregnancies. She compiled these letters into a powerful testament of women’s struggles in Motherhood in Bondage (1928). She also wrote several books on birth control including Family Limitation, Woman and the New Race and The Pivot of Civilization. These sold over half a million copies. She also published two autobiographies “My Fight for Birth Control” (1931) and Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938).
Sanger was opposed to abortion. She argued that if contraception was freely available the evil of abortion would not be needed.
“That abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but it was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”
In the 1920s, there was a strong Eugenic movement which advocated for birth control as a way to improve heredity human traits. Sanger argued that limiting pregnancies to the number that could be supported by individuals would enable parents to raise healthier children.
“On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” – The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”, October 1921.
She expressed distaste for the aggressive nature of Nazi Eugenics and donated to the American council against Nazi Propaganda.
In 1929, she was asked to set up a birth control clinic in Harlem by James Hubert, a black social worker. The co-founder of the NAACP W.E.B. Du Bois also served on the board. Sanger was supportive of mixed race initiatives at a time when segregation and racial discrimination was a powerful force in America. However, when promoting birth control, she was willing to work with those with racist views. In her autobiography, she said she once spoke to a women’s auxilliary of the Klu Klux Klan. Sanger argued everyone had a right to know about birth control, whatever their political affiliation. She also said it was her weirdest experience in lecturing.
“Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand.” Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938)
In 1929, she also launched a campaign to overturn Federal legislation on banning contraception. When the campaign failed, she decided to challenge the law by importing diaphragms from Canada. The diaphragms were confiscated by the US government. Sanger challenged the confiscation and in 1936 a court case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries) overturned the confiscation and held that the law should not be used to intercept shipments originating from a doctor. By the next year, The American Medical Association began including contraception as a normal medical service.
She also travelled abroad to share the principles of birth control in Japan, China and Europe. In 1935, she travelled to India to try and persuade Mahatma Gandhi to change his abstinence-only approach to contraception. In China, she found that a method of birth control was infanticide and there was a great hunger for knowledge on contraception.
“But during all the long years this matter has been discussed, advocated, refuted, the people themselves—poor people especially—were blindly, desperately practicing family limitation, just as they are practicing it today. To them birth control does not mean what it does to us. To them it has meant the most barbaric methods. It has meant the killing of babies—infanticide,—abortions,—in one crude way or another.”
My Fight for Birth Control, 1931, page 133.
In 1948, she helped to found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. She served as president until 1959. On the domestic front Sanger stepped down from playing such a dominant role – against her wishes, the Birth Control Council of America changed its name to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger moved to Tuscon, Arizona and despite reducing her workload she was still a major figure within the family planning movement.
Role in developing the contraceptive pill
One of her most significant actions towards the end of her life was her role in encouraging funding for the work of biologist Gregory Pincus to develop the birth control pill. For a long time, Sanger had dreamt of a simple pill which would provide effective contraception to women. In 1953, Sanger and her wealthy friend Katherine McCormick met Gregory Pincus and this enabled him to increase the scope of his research. By 1960, the contraceptive pill went on the market, sold under the tradename Enovid and this radically altered birth control and attitudes to sex.
In 1965, the Supreme Court finally overturned the old Comstock Laws that prohibited contraception. In the case Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), the court ruled the statue was unconstitutional on the grounds it violated a right to marital privacy.
A year later on 6 September 1966, aged 87, she died from congestive heart failure at her home in Tuscon, Arizona.
She married twice in 1902 architect William Sanger they had three children. Her daughter, Peggy, died when she was four. Her two sons were called Grant and Stuart In 1922 she married a second husband James Noah H.Slee.
Margaret Sanger made a tremendous difference to attitudes on contraception and family planning. Throughout the Twentieth-century birth rates fell dramatically as women chose to limit the number of children they bore. As birth rates fell, life expectancy also rose. It is hard to imagine just over 50 years ago, there were Federal laws banning contraception and even pamphlets talking about contraception. Martin Luther King said of Margaret Singer:
“She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions.”
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Margaret Sanger”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net. Published: 2 August 2019.
The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger
The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger at Amazon
What Every Girl Should Know – Margaret Sanger
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Quotes of Margaret Sanger
“The church has ever opposed the progress of woman on the ground that her freedom would lead to immorality. We ask the church to have more confidence in women. We ask the opponents of this movement to reverse the methods of the church, which aims to keep women moral by keeping them in fear and in ignorance, and to inculcate into them a higher and truer morality based upon knowledge. And ours is the morality of knowledge. If we cannot trust woman with the knowledge of her own body, then I claim that two thousand years of Christian teaching has proved to be a failure.”
The Morality of Birth Control, 18 November 1921, Park Theatre, NY
“The basic freedom of the world is woman’s freedom. A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of that bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” – Chapter 8, “Birth Control; A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?”