Margaret Sanger

From New World Encyclopedia

Margaret Higgins Sanger
Margaret Sanger.
September 14, 1879
Corning, New York
September 6, 1966
Tucson, Arizona

Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879 - September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist, and the founder of the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood). Sanger worked as a public health nurse in the slums of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was strongly motivated to help women in the throes of poverty who were often grappling with health issues related to pregnancy and childbearing. She was also deeply affected by the circumstances of her own mother, whose poor health and untimely death was exacerbated by a large family she could not fully care for.

Sanger believed that uncontrolled fertility and poverty were inexorably related. While her ideas about women being able to decide how and when to bear children were initially met with fierce opposition, she gradually won support from both the public and from the courts. Sanger was arrested numerous times for expressing her views on birth control.


Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her father Michael Higgins was described as a "free thinker and an outspoken radical." [1] Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Roman Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births)[2] before dying of tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Sanger attended Claverack College, a boarding school in Hudson, New York, for two years. Her sisters paid her tuition until 1899, when they were unable to continue to provide this assistance and she returned home. Her mother died the same year, after which Sanger enrolled in a nursing program at a hospital in White Plains, New York. In 1902, she married William Sanger. Although stricken by tuberculosis, she gave birth to a son the following year, followed in later years by a second son and a daughter who died in childhood.

In 1912, after a devastating fire destroyed the new home that her husband had designed, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the poverty-stricken Lower East Side of Manhattan. That same year she also started writing a column for the Socialist Party paper, The New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Sanger repeatedly risked scandal and imprisonment by distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to poor women. By doing so, she was acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices because they were considered obscene.

Margaret separated from her husband, William Sanger, in 1913. In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, a monthly newsletter in which she coined the term "birth control." She was indicted for violating postal obscenity laws in August and fled to Europe using the assumed name "Bertha Watson" to escape prosecution. She returned to the United States in 1915, and later that year her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, died.

Family planning activism

On Oct. 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided by the police nine days after it opened and Sanger served 30 days in jail. While an initial appeal was rejected, in 1918, a state appellate court allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.

In 1916, Sanger published What Every Girl Should Know. It provided basic information about sexuality and development, particularly in adolescence. It was followed in 1917, by What Every Mother Should Know.

Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921, along with Lothrop Stoddard and C. C. Little. In 1922, she traveled to Japan to work with Japanese feminist Kato Shidzue promoting birth control; over the next several years, she would return another six times for this purpose. In this same year, she married the oil tycoon, James Noah H. Slee.

In 1923, under the auspices of the ABCL, she established the Clinical Research Bureau. It was the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. (renamed Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in her honor in 1940). The clinic received crucial grants from John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1924 onwards. They were all made anonymously in order to avoid public knowledge that the Rockefellers supported her cause.[3]

Also in 1923, she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president until its dissolution in 1937, after birth control, under medical supervision, was legalized in many states. In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

From 1916 on, she lectured "in many places—halls, churches, women's clubs, homes, and theaters."[4] In 1930, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In January 1932, she addressed the New History Society, an organization founded by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and Julie Chanler; this address would later become the basis for an article entitled A Plan for Peace.[5] In 1937, Sanger became chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications, The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News.

In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by the local newspaper, The Amsterdam News, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community's elder statesman, W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1939, Du Bois served on the advisory council for Sanger's "Negro Project," which served African-Americans in the rural South. Others who supported the project included Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Eleanor Roosevelt and the medical philanthropists, Albert and Mary Lasker, were also supporters of the project. Some in the African-American community would later be very critical of her work with blacks because of her support of Eugenics.

From 1939 to 1942, she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America. From 1952 to 1959, she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time, the largest private international family planning organization.

In the early 1960s Sanger promoted the use of the newly available birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics.

Sanger died in 1966, in Tucson, Arizona, at age 86, eight days from her 87th birthday. She died only a few months after the passage of the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the U.S., the apex of her 50-year struggle.


Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's understanding of women's health and childbirth. Sanger was particularly critical of the dangerous and scarce treatment opportunities available to women for venereal disease. Sanger spoke against the absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration of those with infectious diseases such as measles).

In addition to her controversial work for birth control legislation, Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, defined in the eleventh edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica as "the organic betterment of the race through wise application of the laws of heredity." [6] In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement, in which Sanger was prominently involved, gained strong support in the United States. Other adherents to the philosophy of eugenics included Charles Lindbergh[7] Theodore Roosevelt,[8] Winston Churchill,[9] and George S. Patton.[10] Eugenics is thought by many to insinuate racism, even though its theory does not overtly promote the superiority of one race over another. On the corollary between a woman's choice and parturiency, Sanger commented: "When a motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race."[11]

Legacy and controversy

While Sanger is widely credited as being instrumental in opening the way for universal access to birth control, she also gained notoriety for her views on eugenics. In her lifetime, the strongest opposition to her work came from the Catholic Church. She has often been labeled "an abortion advocate" even though abortion was illegal during Sanger's lifetime and Planned Parenthood did not support the procedure or lobby for its legalization while she was living.[12] In a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, she wrote, "No one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable," though she framed this in the context of her birth control advocacy, adding that "abortions will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. (Care is) the only cure for abortions." Sanger consistently regarded birth control and abortion as the responsibility and burden first and foremost of women, and as matters of law, medicine and public policy secondarily.[13]

She also said of abortion in her 1938 autobiography: "To each group we explained what contraception was; 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 was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun."[14]

Author's works

  • Sanger, Margaret. 1920. Woman and the New Race. Brentano's.
  • Sanger, Margaret. 1969. Happiness in Marriage. Maxwell Reprint Co. ISBN 0827720017
  • Sanger, Margaret. 1931. My Fight for Birth Control. Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.
  • Sanger, Margaret. 2004. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486434923


  1., About Margaret Sanger. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  2. Steinem.
  3. John Ensor Harr, and Peter J. Johnson, The Rockefeller Century: Three Generations of America's Greatest Family (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988).
  4. Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1938).
  5. Pouzzner.
  6. Marian Van Court, The Case for Eugenics in a Nutshell.
  7. Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  8. Jonathan Marks, Eugenics—Breeding a Better Citizenry Through Science. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  9. R. Cort. Kirkwood, Eugenics Not Possible Without The Power Of The State. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  10., Patton Quotes.
  11., About Margaret Sanger. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  12. Rodger Streitmatter, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-231-12249-7
  13. Gray.
  14., About Margaret Sanger. Retrieved March 25, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chesler, Ellen. 1992. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-60088-5
  • Gray, Madeline. 1979. Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control. Putnam Pub Group. ISBN 0-399-90019-5
  • Kennedy, David M. 1970. Birth Control in America; The Career of Margaret Sanger. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300012020
  • Marshall, Robert G. and Chuck Donovan. Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. ISBN 0-89870-353-0
  • Reed, Miriam. 2003. Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words. Barricade Books. ISBN 1569802556
  • Sanger, Margaret. An Autobiography. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1938. ISBN 0-8154-1015-8

External links

All links retrieved November 6, 2022.


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