Margaret Higgins Sanger, a leader of the movement to decriminalize contraceptive use in the United States, was born on 14 September 1879 to Anne Purcell and Michael Hennessey Higgins in Corning, New York. Prior to her career as a birth control reformer, Sanger attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, though she never graduated. She was later trained as a nurse at White Plains Hospital. In 1902 she married William Sanger and the couple had two sons, Stuart and Grant, and a daughter, Peggy.

When the family moved to Manhattan, Sanger took a job as a home nurse on the Lower East Side and became interested in radical politics. She joined the International Workers of the World (IWW), which sought to organize textile workers in the Northeast. Through her work as a nurse, her interest in political change, and her own experience of being the sixth of eleven children, Sanger came to believe that control over reproductive choices was necessary if women were to gain economic and social freedom and improve their quality of life. In 1912 Sanger began working on reproductive issues in earnest, writing articles about contraceptives, abortion dangers, and venereal diseases for the socialist magazine The Call. The Comstock Act of 1873, however, which classified contraceptive information as obscenity, quickly halted her efforts.

After traveling to Europe in 1914 to study birth control methods, Sanger sought to mobilize the legalization of birth control in the US through her journal The Woman Rebel and her pamphlet “Family Limitation,” both of which contained information on women’s physiology and contraceptive measures. When Sanger was indicted on federal charges for distributing obscene materials, she fled to Europe. While there, Sanger befriended Havelock Ellis, who influenced her later movements, and Aletta Jacobs, first female physician in the Netherlands. Jacobs popularized the spring-loaded vaginal diaphragm. Sanger brought the idea for the diaphragm back to the US when she returned to face trial in 1915.

The charges against Sanger were withdrawn in 1916, partly because of public pressure to do so after the death of Sanger’s daughter of pneumonia at age five. In this same year, Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened a birth control clinic in Brownsville, New York. After nearly 500 patients were treated the clinic was closed and Sanger was thrown into jail. Sanger’s arrest had one positive outcome—it allowed some clarification of the New York law on birth control. Judge Frederick Crane ruled that distribution of contraceptive advice for women and the distribution of condoms for men were lawful for the purpose of preventing and treating venereal diseases.

Sanger gradually moved away from radical feminism and toward eugenic arguments in her promotion of fertility control with her slogan “Every child a wanted child.” With this turn she became, and continues to be, a controversial figure in the reproductive rights movement. Sanger declared in her Autobiography that halting “the multiplication of the unfit [. . .] appeared the most important and greatest step towards race betterment.” In the thirteenth edition of “Family Limitation,” she also encouraged the use of contraceptives “among the diseased and unfit” and promoted sterilization for parents suffering from “diseases and conditions such as insanity, syphilis, idiocy, and feeble-mindedness which are passed on to the next generation.”

With her new vision for the birth control movement, Sanger gained financial support from socialites and philanthropists, allowing her to create the American Birth Control League in 1921, later to be renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. In 1920 she divorced William and in 1922 married millionaire J. Noah Slee, who provided further funding for her cause. In 1923 Sanger opened the New York Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, later named the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, which continued operation until 1973, the first doctor-staffed birth control clinic in the US. The Bureau trained hundreds of physicians about contraceptives, and established over 300 clinics from 1923 to 1938.

In 1936 a federal court required a reinterpretation of the Comstock Act and determined that the distribution of contraceptive materials for physicians was permissible. In 1937 the American Medical Association determined birth control to be a legitimate medical service that should be taught in medical schools. In 1952 Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as its first president. That same year Sanger brought biologist Gregory Pincus’s work to the attention of Katharine Dexter McCormick, who later funded the final development and testing of the birth control pill, which allowed women a more effective, female-controlled method of birth control. After years of determination that earned her the title of founder of the birth control movement in the US, Sanger died in a Tucson, Arizona, nursing home in 1966 of congestive heart failure.

Sources

  1. Harvey, Joy, and Marilyn Ogilvie. “Sanger, Margaret Higgins (1879–1966).” In Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science 2, eds. Joy Harvey and Marilyn Ogilvie, 1149–51. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  2. Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1938.