Margaret Sanger, America’s birth control pioneer, was instrumental in the defeat of “Comstock” laws that made it a crime to distribute information about contraceptive techniques. Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, were both imprisoned several times for violations of Comstock laws. She coined the phrase “birth control” after noticing that in countries with lower birth rates, the percentage of infants who survived increased. Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic in 1916. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League—the organization now known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Born Margaret Higgins in 1879, Sanger, the sixth of 11 children, grew up in an industrial neighborhood in Corning, New York. Her mother, Anne, suffered from tuberculosis, which was aggravated by 18 pregnancies and 7 miscarriages. The family grew more impoverished with each of the 11 children. Sanger’s father, Michael, was a tombstone engraver. He was a well-read, politically outspoken man. He was a socialist and invited one of his heroes, an agnostic, to speak in the neighborhood. The family’s poverty increased as a result: the local priest told the parish to “shun him like the devil himself” and to take their business elsewhere.
At 16, Margaret left Corning and began attending Claverack College on a scholarship in 1896. Her older sisters helped finance the school expenses and Margaret waited tables for her room and board. Margaret loved the academic environment at Claverack, but soon had to return to Corning to care for her ailing mother. Anne Higgins died of tuberculosis while Margaret was still a teenager.
After her mother’s death, Sanger and her sister looked after their father. When she turned 20, a friend advised her to enter nursing school. In 1900, she entered the three-year nursing program at White Plains Hospital. A doctor introduced Margaret to William Sanger, a draftsman/architect, at a dance. Bill and Margaret were married in 1902. Shortly thereafter, Margaret was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Like her mother, Margaret’s disease was aggravated by pregnancy. After giving birth to her son, Stuart, Sanger was so ill that doctors did not believe she would survive. However, Margaret recovered and had a second son, Grant, and a daughter, Peggy.
Bill’s mother lived with the couple and cared for the children while Margaret worked as a nurse. Margaret and Bill were active in the Socialist Party, and Margaret was asked to speak at a Socialist meeting. Since she was not familiar with the labor movement, she discussed women’s health and hygiene. The audience showed great interest in the topic, and the editor of the Socialist weekly magazine, The Call, asked her to write a series of articles. Her articles were entitled “What Every Mother Should Know” and “What Every Girl Should Know.” Margaret often accompanied doctors into the crowded slums to deliver children. Time after time, women would ask Margaret how they could keep from having more children. one woman who asked was Sadie Sachs. Sadie was 28 years old and had three children. When she asked her doctor how she could prevent another pregnancy, she was told to have her husband sleep on the roof. When Sadie got pregnant again, she went to an abortionist. Margaret was called to care for her, but Sadie died of complications.
After Sadie’s death, Margaret became determined to find out how to teach women to prevent pregnancy. With the 1873 Comstock laws in place, she could not find the information in the United States. When she and Bill moved to France, Sanger discovered that French women had been limiting their families for decades. She spent her days learning the secrets of contraception. Then, she and the children returned to the United States. In 1914, Margaret started a magazine called The Woman Rebel “for the advancement of women’s freedom.” The magazine spoke out in favor of birth control, but did not outline specific contraceptive methods. After Sanger received over 10,000 letters from women asking for the information, she wrote a pamphlet, called Family Limitation, which outlined the methods she had learned in France. Before she could distribute the pamphlets, she was indicted for publishing “obscenity” through her magazine. Her husband was also arrested and imprisoned. Although the charges against Sanger were dismissed, she would soon challenge the law again.
Margaret’s “birth control movement” had many supporters. She began traveling the country, speaking out in favor of birth control and raising money to open a birth control clinic. Through donations, she raised enough money to open a clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. While a growing number of doctors supported birth control, none were willing to be associated with a clinic for fear of reprisals. Margaret and her sister, both nurses, decided to open the clinic anyway and in October 1916, Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. Ten days later, she and Ethel were arrested and each received 30 days in jail. As soon as she was released, Margaret resumed her travels and speaking engagements. In 1917, she established a new monthly magazine, the Birth Control Review, and in 1921, she started the American Birth Control League as part of a campaign to win mainstream support for birth control.
Margaret would be imprisoned a total of eight times for her activities. But the birth control movement she founded could not be stifled. Support steadily increased, and in 1936, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that physicians were exempt from the Comstock law’s ban on the importation of birth control materials, thereby giving doctors the right to prescribe or distribute contraceptives. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state statutes that outlawed contraception among married couples in Griswold v. Connecticut. Today, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America has 875 health centers in the United States and serves 5 million people a year. Margaret Sanger died at the age of 86 on September 6, 1966.
See Also: Access to health care; Birth control; Byrne, Ethel; Comstock Laws; Nursing; Pregnancy
- Gray, M. (1979). Margaret Sanger, A biography of the champion of birth control. New York: Richard Marek.
- Werner, V. (1970). Margaret Sanger: Woman rebel. New York: Hawthorne Books.