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Margaret Sanger
1884 - 1966

 


Her crusade to legalize birth control spurred the movement for women's liberation
By GLORIA STEINEM for Time Magazine

The pioneering work of Margaret Higgins Sanger, American crusader for scientific contraception, family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.

 

 

The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time," predicted futurist and historian H.G. Wells in 1931. "When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine."

Though this prophecy of nearly 70 years ago credited one woman with the power that actually came from a wide and deep movement of women, no one person deserves it more. Now that reproductive freedom is becoming accepted and conservative groups are fighting to maintain control over women's bodies as the means of reproduction, Sanger's revolution may be even more controversial than during her 50-year career of national and international battles. Her experience can teach us many lessons.

She taught us, first, to look at the world as if women mattered. Born into an Irish working-class family, Margaret witnessed her mother's slow death, worn out after 18 pregnancies and 11 live births. While working as a practical nurse and midwife in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City in the years before World War I, she saw women deprived of their health, sexuality and ability to care for children already born. Contraceptive information was so suppressed by clergy-influenced, physician-accepted laws that it was a criminal offense to send it through the mail. Yet the educated had access to such information and could use subterfuge to buy "French" products, which were really condoms and other barrier methods, and "feminine hygiene" products, which were really spermicides.

It was this injustice that inspired Sanger to defy church and state. In a series of articles called "What Every Girl Should Know," then in her own newspaper The Woman Rebel and finally through neighborhood clinics that dispensed woman-controlled forms of birth control (a phrase she coined), Sanger put information and power into the hands of women.

While in Europe for a year to avoid severe criminal penalties, partly due to her political radicalism, partly for violating postal obscenity laws, she learned more about contraception, the politics of sexuality and the commonality of women's experience. Her case was dismissed after her return to the States. Sanger continued to push legal and social boundaries by initiating sex counseling, founding the American Birth Control League (which became, in 1942, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and organizing the first international population conference. Eventually her work would extend as far as Japan and India, where organizations she helped start still flourish.

Sanger was past 80 when she saw the first marketing of a contraceptive pill, which she had helped develop. But legal change was slow. It took until 1965, a year before her death, for the Supreme Court to strike down a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraception, even by married couples. Extended to unmarried couples only in 1972, this constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy would become as important to women's equality as the vote. In 1973 the right to privacy was extended to the abortion decision of a woman and her physician, thus making abortion a safe and legal alternative — unlike the $5 illegal butcheries of Sanger's day.

One can imagine Sanger's response to the current anti-choice lobby and congressional leadership that opposes abortion, sex education in schools, and federally funded contraceptive programs that would make abortion less necessary; that supports ownership of young women's bodies through parental-consent laws; that limits poor women's choices by denying Medicaid funding; and that holds hostage the entire U.S. billion-dollar debt to the United Nations in the hope of attaching an antiabortion rider. As in her day, the question seems to be less about what gets decided than who has the power to make the decision.

One can also imagine her response to pro-life rhetoric being used to justify an average of one clinic bombing or arson per month — sometimes the same clinics Sanger helped found — and the murder of six clinic staff members, the attempted murder of 15 others, and assault and battery against 104 more. In each case, the justification is that potential fetal life is more important than a living woman's health or freedom.

What are mistakes in our era that parallel those of Sanger's? There is still an effort to distort her goal of giving women control over their bodies by attributing such quotes to Sanger as "More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control." Sanger didn't say those words; in fact, she condemned them as a eugenicist argument for "cradle competition." To her, poor mental development was largely the result of poverty, overpopulation and the lack of attention to children. She correctly foresaw racism as the nation's major challenge, conducted surveys that countered stereotypes regarding the black community and birth control, and established clinics in the rural South with the help of such African-American leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Nonetheless, expediency caused Sanger to distance herself from her radical past; for instance, she used soft phrases such as "family planning" instead of her original, more pointed argument that the poor were being manipulated into producing an endless supply of cheap labor. She also adopted the mainstream eugenics language of the day, partly as a tactic, since many eugenicists opposed birth control on the grounds that the educated would use it more. Though her own work was directed toward voluntary birth control and public health programs, her use of eugenics language probably helped justify sterilization abuse. Her misjudgments should cause us to wonder what parallel errors we are making now and to question any tactics that fail to embody the ends we hope to achieve.

Sanger led by example. Her brave and joyous life included fulfilling work, three children, two husbands, many lovers and an international network of friends and colleagues. She was charismatic and sometimes quixotic, but she never abandoned her focus on women's freedom and its larger implications for social justice (an inspiration that continues through Ellen Chesler's excellent biography, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America). Indeed, she lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the century.
 


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The pioneering work of Margaret Higgins Sanger (1884-1966), American crusader for scientific contraception, family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.

Margaret Higgins was born on Sept. 14, 1884, in Corning, N.Y. Her father was a thoroughgoing freethinker. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic who had eleven children before dying of tuberculosis. Although Margaret was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. After graduating from the local high school and from Claverack College at Hudson, N.Y., she took nurse's training. She moved to New York City and served in the poverty-stricken slums of its East Side. In 1902 she married William Sanger. Although plagued by tuberculosis, she had her first child, a son, the next year. She had another son by Sanger, as well as a daughter who died in childhood.

Margaret Sanger's experiences with slum mothers who begged for information about how to avoid more pregnancies transformed her into a social radical. She joined the Socialist party, began attending radical rallies, and read everything she could about birth control practices. She became convinced that oversized families were the basic cause of poverty. In 1913 she began publishing a monthly newspaper, the Woman Rebel, in which she passionately urged family limitation and first used the term "birth control." After only six issues, she was arrested and indicted for distributing "obscene" literature through the mails. She fled to Europe, where she continued her birth control studies, visiting clinics and talking with medical researchers.

Sanger returned to the United States in 1916 and, after dismissal of the indictment against her, began nationwide lecturing. In New York City she and her associates opened a birth control clinic in a slum area to give out contraceptive information and materials. This time she was arrested under state law. She spent a month in prison, as did her sister. Leaving prison in 1917, Sanger intensified her activities, lecturing, raising money from a group of wealthy patrons in New York, and launching the Birth Control Review, which became the organ of her movement for 23 years. Encouraged by a state court decision that liberalized New York's anti contraceptive statute, she shifted her movement's emphasis from direct action and open resistance to efforts to secure more permissive state and Federal laws. Although regularly in trouble with New York City authorities, she continued lecturing to large crowds and keeping in touch with European contraceptive research. Her brilliantly successful visit to Japan in 1922 was the first of several Asian trips. A year later she and her friends opened clinical research bureaus to gather medical histories and dispense birth control information in New York City and Chicago. By 1930 there were 55 clinics across the United States. Meanwhile Sanger obtained a divorce and married J. Noah H. Slee.

Margaret Sanger's fame became worldwide in 1927, when she helped organize and spoke before the first World Population Conference at Geneva, Switzerland. She and her follower continued to lobby for freer state and Federal laws on contraception and for the dissemination of birth control knowledge through welfare programs. By 1940 the American birth control movement was operating a thriving clinic program and enjoying general acceptance by the medical profession and an increasingly favorable public attitude.

For most Americans, Margaret Sanger was the birth control movement. During World War II her popularity continued to grow, despite her opposition to United States participation in the war based on her conviction that wars were the result of excess national population growth. In 1946 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This was one of her last great moments. She was troubled by a weak heart during her last 20 years, although she continued traveling, lecturing, and issuing frequent statements. She died in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 6, 1966.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008