Margaret Sanger


The best known of the leaders of the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger, was the catalyst of momentous change for not only American women, but also throughout the world. More than any other single person, she originated the mindset that allowed for rational control of human population, after millions of others throughout the millennia of history chose to ignore fundamental issues of reproduction.

She was much influenced in this by her childhood in upstate New York. The death of her Irish-Catholic mother at forty-nine was officially due to tuberculosis, but doubtless it was hastened by interminable pregnancies that resulted in eleven live births. Moreover, Margaret’s mother bore most of the responsibilities for this brood alone, for her father was a lovable but impractical political activist whose family lived in poverty. From her youth, she resolved that she would not repeat her mother’s sad history.

This determination became a crusade with another epiphany much later when she was working as a nurse. First, however, Margaret Higgins completed her education with three years at a small college in the Catskills, where she worked for her room and board while her older sisters paid the tuition. After graduation, she returned to the only work open to most educated women and became a teacher; like many others, she discovered that not all women belong in that occupation. She turned to the second profession common to the era’s women and completed two years of training as a practical nurse in 1902. This brought her to New York City, where William Sanger, an architect/artist, pressured her into marriage.

At twenty-three, she was past the usual age to wed and Sanger, who shared her yearnings for a sophisticated life, seemed an ideal husband. Within months, however, she was repeating her mother’s history: tubercular and pregnant, she almost died with the birth of her first baby. Her husband was a more cosmopolitan man than her father had ever been, however, and there was no second pregnancy for five years. Even while her physical health recovered, however, Sanger denied her deteriorating mental health to pour herself  into her husband’s career. The house they built in affluent Hastings-on-the-Hudson not only absorbed her energies, but also served as a symbol of the financial security she had not known as a child. With the birth of a second son in 1908 and a daughter in 1910, Margaret Sanger seemed headed towards the life of a stereotypical suburban housewife.

And then her house burned. Sanger wrote vividly in her autobiography of this: as she watched the destruction of a specially-designed stained glass window of a rose, she suddenly understood the futility of investing energy in ephemeral things. Liberated by her loss, she determined that she would return to the more significant life that she had intended to live. The Sangers went back to New York City, where they lived among the Progressive Era’s activists, and she began working as a visiting nurse among the poor of the Lower East Side.

Most of these were immigrant women, and it was in this setting that Sanger’s final epiphany occurred with the death of one of her patients, Sadie Sacks. Like other Jewish women, Sacks’ religion taught her no prohibition of contraception or abortion, but in practical fact, she could not get the information she needed to safely prevent pregnancy. After her physician spurned Sacks’ request for help in limiting her family, she tried to induce an abortion and paid with her life for her state-imposed ignorance. The experience redoubled Sanger’s resolve.

When the great Lawrence Textile Strike erupted in 1912, she joined Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other Socialists in Massachusetts. She nursed the sick, accompanied the children taken to New York, and demonstrated the same activist principles with strikes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania the following year. Late in 1912, she also began writing for The Call, a radical publication that prompted much of the Progressive agenda. Sanger, however, was unique in her perspective, for she saw – in a way that unlike most of the writers of her time – how problems of poverty were directly related to the status of women.

One of the problems that literally destroyed the lives of women and their families was venereal disease, but this was ignored even by radicals. When Sanger wrote about syphilis for The Call on February 9, 1913, the post office refused to deliver the magazine and threatened arrest under the Comstock Law. Thus it was actually venereal disease, not birth control that initiated Sanger’s battles with authority. Court cases fundamental to constitutional issues of freedom of expression would continue through the rest of her life, as Sanger struggled to educate women about their bodies.

At the time, virtually all Americans associated the use of any birth control technique with prostitution, and the very notion of a respectable woman seeking to become an expert on this subject was beyond public credulity. Sanger’s trip to Scotland and France late in 1913 thus was motivated by a desire to seek information that could not be imported for reading in the U.S. Returning from Europe better informed, she began publishing the Woman Rebel  in March, 1914. Postal inspectors were watching her, however, and even though the journal included no specific contraceptive information, its feminism was too overt for Comstockians. She was arrested and indicted by an all-male grand jury. Despite the outbreak of World War I in August, Sanger fled to Europe in October.

She would remain there until October of the next year, while Mary Ware Dennett took over the leadership of the National Birth Control League that Sanger had begun in 1914. Sanger meanwhile put her time in Europe to good use. Mentored by midwives in Dutch clinics, she learned to use the diaphragm invented by a female physician and studied the methods of the birth control counselors for replication in this country. She not only learned from famous psychologist Havelock Ellis, but also began a long affair with him. Meanwhile, William Sanger, to whom she was still married although they were increasingly estranged, was arrested for distributing Family Limitation, a pamphlet that she had written before departure. Their troubles compounded when their only daughter, named for her mother but called Peggy, died of pneumonia at age five.

Margaret Sanger’s profound grief and guilt at her absence from the child was only slightly assuaged when the government dropped its charges against her soon after the death of Anthony Comstock. Within a year, Sanger found the strength to carry on with her plan. Inspired by the memory of her daughter, she continued her birth control crusade, for her aim was not merely to liberate mothers, but also to improve the physical and psychological lives of children. The strength of her belief in the importance of families capable of nurturing their offspring was well expressed in the phrase that she coined: “Every child a wanted child.”

With her sister, Ethel Byrne, Sanger opened a clinic in a blue-collar area of Brooklyn in October, 1916. The demand for their services and for the diaphragms they smuggled in from Europe was clear: Almost five hundred women visited the clinic in the ten days it operated before police closed it down. Charged with creating a public nuisance, both Sanger and Byrne were imprisoned for thirty days. As was the case with the jailing of the Suffrage Movement women during the same era, however, the government’s strategy may have won the battle but lost the war. Many newspapers wrote sympathetically but these middle-class women were imprisoned for sharing their professional knowledge. Though the trial jury returned a verdict of guilty, they won a partial victory on appeal in 1918.

Although the appellate court ruled against Sanger’s claims relating directly to women’s reproductive rights, it did allow physicians to give advice on the prevention of venereal disease. Thus, Sanger belatedly won a decision relevant to her article in 1913 on syphilis. For decades, thereafter, condoms and similar items were labeled “for the prevention of disease only” – while millions of Americans, mostly male, actually bought them for pregnancy prevention.

The court decision seems key to Sanger’s changed approach thereafter. Much more cautious as she aged, she accepted the “doctors only” limitations. While the authorities directed more attention to Mary Dennett in the postwar era, Sanger increasingly developed a persona of scientific researcher rather than feminist agitator. Instead of the sort of articles she wrote for The Call, Sanger’s first book exhibited a changed tone.

Women and the New Race (1920) not only was respectful of physicians, but also of eugenicists, even those who argued for “racial purity.” She followed it up with The Pivot of Civilization (1922) which argued that reproductive rights and population control were pivotal to human progress. The global sweep of this reasoning marked a significant change in Sanger’s style: after World War I, her approach would emphasize the needs and rights of individual women.

In accordance with the mores of the Roaring Twenties, her emphasis was on the social rather than the political, and her writing aimed at encouraging female sexuality and romantic marriage. Sanger also saw money as more important after World War I than had been the case earlier. In the same year that Woman and the New Race was published, she finally divorced William Sanger, and less than two years later, married a wealthy businessman. Their premarital agreement was predicated both on her sexual freedom and access to his funds, but despite this seemingly mercenary approach, the relationship seemed happy. Retaining the Sanger name, she stayed married to John Slee until his death twenty-one years later.

Having organized the American Birth Control League in 1921, Sanger used funds from her 1922 marriage to open the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan in 1923. While she concentrated on fund-raising and public relations, Dr. Hannah Stone and a staff of mostly female physicians fulfilled the courts order. Unlike the earlier clinic, this one stayed in business and accumulated a valuable data base of patient records. Sanger used this information to demonstrate the safety of birth control.

Perhaps more important, professional sponsored by Sanger spread her message throughout the nation. While many of the clinics they established could not maintain themselves, these agents were more successful in persuading private doctors to educate themselves on contraception and to issue diaphragms to their patients. Meanwhile millions of Americans were obviously following Sanger’s lead, regardless of whether or not they acknowledged that. The nation’s birth rate dropped sharply during the Great Depression, even though the court’s liberating decision did not come until the Depression was over. Sanger’s birth control league changed its name during the first year of the war to Planned Parenthood Association. As the name implies, its emphasis was on attraction of middle-class support, while the needs of poor women were relegated to second place and the feminist and socialist rhetoric of the past was purged.

Despite the adoption of such conventionality, Sanger personally remained a sexually liberated woman with numerous lovers, though she was married for virtually all of her adult life. This unorthodox behavior doubtless had a negative effect on the acceptance of her ideas, but Sanger insisted that sexual freedom was an important empowerment for women. She argued that sensuality was a key to personal happiness – without which, she thought, women could not be effective at motherhood or at anything else. Sanger thus introduced ideas in the twenties that were not widely accepted until the “sexual revolution” of the sixties.

Not surprisingly, this part of her message made her anathema to the aging leaders of the Suffrage Movement. Sanger, who supported suffrage but was not active in its passage, had hoped that after it was won in 1920, suffrage leaders would see the struggle for reproductive rights as the next logical step for the women’s movement. Carrie Chapman Catt rebuffed Sanger’s 1920 approach, saying that Sanger not only inflated the importance of her cause, but also that Sanger’s ideas on sexual liberation of women could easily become sexual exploitation instead. Catt believed that instead of adopting male standards, women should force men to accept the more female morality. Sanger met similar responses from many others. Except for Dennett, with whom she quarreled, Margaret Sanger stood alone as the visible leader of the birth control movement for more than half a century.

Sanger and her husband moved to Arizona in 1937, but she never fully retired. The growth of fascism during this era kept her busy separating her principle of women’s liberation through birth control from the Nazi search for a superior race through birth control. In 1952, she took advantage of the public’s broadened horizons to serve as a founder of Planned Parenthood. She traveled through Asia promoting the cause, especially in Japan and India. Equally important, Sanger continued to raise money to finance research on a birth control pill. The first pills were on the market in 1960; when she died a mere six years later, millions of American women were taking them.

Having more than achieved her early goal of living a longer and more satisfying life than her mother, Sanger died in Tucson just days before her eighty-seventh birthday. She left two autobiographies, My Fight for Birth Control (1931) and Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938).



  • Reprinted with permission from: Doris Weatherford. American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events, (Prentice Hall, 1994), 305-308.