Margaret Sanger


Born: September 14, 1879. Corning, New York
Died: September 6, 1966. Tucson, Arizona.
Occupation: Nurse and Activist
Short Description: A nurse, activist, and educator, Margaret Sanger founded the birth control movement at the turn of the 20th century.

Margaret Sanger was a proponent for the availability of birth control and contraceptives and their use by women. She lobbied for the repeal of the Comstock laws, which banned the distribution of contraceptive medications, devices, and information through the mail, and she challenged them by distributing contraceptives and instructional literature. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Her efforts led to the legalization and wide-spread usage of contraceptives in the United States.

When Sanger was 19 years old, her 50-year-old mother died of tuberculosis. Anne Higgins had born eleven children and suffered seven miscarriages. Sanger believed that her mother's repeated pregnancies had weakened her body to the extent that she was unable to recover from the illness. Following her mother's death, Sanger attended nursing school. She later worked as a visiting nurse in the impoverished neighborhoods of New York City's Lower East Side. Many of her patients were poor, immigrant women suffering the health consequences of botched abortions and repeated pregnancies. Believing that the ability to limit family size was a key component to maintaining women's health and breaking the cycle of poverty, she redirected her attention from nursing to advocating for the use and legalization of birth control and contraceptives. Sanger was charged in 1915 with illegally distributing diaphragms through the mail, and in 1916 she was arrested for opening the country's first birth control clinic. While Sanger was found guilty of breaking the Comstock laws, the court decision allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives to women for medical reasons.

Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 as a part of an education and publicity campaign to gain support for birth control. According to Esther Katz, editor and director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Sanger "initially sought the support of liberal proponents of scientific eugenics in an effort to gather mainstream support for birth control. She then began championing birth control for those with hereditary mental or physical defects, even supporting forced sterilization for the mentally incompetent. Indeed, drafts of the speeches she gave to pro-eugenics audiences indicate that she deliberately chose strong language designed to link birth control to their interest in heredity and social reform." ¹

Sanger retired in the early 1940s and had moved to Tucson, Arizona by 1942. She continued to advocate for birth control in the United States and abroad. She refocused her attention towards a medical approach to pregnancy prevention. With funding from International Harvester heiress Katharine McCormick, Sanger recruited researcher Gregory Pincus to develop an oral contraceptive or "magic pill." The result, Enovid, was approved for usage by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Sanger died in 1966 at the age of 86.

  • 1: The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger; Esther Katz; The Public Historian, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1995), pp. 41-50 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Council on Public History.