|Born||September 14, 1879 |
Corning, New York
|Died||September 6, 1966 |
Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist, an advocate of certain aspects of eugenics, and the founder of the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood). Initially meeting with fierce opposition to her ideas, Sanger gradually won the support of the public and the courts for a woman's choice to decide how and when she will bear children. Though her support of eugenics was less well received, Margaret Sanger was instrumental in opening the way to universal access to birth control.
Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Roman Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births) before dying of tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Sanger attended Claverack College, a boarding school in Hudson for two years. Her sisters paid her tuition, and when they were unable to continue to provide this assistance, Sanger returned home in 1899. Her mother died the same year, after which Sanger enrolled in a nursing program at a hospital in White Plains, an affluent New York suburb. In 1902, she married William Sanger. Although stricken by tuberculosis, she gave birth to a son the following year, followed in later years by a second son and a daughter who died in childhood. Sanger's ill health, marriage and subsequent pregnancy prevented her from completing her third year of training and attaining a certification, though her new husband assured her that he would care for her and that she would be better off raising their children than pursuing a career.
In 1912, after a devastating fire destroyed the new home that her husband had designed, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the poverty-stricken East Side slums of Manhattan. That same year, she also started writing a column for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to poor women, Sanger repeatedly risked scandal and imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.
Margaret separated from her husband William Sanger in 1913. In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, a monthly newsletter advocating contraception (and coining the term "birth control") and that each woman be "the absolute mistress of her own body." She was indicted for violating postal obscenity laws in August and fled to Europe as "Bertha Watson" to escape prosecution. There, she had several affairs, including with the science-fiction author H. G. Wells and sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis. She returned to the U.S. in Oct. 1915. Her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, died Nov. 6.
On Oct. 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided nine days later by the police. She served 30 days in prison. An initial appeal was rejected but a state appellate court in 1918 allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.
In 1916, Sanger published What Every Girl Should Know, which was later widely distributed as one of the E. Haldeman-Julius "Little Blue Books." It not only provided basic information about such topics as menstruation, but also promoted an understanding of sexuality in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every Mother Should Know. She also launched the monthly periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News and contributed articles on health for the Socialist Party paper, The Call.
Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921 with Lothrop Stoddard and C. C. Little. In 1922, she traveled to Japan to work with Japanese feminist Kato Shidzue promoting birth control; over the next several years, she would return another six times for this purpose. In this year, she also married oil tycoon James Noah H. Slee. In 1923, under the auspices of the ABCL, she established the Clinical Research Bureau. It was the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. (renamed Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in her honor in 1940). That year, she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president of until its dissolution in 1937 after birth control under medical supervision was legalized in many states. In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.
Between 1921 and 1926, Sanger received over a million letters from mothers requesting information on birth control. From 1916 on, she lectured "in many places—halls, churches, women's clubs, homes, theaters" to "many types of audiences—cotton workers, churchmen, liberals, Socialists, scientists, clubmen, and fashionable, philanthropically minded women." In 1926, in what she called "one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing", Sanger even gave a lecture on birth control to the women's auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey, a group she found so ignorant she had to use only "the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand."
In 1928, Sanger resigned as the president of the ABCL. Two years later, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In January 1932, she addressed the New History Society, an organization founded by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and Julie Chanler; this address would later become the basis for an article entitled A Plan for Peace. In 1937, Sanger became chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications, The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News. From 1939 to 1942, she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America. From 1952 to 1959, she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time, the largest private international family planning organization.
During the 1960 presidential elections, Sanger was dismayed by candidate John F. Kennedy's position on birth control (Kennedy did not believe birth control should be a matter of government policy). She threatened to leave the country if Kennedy were elected, but evidently reconsidered after Kennedy won the election.
In the early 1960s, Sanger promoted the use of the newly available birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics.
Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona at age 86 which was eight days from her 87th birthday and only a few months after the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the U.S., the apex of her 50-year struggle.
Sanger's books include Woman and the New Race (1920), Happiness in Marriage (1926), My Fight For Birth Control (1931), and an autobiography (1938).
Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's understanding of women's health and childbirth. She also criticized the censorship of her message about sexuality and contraceptives by the civil and religious authorities as an effort by men to keep women in submission. An atheist, Sanger attacked Christian leaders opposed to her message, accusing them of Obscurantism and insensitivity to women's concerns. Sanger was particularly critical of the lack of awareness of the dangers of and the scarcity of treatment opportunities for venereal disease among women. She claimed that these social ills were the result of the male establishment's intentionally keeping women in ignorance. Sanger also deplored the contemporary absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration of those with infectious diseases such as measles).
Sanger was also an avowed socialist, blaming the evils of contemporary capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of the young working-class women. Her views on this issue are evident in the last pages of What Every Girl Should Know.
While Sanger's understanding of and practical approach to human physiology were progressive for her times, her thoughts on the psychology of human sexuality place her squarely in the pre-Freudian 19th century. Birth control, it would appear, was for her more a means to limit the undesirable side-effects of sex than a way of liberating men and women to enjoy it. In What Every Girl Should Know, she wrote: "Every normal man and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse. Men and woman who have it in control and constantly use their brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sexuality, for her, was a kind of weakness, and surmounting it indicated strength:
Her thoughts on human development were also laden with racism (though it should be noted that she held to the generally accepted standards of her day):
Sanger, like most of the population of her time, also considered masturbation dangerous:
For her, masturbation was not just a physical act, it was a mental state:
Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, a social philosophy claiming that human hereditary traits can be improved through social intervention. Methods of social intervention (targeted at those seen as "genetically unfit") advocated by eugenists have included selective breeding, sterilization, and euthanasia. In 1932, for example, Sanger argued for:
A stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.
With advances in biology and genetics, it has become clear that the policies Sanger advocated to prevent the disabled from reproducing would in practice be ineffective. However, in the early 20th century, the eugenics movement, in which Sanger was prominently involved, gained strong support in the United States.
Sanger promoted the idea of "race hygiene" – meaning the human race, not the idea of race as ethnicity – through "negative eugenics," though her writings do not indicate that she believed that any particular (ethnic) race as a whole was more eugenic or dysgenic than any other, and she condemned the anti-Semitic Nazi program as "sad & horrible."
Of this, she said, "The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics." 
Sanger saw birth control as a means to prevent "dysgenic" children from being born into a disadvantaged life, and dismissed "positive eugenics" (which promoted greater fertility for the "fitter" upper classes) as impractical. Though many leaders in the eugenics movement were calling for active euthanasia of the "unfit," Sanger spoke out against such methods. Edwin Black writes:
In [William] Robinson's book, Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control (Practical Eugenics), he advocated gassing the children of the unfit. In plain words, Robinson insisted: 'The best thing would be to gently chloroform these children or give them a dose of potassium cyanide.' Margaret Sanger was well aware that her fellow birth control advocates were promoting lethal chambers, but she herself rejected the idea completely. 'Nor do we believe,' wrote Sanger in Pivot of Civilization, 'that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.'
She maintained, however, that she advocated certain instances of coercion: "The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind."
Sanger was an avid defender of free speech who was arrested at least eight times for expressing her views in a time when speaking publicly in favor of birth control was illegal. She stated in interviews that she had been influenced by the agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll, who spoke in her hometown when she was 12 years old.
Sanger remains a controversial figure. While she is widely credited as a leader of the modern birth control movement, and remains an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements, she also is reviled by some who condemn her as "an abortion advocate" (perhaps unfairly so: abortion was illegal during Sanger's lifetime and Planned Parenthood did not then support the procedure or lobby for its legalisation). Groups opposed to Planned Parenthood and/or legalized abortion have frequently targeted Sanger for her views, attributing her efforts to promote birth control to a desire to "purify" the human race through eugenics, and even to eliminate minority races by placing birth control clinics in minority neighborhoods. For this reason, Sanger is often quoted selectively or out of context by detractors (a practice known as quote mining), and her history and involvement with socialism and eugenics have often been rationalized or even ignored by her defenders and biographers (a practice known as spin doctoring). Despite the allegations of racism, Sanger's work with minorities earned the respect of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. In their biographical article about Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood notes:
In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city's health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community's elder statesman, W.E.B. DuBois.
Although Sanger's views on abortion (like many of her opinions) changed throughout the course of her life, in her early years she was acutely aware of the problem of abortion, typically self-induced or with the aid of a midwife. Her opposition to abortion stemmed primarily from a concern for the dangers to the mother, and less so from legal concerns or the welfare of the unborn child. She wrote in a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, "no one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable," though she framed this in the context of her birth control advocacy, adding that "abortions will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. (Care is) the only cure for abortions." Sanger consistently regarded birth control and abortion as the responsibility and burden first and foremost of women, and as matters of law, medicine and public policy second.
Sanger's 1938 autobiography notes her 1916 opposition to abortion as the taking of life: "To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun."