20th century / Humanities

A ‘Heroine of History’: Margaret Sanger, revolutionary birth control activist

By Jos Gibbons

Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879 – 1966) was a major contributor to women’s reproductive rights in the twentieth-century America. Her devout Catholic mother died of tuberculosis and cervical cancer after eighteen pregnancies, resulting in eleven live births, of which Margaret was the sixth. She enrolled in a nursing program after her mother’s death. Margaret’s father, Michael Higgins, was an activist for women’s suffrage, free public education and socialism, and Margaret eventually followed in his footsteps.

Becoming Margaret Sanger upon marriage in 1902, she was forced to move to New York City ten years later because the house in which she and her family of two young children were living was destroyed in a fire. Sanger took up a job with the New York Call, writing a column entitled What Every Girl Should Know, which dealt with menstruation and adolescent sexuality. Its contents became a 1916 book of the same name, followed by the 1917 sequel What Every Mother Should Know. She also distributed a pamphlet, Family Limitation, and defied the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the distribution of contraceptives and information about them.

Within two years of life in New York she had divorced her husband William and launched The Woman Rebel, specifically designed to challenge the Comstock Act. It was an eight-page monthly newsletter which, like her early work, promoted contraception. Historically, it is of significance for coining the term ‘birth control’. It also introduced Margaret Sanger’s slogan, ‘No Gods and No Masters’, and her view that a woman should be ‘absolute mistress of her own body’. Its July 1914 coverage of an unsuccessful assassination attempt of John D Rockefeller stated ‘Even if dynamite were to serve no other purpose than to call forth the spirit of revolutionary solidarity and loyalty, it would prove its greater value’, marking one of Sanger’s first descriptions of the tactics of revolution. She went on to prove herself effective at it.

Sanger’s work caused repeated legal controversy. Indicted for violating postal obscenity laws in August 1914, she fled to England (narrowly avoiding a 45-year prison sentence) under the alias ‘Bertha Watson’, during which time Family Limitation had become a book, and it went on to sell ten million copies as Sanger researched in England and the Netherlands. She returned to the U.S. in October 1915. She was then rearrested, and her daughter Peggy died weeks later.

1916 saw Sanger begin lecturing in a variety of venues and in front of audiences from churchmen to scientists. In October, she opened a family planning and birth control clinic just outside Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the nation. Within nine days police raided and imprisoned her for thirty days. Her appealing of the sentence was rejected, but in 1918 a state appellate court allowed doctors to prescribe contraception. Within six years of controversy, Sanger had helped changed the law to women’s benefit.

Sanger went on to launch the monthly periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News (which became two separate publications in 1937), co-found the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921, and promote birth control with feminist Kato Shidzue in Japan in 1922. Through the ABCL she established the Clinical Research Bureau, the first legal birth control clinic in America, in 1923. Rockefeller’s son provided funds to it as of 1924 (albeit anonymously), just a decade after Sanger had written so reverentially of the dynamite used in the assassination attempt against his father. The year 1923 also saw her form the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and she was president of it until its dissolution in 1937, as by then birth control under medical supervision was legalised in many states. Sanger received over a million letters from mothers from 1921 – 1926 asking for information on birth control. Following a talk on birth control to the women’s auxiliary of the KKK in 1926, whom she found to be extremely ignorant, she received many invitations to speak to other groups. She also helped organise the first World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927. The UN itself now carries on its work.

Sanger became president of the Birth Control International Information Centre in 1930 (a year when she also opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that was especially well-supported by African-American civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.) and chairperson of the Birth Council Federation of America in 1937. She was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America from 1939 to 1942, and president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation from 1952 to 1959, at a time when it was the largest private international family planning organisation. In the 1960s, she promoted the newly available birth control pill, and toured Europe, Africa and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics. She died several months after the Griswold v. Connecticut case legalised birth control for American married couples. By the time she died, she had been imprisoned eight times due to the illegality of speaking publicly in favour of birth control. In the year of her death, 1966, a US magazine named her woman of the century, and H G Wells called her the heroine of history.

Further Reading/References:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin, especially fond of her contributions to women’s rights, has a brief biography at ffrf.org/day/?day=14&month=9 while Wikipedia offers a more detailed account of her work and philosophy, with plenty of wider reading. See www.gutenberg.org/author/Margaret_Sanger to read two of her original works online and www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/sanger.htm for more details on Wells’s comments and her centrality to the women’s rights movement.

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