Margaret Sanger

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Margaret Sanger, the founder of the women's reproductive rights movement, was born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York. Her parents were Michael Hennessey Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins, poor devout Irish Catholics. She was the sixth of 11 children. Her mother died at 50 after living through 18 pregnancies, 7 of which were miscarriages. Sanger attributed her mother’s death to be the result of repeated and frequent pregnancies.

She attended Claverack College and then studied nursing at White Plains Hospital in 1900. In 1902, she married William Sanger and moved to Hasting, New York. They had three children in Hastings before moving down to New York City in 1910.

In order to help support her family while in living New York City, Sanger worked as a visiting maternity nurse on the Lower East Side. While there, she delivered babies in the homes of mostly poor, immigrant women who suffered from frequent childbirth, miscarriages and abortions. The women that she helped had no access to either birth control or information on preventing pregnancies and as a result, had no knowledge of how to prevent their pregnancies. They often resorted to illegal “five dollar” abortions or attempted to self-induce abortions in order to rid themselves of the burden of another child. This frequently resulted in the death of both the mother and child.

"Tales were poured into my ears -- a baby born dead, great relief -- the death of an older child, sorrow but again relief of a sort -- the story told a thousand times of death from abortion and children going into institutions. I shuddered with horror as I listened to the details and studied the reasons back of them -- destitution linked with excessive childbearing. The waste of life seemed utterly senseless."

It was through these experiences, along with the death of her mother, that Sanger developed the idea that a woman must be free to be able to control her own body and reproduction.

“My fight is for the personal liberty of the women who work. A woman’s body belongs to herself alone. It is her body. It does not belong to the Church. It does not belong to the United States of America or to any other Government of the face of the earth. The first step toward getting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for any woman is her decision whether or not she shall become a mother. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.” (The Woman Rebel, article “Suppression” Vol.1., No.4., June 1914)

She believed that birth control to limit family size was an essential tool to aid the working-class woman from the economic and physical burden of unwanted pregnancy.It was to these ends that she began challenging the Comstock Law which outlawed contraceptives and any information on them, and worked to insure that women received contraceptive education, counseling and service.

Her first challenges to the Comstock Laws came in 1912, when she published a series of sex education articles, “What Every Girl Should Know”, in the New York Call. These articles were suppressed because they were deemed to be obscene. In 1914, Sanger published The Woman Rebel which advocated the use of birth control techniques she had learned while in Europe. She received her first federal indictment for this publication. No charges were pressed due to public sentiments after the death of her 5 year old daughter. In order to increase publicity and support for the movement, Margaret Sanger went on tour throughout the US giving speeches and often getting arrested.

In 1914, Margaret Sanger separated from her husband William Sanger. She had a series of affairs with various men including H. G. Wells before marrying James Noah H Slee, an oil magnate. Slee was the major funder of the reproductive rights movement.

On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Bryne opened the first birth control clinic in the US on 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn. Every morning there were lines of men and women waiting to be seen that formed before they even opened. Sanger and Bryne, both nurses, would explain birth control techniques to both men and women and then refer the women to pharmacies that Sanger had arranged in advance to have large quantities of pessaries on hand. (Pessaries were illegal for birth control purposes but common methods to treat other aliments like prolapsed uteruses and thus could be purchased at pharmacies.) On the tenth day, after serving 448 people, Sanger and her sister were arrested by the police for violations of the Comstock Laws and the clinic was closed. Both were convicted and received jail time, in Sanger’s case only a month. The publicity the arrests received resulted in the increase of support from wealthy philanthropists. Sanger appealed the conviction and it was upheld. The New York State appellate court, however, exempted physicians from the Comstock laws prohibiting distribution of contraceptive information. The NY court ruling permitted Sanger to open a legal doctor run clinic in 1923 called the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau.

The next decade is filled with court cases expanding the reproductive rights of women and the opening of more clinics. During this time, Sanger traveled throughout the US and the World lecturing. After the merger of the American Birth Control League (1921) and the Birth Control Research Bureau (1923) into the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 (renamed Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. in 1942), Sanger retired to Tucson, AZ. Although retired, she remained a vocal advocate and supporter of the movement through the writing of numerous letters and publications. In 1952, she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Margaret Sanger died on September 6, 1966, less than a year after seeing birth control legalized for married couples by the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut.

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Last Updated 10/6/04
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