Sanger, Margaret, 1879-1966

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1879-09-14
Death 1966-09-06
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Margaret Louise Higgins was born in Corning, New York, on September 15, 1879, the sixth of eleven children and the third of four daughters born to Anne Purcell Higgins and Michael Hennessey Higgins, a stone mason. Her two elder sisters worked to supplement the family income, and financed her education at Claverack College, a private coeducational preparatory school in the Catskills. After leaving Claverack, Higgins took a job teaching first grade to immigrant children, but decided after a short time that the work did not suit her temperament. She returned to Corning where her mother, then only forty-nine years old, was dying of tuberculosis. Margaret Higgins blamed her mother's untimely death, as well as her sisters' need to sacrifice their own ambitions to support the family, on her parents' high fertility. Though she loved and admired her father, she resented his demand that she take her mother's place managing the household. Shortly after her Anne Higgins's death, Margaret Higgins left Corning for White Plains, New York, where she entered nursing school.

In 1902, after completing two years of practical nursing training and gaining acceptance to a three-year degree program, Higgins met and married William Sanger, an architect and aspiring artist. By 1910 Margaret Sanger had survived her own bout with tuberculosis and given birth to three children (Stuart, 1903; Grant, 1908; and Peggy, 1910), but was chafing inside her role as a traditional housewife and mother in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Later that year the family moved to Manhattan where, through her work as a home nurse on the Lower East Side and her political involvements with the International Workers of the World and anarchist Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger was drawn into the burgeoning struggle for women's right to control their sexuality and fertility. By 1912 Sanger was widely recognized as a writer and speaker about sex reform. Later that year she became a regular contributor to the socialist newspaper The Call, where she published a series of articles on sexual hygiene. One of these, an article about syphilis published in February 1913, was targeted by the U.S. Post Office under the Comstock Act of 1873, which banned the distribution of sexually-related material through the U.S. mail. This repression of her writings, combined with her exposure to the damages done to women by repeated childbirths and self-induced abortions, led to Sanger's decision to devote herself entirely to the birth control movement. By 1914 she had separated from her husband, written a pamphlet entitled Family Limitation which coined the term "birth control," traveled to Europe to research new contraceptive methods, and set out to establish a system of advice centers where women throughout the U.S. could obtain reliable birth control information.

Sanger's use of radical tactics to educate women about birth control, especially her publication of the radical journal The Woman Rebel, brought her once again to the attention of the U.S. Postal Service. When the U.S. government brought charges against her, Sanger fled to Europe where she befriended the sex reformer Havelock Ellis, who encouraged her to avoid radical political rhetoric and reframe her writings in the language of the social sciences. The pneumonia death of five-year-old Peggy Sanger, which occurred shortly after her mother's return to the New York in October 1915, devastated Margaret Sanger. But Peggy's death, in tandem with William Sanger's arrest for distributing a copy of Family Limitation, aroused considerable public sympathy for Sanger, which, in turn, led the U.S. government to drop its earlier charges against her. More convinced than ever of the need to legalize birth control, Sanger and her younger sister Ethel Byrne opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn in October 1916 and, for ten days before the police closed it down, the two dispensed contraceptive advice to 488 women. Tried and imprisoned for her work, Margaret Sanger became a national figure. On appeal, Sanger won a clarification of the New York law forbidding the dissemination of contraceptive information. The Judge, Frederick Crane, rejected Sanger's argument that, because it forced women to risk death in pregnancy, the law was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Crane did establish doctors' right to provide women with contraceptive advice for "the cure and prevention of disease."

Interpreting Crane's decision broadly as a mandate for birth control clinics staffed by doctors, Sanger completed the strategic and tactical transformation she had begun at Havelock Ellis's suggestion. Sanger minimized her radical past and began to stress eugenic arguments for birth control over feminist ones. In doing so, she gained increasing support from both medical professionals and philanthropists; in 1921 such backing allowed her to organize the American Birth Control League, which would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. In 1923, aided by her second husband, millionaire J. Noah Slee, Sanger opened the first doctor-staffed contraceptive clinic in the U.S., the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City, under the direction of Dr. Hannah Stone. In addition to dispensing birth control information and devices, the Bureau trained hundreds of physicians in contraceptive techniques and served as a model for the national network of 300 clinics Sanger and her supporters would establish over the next fifteen years. In 1925 Sanger convinced her old friend Herbert Simonds to found the Holland Rantos Company, which became the first American company to produce the diaphragm. Between 1929 and 1936 Sanger and her lobbying group, the Committee on Federation legislation for Birth Control, waged a series of court battles which culminated in United States v. One Package, which overturned the old statutes by permitting the mailing of contraceptive devices intended for physicians. Sanger's victory in this case led the American Medical Association to endorse contraception as a legitimate medical service and a vital component of medical education in 1937.

After the U.S. v. One Package Victory Sanger retired to Tucson, Arizona determined to play less central role in the birth control movement, yet her influence continued. In 1952 Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as the organization's first president. Also in the 1950s she won philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick's financial support for Gregory Pincus's work on the development of the birth control pill. Margaret Sanger died of congestive heart failure in Tucson on September 6, 1966.

From the guide to the Margaret Sanger Papers MS 138., 1761-1995, 1900-1966, (Sophia Smith Collection)

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Subjects:

  • Human reproduction--Political aspects--History--Sources
  • Liberalism
  • Birth control
  • Population policy--History--20th century--Sources
  • Science and medicine
  • Corning (N.Y.)
  • Contraception
  • Feminists--Archives
  • Marriage--History--20th century
  • Activism and social reform
  • Women's health services--History
  • Women--Health and hygiene--History--20th century--Sources
  • Sex instruction
  • Birth control--History--20th century--Sources
  • Sterilization (Birth control)--History
  • Women's rights--History
  • Birth control clinics--History
  • Women political activists--Archives
  • Hygiene, Sexual--History--20th century--Sources
  • Birth control clinics
  • Socialism
  • Public Health--History
  • Sexual health--History--20th century
  • Sex instruction--United States--History--Sources
  • Sex instruction--History
  • Sexual health
  • Eugenics--history
  • Social advocacy
  • Birth control--Developing countries--History--Sources
  • Social action
  • Women social reformers--Archives
  • Nativism--History
  • Women's rights--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Human reproduction--Political aspects
  • Eugenics--United States--History--Sources
  • Marriage--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Birth control clinics--History--Sources
  • Women--Health and hygiene--History
  • Social problems
  • Birth control--United States
  • Birth control--History
  • Reproductive rights--United States

Occupations:

  • Reformers
  • Nurses
  • Authors

Places:

  • Corning, NY, US
  • Tucson, AZ, US