photo courtesy of the
Margaret Sanger Papers Project,
property of the Sophia Smith
Collection, Smith College
Margaret Sanger, the sixth child of eleven siblings, was born in 1879. Her devoutly Roman Catholic mother had 18 pregnancies and died of cervical cancer and tuberculosis at the age of 50. Her father was a stone mason; the family was 'working class'. She was an active supporter during the early 20th century labor struggles, including the 'Wobblies' as the Industrial Workers of the World were colloquially known.
With the assistance of her older sisters, she attended Claverack College and the Hudson River Institute in the late 1890s, and then the White Plains Hospital nursing program in 1900 in New York. Just before she graduated from the nursing program, she married architect William Sanger, and became a suburban housewife and mother of three.
She worked as a visiting nurse, which in addition to her family background, focused her interest on women's health and sex education, including subjects like contraception and sexually transmitted disease which were largely taboo (not unlike the limitations on abstinence only sex education now) and at the time illegal. Sanger wrote a column in the New York City paper, the New York Call, on sex education, where she encountered censorship in writing about venereal disease because the medical information was deemed obscene. Her nursing career focused on attending poor women; she recognized as a result the importance of being able to solve the critical health issues of too-frequent and unwanted pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion, as a causal factor in poverty, disease, and too early deaths for women.
Sanger began by challenging the federal Comstock Law of 1873 and the 24 state laws which imitated it at the state level. The Comstock Law had amended the Post Office Act to make it illegal to send 'obscene, lewd or lascivious material' including educational material on contraception or abortion, or any actual contraception device or product, and of course, any of the common modern sex 'toy' items like vibrators. (For the clock stoppers, the conservatives, these were the golden good old days of the Ulysses S. Grant administration to which they would like to return.) In 1914, Sanger published three issues of The Woman Rebel, a feminist and pro-contraception women's newspaper which led to her being indicted for violating the Comstock laws. To avoid conviction and lengthy incarceration, Sanger jumped bail, and sailed to England under the alias Bertha Watson, leaving instructions for friends to issue a pamphlet on contraception methods titled "Family Limitation", the term at the time for family planning.
The Comstock laws began to disintegrate under the legal challenges of Margaret Sanger and her husband when their convictions were overturned on appeal during World War I, establishing that contraception was permissible for the prevention and cure of disease. For context, U.S. soldiers were the only military of the Allied Forces that were not provided condoms, resulting in far greater incidence of venereal disease. Devices such as condoms were not made legal for birth control (only for disease prevention) until twenty years later.
We take birth control so for granted, that too often we do not realize that there was a legal battle to make it available and decriminalized in the 19th and 20th century. Sanger was a party in 1932 to a challenge to the Comstock Laws on contraception:
In 1932, Sanger arranged for a shipment of diaphragms to be mailed from Japan to a sympathetic doctor in New York City. When U.S. customs confiscated the package as illegal contraceptive devices, Sanger helped file a lawsuit. In 1936, a federal appeals court ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients.Contraception, that recently, could be limited legally to married people, and denied to unmarried people. The premise was the same as the premise of abstinence only sex ed, that to deny people the knowledge of how to control reproduction and preventing access to birth control would make people stop having sex. That puritanical notion didn't work then, and it doesn't work now; more profoundly, the promotion of ignorance has disastrous consequences. But we still spend tens of millions of dollars on abstinence only sex education, and the current conservative majority is trying to make affordable contraception unavailable, 'for our own good'. To deny people knowledge and control of their bodies, and their sexuality, is paternalistic; it is the ultimate in distrusting people to make their own decisions.
In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut struck down one of the remaining contraception Comstock laws in Connecticut and Massachusetts. However, Griswold only applied to marital relationships. Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended its holding to unmarried persons as well.
In 1917 Sanger started the periodical, The Birth Control Review, and in 1921 organized the Birth Control League, to promote changes to win mainstream support for birth control. The American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau merged in 1939, to become theBirth Control Federation of America, which changed their name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in the 1950s.
Sanger retired from the Birth Control movement for a while, but later returned to her life's cause, promoting its expansion internationally, and advanced the frontiers of birth control science as well:
World War II refocused Sanger's attention on international aspects of the birth control movement. She had traveled extensively in the early 1920's and 1930's to lecture on birth control in Asia and Europe. In 1930 she organized the Birth Control International Information Centre with British feminist Edith How-Martyn to serve as a clearinghouse for information. By the end of the war, growing alarm over the consequences of population growth, particularly in the Third World, renewed interest in efforts to build an international birth control movement, propelling Margaret Sanger out of retirement. Working with family planning leaders in Europe and Asia, she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in 1952 and served as its first president until 1959. At her retirement, the IPPF was the largest private international organization devoted to the promotion of family planning.Margaret Sanger died in 1966 at the age of 86 in Tucson, Arizona, a feminist pioneer and benefactor of generations of women during her lifetime and after. In recognition and honor of her lifetime struggle on behalf of women, and of families, please consider signing the petition here or linked further down, below the editorial cartoon, on behalf of Planned Parenthood.
Through all her work for birth control, Sanger was consistent in her search for simpler, less costly, and more effective contraceptives. Not only did she help arrange for the American manufacture of the Dutch-based spring-form diaphragms she had been smuggling in from Europe, but in subsequent years she fostered a variety of research efforts to develop spermicidal jellies, foam powders, and hormonal contraceptives. Finally in the 1950s, her role in helping to find critical research funding made possible the development of the first effective anovulant contraceptive -- the birth control pill.