Margaret Sanger

Advocate of Birth Control

Margaret Sanger
Nurse and reformer Margaret Sanger, 1916. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Known for: advocating birth control and women's health

Occupation: nurse, birth control advocate
Dates: September 14, 1879 - September 6, 1966 (Some sources, including Webster's Dictionary of American Women and Contemporary Authors Online (2004) give her birth year as 1883.)
Also Known as: Margaret Louise Higgins Sanger

Margaret Sanger Biography

Margaret Sanger was born in Corning, New York.  Her father was an Irish immigrant, and her mother an Irish-American.

 Her father was a free-thinker and her mother a Roman Catholic.  She was one of eleven children, and blamed her mother's early death on both the family's poverty and her mother's frequent pregnancies and childbirths.

So Margaret Higgins decided to avoid her mother's fate, becoming educated and having a career as a nurse.  She was working towards her nursing degree at White Plains Hospital in New York when she married an architect and left her training.  After she had three children, the couple decided to move to New York City.  There, they became involved in a circle of feminists and socialists.  

In 1912, Sanger wrote a column on women's health and sexuality called "What Every Girl Should Know" for the Socialist Party paper, the Call. She collected and published articles as What Every Girl Should Know (1916) and What Every Mother Should Know (1917).  Her 1924 article, "The Case for Birth Control," was one of many articles she published.

However, the Comstock Act of 1873 was used to forbid distribution of birth control devices and information. Her article on venereal disease was declared obscene in 1913 and banned from the mails. In 1913 she went to Europe to escape arrest.

When she returned from Europe, she applied her nursing education as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City.

In working with immigrant women in poverty, she saw many instances of women suffering and even dying from frequent pregnancies and childbirths, and also from miscarriages. She recognized that many women attempted to deal with unwanted pregnancies with self-induced abortions, often with tragic results to their own health and lives, affecting their ability to care for their families. She was forbidden under government censorship laws from providing information on contraception.

In the radical middle-class circles in which she moved, many women were availing themselves of contraceptives, even if their distribution and information about them were banned by law. But in her work as a nurse, and influenced by Emma Goldman, she saw that poor women didn't have the same opportunities to plan their motherhood. She came to believe that unwanted pregnancy was the biggest barrier to a working class or poor woman's freedom. She decided that the laws against information on contraception and distribution of contraceptive devices were unfair and unjust, and that she would confront them.

She founded a paper, Woman Rebel, on her return. She was indicted for "mailing obscenities," fled to Europe, and the indictment was withdrawn.

In 1914 she founded the National Birth Control League which was taken over by Mary Ware Dennett and others while Sanger was in Europe.

In 1916 (1917 according to some sources), Sanger set up the first birth control clinic in the United States and, the following year, was sent to the workhouse for "creating a public nuisance." Her many arrests and prosecutions, and the resulting outcries, helped lead to changes in laws, giving doctors the right to give birth control advice (and later, birth control devices) to patients.

Her first marriage, to architect William Sanger in 1902, ended in divorce in 1920. She was remarried in 1922 to J. Noah H. Slee, though she kept her by-then-famous (or infamous) name from her first marriage.

In 1927 Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

In 1942, after several organizational mergers and name changes, Planned Parenthood Federation came into being.

Sanger wrote many books and articles on birth control and marriage, and an autobiography (the latter in 1938).

Today, organizations and individuals which oppose abortion and, often, birth control, have charged Sanger with eugenicism and racism. Sanger's supporters consider the charges exaggerated or false, or the quotes used taken out of context.