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date: 15 December 2019

Sanger, Margaretfree

(14 September 1879–06 September 1966)
  • Esther Katz

Margaret Sanger.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105458).

Sanger, Margaret (14 September 1879–06 September 1966), birth control advocate, was born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York, to Michael Hennessey Higgins, an Irish-born free thinker who eked out a meager living as a stonemason, and Anne Purcell Higgins, a hard-working, devoutly Roman Catholic Irish-American. Deeply influenced by her father’s iconoclasm, Margaret, one of eleven children, was also haunted by her mother’s premature death, which she attributed to the rigors of frequent childbirth and poverty. Determined to escape a similar fate, Margaret Higgins, supported by her two older sisters, attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute before enrolling in White Plains Hospital as a nurse probationer in 1900. She was a practical nurse in the women’s ward working toward her registered nursing degree when her 1902 marriage to architect William Sanger ended her formal training. Though plagued by a recurring tubercular condition, she bore three children and settled down to a quiet life in Westchester, New York. In 1911, however, in an effort to salvage their troubled marriage, the Sangers abandoned the suburbs for a new life in New York City.

The radical activism and bohemian culture that permeated New York in the prewar years created a formative educational environment for Margaret Sanger. “Our living-room,” she recalled in her autobiography, “became a gathering place where liberals, anarchists, socialists and IWW’s could meet.” Exposed to modernist notions of political, social, and personal revolution, Sanger discovered the ideological justifications and practical outlets for her rebelliousness and unconventionality. She joined the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist party and participated in several labor actions undertaken by the Industrial Workers of the World, including the notable 1912 strike of textile workers at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Sanger’s emerging feminist/Socialist interests, coupled with her nursing background, led in 1912 to an invitation to write “What Every Girl Should Know,” a column on female sexuality and social hygiene for the New York Call. The series quickly drew the attention of postal authorities, which in 1913 banned her article on venereal disease as obscene.

Sanger’s general interest in sex education and women’s health soon focused on family limitation. Returning to work as a visiting nurse among the immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side, she saw graphic examples of the toll taken by frequent childbirth, miscarriage, and self-induced abortion. With access to contraceptive information prohibited on grounds of obscenity by the 1873 federal Comstock law and a host of state laws, Sanger realized that poor women did not have the same freedom from the physical hardships, fear, and dependency inherent in unwanted pregnancy as did those radical middle-class women who were espousing sexual liberation. Awakened to the connection between contraception and working-class empowerment by anarchist/feminist Emma Goldman, Sanger became convinced that liberating women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy would effect fundamental social change. With older feminists espousing family limitation through sexual abstinence and Socialists unwilling to be distracted by a fight for birth control, Sanger launched her own campaign, challenging governmental censorship of contraceptive information by embarking on a series of law-defying confrontational actions designed to force birth control into the center of public debate.

In March 1914 Sanger began publishing The Woman Rebel, a radical feminist monthly that advocated militant action and the right of every woman to be “absolute mistress of her own body.” The educational, economic, and political equality espoused by most feminists were irrelevant, Sanger declared, unless women first had the means to avoid the burden of unwanted pregnancies. Only birth control, a term coined in The Woman Rebel, would free women from the tyranny of uncontrolled childbirth. Although she did little more than espouse birth control in The Woman Rebel, postal authorities suppressed five of its seven issues. Sanger defied the authorities by continuing publication while preparing her next salvo against the obscenity laws: Family Limitation, a sixteen-page pamphlet containing the most precise evaluations and graphic descriptions of various contraceptive methods then available to American women. In August 1914 Margaret Sanger was indicted for violating postal obscenity laws in The Woman Rebel. Unwilling to risk imprisonment, she jumped bail in October and, using the alias “Bertha Watson,” set sail for England via Canada. En route she ordered the release of Family Limitation. A few weeks later William Sanger was tricked into providing a copy of the pamphlet to an operative of antivice crusader Anthony Comstock and went to jail for thirty days. This escalated interest in birth control as a civil liberties issue.

Margaret Sanger spent much of her 1914 exile in England, where contact with British neo-Malthusianists helped refine her socioeconomic justifications for birth control. She was also profoundly influenced by the liberation theories of British sexual theorist Havelock Ellis. Under his tutelage she formulated a new rationale that would liberate women not just by making sexual intercourse safe, but also pleasurable. It would, in effect, free women from the inequality of sexual experience.

In these years Sanger also set about ordering her personal life in accordance with her belief in sexual freedom and the empowerment of women. Her abrupt 1914 departure effectively ended her already rocky marriage to William Sanger, and she embarked on a series of romantic liaisons with men, including Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells. In 1922 she married wealthy oil producer James Noah H. Slee, but it was a marriage on her own terms. Though fond of Slee, she accepted his proposal only after he agreed to accept her demand for personal autonomy. He also promised to provide support for the birth control movement. The marriage, successful in its own way, lasted until Slee’s death in 1943.

Sanger returned to New York in October 1915 anxious to capitalize on the publicity surrounding William Sanger’s trial by facing her own charges for publishing The Woman Rebel. Her campaign to focus media attention and generate favorable public support received an unexpected boost from the wave of sympathetic publicity that followed the sudden death on 6 November of Sanger’s five-year-old daughter, Peggy. Unwilling to grant the bereaved mother and her cause further press coverage, the government decided not to prosecute. Margaret Sanger then undertook a nationwide lecture tour, a journey marked by volatile confrontations with local authorities and several arrests.

Near the end of the tour, Sanger decided to shift her strategy from defying censorship laws to challenging the prohibition on the distribution of contraceptive services. Seeking to replicate the Dutch system of medically supervised clinics she had observed in 1914, Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic, in Brooklyn, on 16 October 1916. Nine days later police raided the clinic arresting Sanger and her coworkers. Tried and convicted, she served thirty days in prison. Sanger appealed, but her conviction was upheld. Nevertheless, the state appellate court’s 1918 decision interpreted the prohibitory statute broadly enough to allow physicians to prescribe birth control to women when medically indicated. The decision provided Sanger with the legal basis for establishing a birth control distribution system of doctor-staffed clinics. Equally significant for Sanger was the expanding circle of wealthy women who volunteered their time and money in support of birth control.

With her talent for keeping the birth control controversy in the public eye, Sanger prepared a 1917 silent film entitled “Birth Control,” which was quickly confiscated by New York authorities. Undaunted, she continued to provoke authorities by promoting birth control publicly. While audiences, disarmed by her delicacy and personal charm, applauded her frankness and courage, opponents, particularly Catholic groups, persisted in efforts to ban her from speaking. Such clumsy attempts usually backfired. “I see immense advantages in being gagged,” Sanger noted in a 1929 speech at Boston’s Ford Hall. “It silences me but it makes millions of others talk about me and the cause in which I live.”

With the collapse of the radical left after World War I, Sanger, who had grown increasingly disillusioned by the lack of interest of Socialists and feminists, abandoned her radical/Socialist stance and sought to broaden the movement’s base of support. In 1917 she had begun promoting birth control as a medical and socioeconomic issue in a new monthly, the Birth Control Review. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, which aimed at cultivating mainstream respectability. Sanger also tried to enlist the support of the liberal wing of the scientific eugenics movement, championing birth control for those with genetically transmitted mental or physical defects, and even supporting forced sterilization for the mentally incompetent. While she did not advocate efforts to limit population growth solely on the basis of class, ethnicity, or race, and refused to encourage positive eugenics for white, native-born, middle and upper classes, Sanger’s reputation was permanently tainted by the growing prominence of race-based eugenics.

Margaret Sanger.

Portrait as president of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105456).

Critical to Sanger’s efforts was the support of the medical community. In Holland in 1914 she had been introduced to the occlusive diaphragm. She now argued that the proper use of these devices required medically skilled and individualized instruction. In 1923 she opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (later renamed the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau), staffed by female physicians who provided an array of gynecological and contraceptive services. The bureau kept extensive patient records, compiled statistics tracking the effectiveness of contraceptives on women’s health, and became the model for a nationwide system of doctor-staffed clinics. In 1929 Sanger formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control to lobby for legislation granting doctors exclusive right to disseminate contraceptives. Nevertheless, most doctors remained hostile to Sanger’s efforts. Even those who supported birth control distrusted her, a nonprofessional with a feminist focus and a history of militant action. For her part, Sanger resisted their efforts to take control of her clinic and her movement. It was not until 1937 that the American Medical Association endorsed birth control.

Despite Sanger’s success in cultivating public support, powerful opposition from the Catholic Church helped insure the failure of her legislative work, along with her efforts to secure government funding for birth control as a public health measure. She did win a judicial victory in 1936 when the U.S. Court of Appeals in U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries ruled that physicians were exempted from the ban on the importation of birth control materials. This decision effectively legalized the distribution of birth control for medical use, though the prohibition on importing contraceptive devices for personal use was not lifted until 1971.

In courting an alliance with establishment forces, Margaret Sanger provided the birth control movement with the financial support and social rationale needed to battle significant opposition. Yet her pragmatic approach also led to a subtle but steady change in the direction of the movement. As the number and influence of conservative supporters increased, Sanger’s initial focus on women’s personal autonomy and empowerment was subordinated to an emphasis on selective population control and the maintenance of traditional middle-class values. She was forced to resign as president of the American Birth Control League in 1928. The movement’s new leaders viewed Sanger’s militant tactics and persistently feminist focus as a liability. When in 1939 the American Birth Control League and Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau were reorganized into the Birth Control Federation of America, Sanger’s role became largely honorific. Even the term “birth control” was deemed too aggressively radical by the new leadership. In 1942 the Birth Control Federation of America became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Tired and disillusioned, Sanger retired to her home in Tucson, Arizona.

From the start, Sanger recognized overpopulation as a critical global issue. During the 1920s and 1930s, she organized international conferences and lectured on birth control throughout Europe and Asia. Her 1936 tour of India, which included a widely reported debate with Mahatma Gandhi, helped launch the Indian birth control movement. Sanger also cultivated an extensive worldwide network through the London-based Birth Control International Information Centre, which she cofounded in 1930 with British activist Edith How-Martyn. However, the pronatalist policies of the rising fascist regimes in Europe and Japan impeded their work, and by 1937 they had resigned from the center.

The post–World War II alarm over population growth and its relationship to economic development and social stability, particularly in the Third World, propelled Sanger back onto the world stage as chief propagandist for the revival and expansion of an international birth control movement. Among her first goals was the resuscitation of the Japanese movement, which she had helped mobilize during her 1922 visit. Although she was barred from entering occupied Japan in 1950, a steep hike in the Japanese birth rate created a new consensus on birth control, and in 1954 Sanger was invited to address the Japanese Diet, the first American woman to be so honored.

Sanger’s primary goal after 1946 was to establish an international organization. In 1952 she joined other international family planning advocates in founding the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Sanger played a critical role in organizing the founding conference in Bombay, cajoling an impressive array of world figures to lend their support. While her IPPF colleagues often were annoyed with her tendency toward imperiousness and unilateral action, they elected her their first president. Though in her seventies and increasingly frail, Sanger nevertheless tried to direct the growth of the infant organization to reflect her unwavering conviction that by reducing the number of unwanted children, birth control would facilitate more efficient allocation of economic and social resources. As president she opposed all efforts to broaden the IPPF’s mission beyond the dissemination of birth control. She also resisted efforts to impose mandatory, government-controlled measures that ignored the needs and requirements of women. When Sanger relinquished the presidency in 1959, the IPPF, with twenty-six member nations, was the largest private international organization devoted to promoting family planning.

Throughout these years, Sanger persisted in her pursuit of a simpler, less costly, more effective female contraceptive. In 1925 she arranged for the American manufacture of the spring-form diaphragms she had been smuggling in from Europe. In subsequent years she fostered research projects to develop spermicidal jellies and foam powders, and finally hormonal contraceptives. Vindication for her persistence came in the 1950s after she helped secure the funds that enabled Gregory Pincus to develop the first effective anovulant contraceptive: the birth control pill.

Margaret Sanger died in Tucson, one year after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of married couples to use birth control, a right extended to unmarried couples in 1972.


The two largest collections of Sanger’s papers are in the Library of Congress and the Sophia Smith Collection of Smith College. The Sophia Smith collection also holds the records of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The Houghton Library at Harvard University houses the records of the American Birth Control League, while Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine houses the correspondence of several of Sanger’s medical colleagues. The records of the International Planned Parenthood Federation are in the Population Centre at the University of Cardiff. All known Sanger documents save those microfilmed by the Library of Congress have been published in the two-series The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Smith College Collections and Collected Documents (1996–1997), prepared under the direction of Esther Katz and edited by Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Peter C. Engelman. Also see Esther Katz, ed., The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Vol. 1: The "Woman Rebel" 1900–1928 (2002), the first of a four-volume book edition. Sanger’s published works include two autobiographies: My Fight for Birth Control (1931) and Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938). Her other books are Women and the New Race (1920), The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Happiness in Marriage (1926), Motherhood in Bondage (1928), and two compilations of her articles, What Every Girl Should Know (1916) and What Every Mother Should Know (1914). Gloria and Ronald Moore, Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement: A Bibliography, (1986), is a bibliography of materials relating to Sanger. The best and most comprehensive scholarly biography of Sanger is Ellen Chesler, A Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992). Less satisfying though informative is Lawrence Lader’s uncritical, The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control (1955), written with Sanger’s assistance. David Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), is a largely negative account of Sanger’s public life to 1938. See also the treatments of Sanger included in Margaret Forster, Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939 (1986); Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (1976); James Reed, From Public Vice to Private Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830 (1978); and Carole R. McCann, Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916–1945 (1994). An obituary is in New York Times, 7 Sept. 1966.