Margaret Sanger was the single most influential crusader for safe, legal, and effective birth control in the United States. From the 1910s through the 1950s, she fought to grant women the ability to limit their own fertility. Her phenomenal energy, charismatic personality, and single-minded focus made her a highly successful activist. Yet Sanger remains a controversial figure. In her own day, conservatives accused her of undermining public morality; today, commentators on both the left and the right have criticized her support of eugenics and population policies in the developing world.
Sanger's convictions derived from her own familial history. She was the sixth of 11 children, born in 1879 to an Irish-Catholic family in Corning, New York. Her mother, a devout Catholic, endured 18 pregnancies before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 49. Sanger's father, a stonecutter who held a variety of iconoclastic and radical views, did not earn enough to support the family comfortably. From a young age, Sanger associated large families with ill-health and poverty, and small families with prosperity and progress.
Sanger's older sisters helped to send her to boarding school, and thereafter she studied nursing. In 1902, at age 23, she married William Sanger, an architect with artistic ambitions. She spent the next decade living a fairly conventional domestic life in Westchester County, New York. Despite her own struggles with tuberculosis, Sanger gave birth to a son in 1903. In 1908, she had another son, and in 1910, she gave birth to daughter who died at age 5—a loss that would haunt Sanger for the rest of her life.
By 1910, the Sanger's marriage had begun to fray, and the family relocated to Manhattan. Sanger began working as a home nurse on the Lower East Side, where she acquired first-hand knowledge of poor mothers' vulnerability and desperation. She also immersed herself in the bohemian culture that flourished in Greenwich Village; she was particularly influenced by anarchist Emma Goldman's advocacy of free love and birth control. In 1912, Sanger joined the Socialist Party and allied herself with the radical labor movement. However, she soon came to believe that, for poor women, the ability to restrict childbearing was even more crucial than the fight for higher wages and better working conditions.
Sanger's birth control crusade began in earnest in 1914, when she published a pamphlet titled Family Limitation that provided explicit, detailed information about contraception. She also began publishing a radical newspaper, The Woman Rebel, in which she introduced the term birth control. At the time, the Comstock Law deemed information about contraception “obscene” and made it federal crime to send such material through the U.S. Mail. Facing prosecution, Sanger fled to Europe, where she became friends and lovers with the British sex reformer Havelock Ellis. While abroad, she also visited birth control clinics in the Netherlands; the Dutch system, where medical professionals fitted women with diaphragms, served as an important model for what Sanger hoped to achieve. In 1915, Sanger returned to the United States, and the following year she defied the law by opening the nation's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Though authorities shut the clinic down after just nine days, sympathetic publicity helped to generate support for the emerging birth control movement.
Although Sanger had already begun to shift away from her radical past prior to 1918, she recast the birth control movement in the reactionary climate of the Red Scare. Eschewing the rhetoric of class warfare that appeared in her earliest publications, she increasingly embraced the language of eugenics. Sanger also forged new alliances with medical professionals and wealthy benefactors, including her second husband, oilman Noah Slee, whom she married in 1922. Their financial support allowed Sanger to establish a new institutional infrastructure for the birth control movement. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, later renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation. Two years later, she opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York, the first doctor-run birth control clinic in the United States. During the interwar period, Sanger also traveled widely and helped to launch a new international movement focused on population control. Much later, in 1952, she helped to establish the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Much of the controversy surrounding Sanger centers on her relationship to the eugenics movement. She often justified birth control on the grounds that it would prevent the “unfit” from reproducing, going even so far as to recommend in 1925 that couples be required to take a “Civil Service examinations for parenthood.” Unlike many of her contemporaries, Sanger did not embrace racialist theories; she focused on the presumed threat that diseased or “degenerate” individuals, rather than specific racial or ethnic groups, posed to society. But compromising alliances with racist figures, as well as her support for such initiatives as mandatory sterilization laws, have earned her legitimate criticism. Still, even as Sanger embraced eugenics, she remained deeply concerned with the plight of poor women. In 1929, she published Motherhood in Bondage, a collection of extraordinary letters sent to her by women desperate to prevent future pregnancies. As she explained in 1953, “I believed it my duty to place motherhood on a higher level than enslavement and accident.”
In the 1950s, Sanger's growing involvement with the population control movement led her to become increasingly impatient with existing methods of contraception. In poor countries that lacked basic sanitary conditions, her preferred method—a diaphragm used with spermicidal jelly—proved highly impractical. Having long envisioned a “magic pill” that would place birth control firmly in the hands of women, Sanger turned her still formidable energies to making this dream a reality. In 1953, she persuaded her wealthy friend, Katherine Dexter McCormick, to fund the hormonal research of biologist Gregory Pincus. The plan proved successful, and in 1960, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration approved Enovid for use as a contraceptive.
Sanger lived to see one final victory. In 1965, a year before she died, the Supreme Court's ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut finally legalized birth control for married couples nationwide.
Birth Control, Family Planning, Maternal Health, Maternal Mortality, Sterilization
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