The founder of the birth-control movement in the United States was Margaret Sanger, a nurse who worked among the poor on the Lower East Side of New York City. There she witnessed firsthand the results of uncontrolled fertility, self-induced abortions, and high rates of infant and maternal mortality. Sanger claimed that, of all her experiences as a midwife and visiting nurse, the death of one of her clients from a self-induced abortion was the tramatic event that led her to focus all her energy on the single cause of reproductive autonomy for women.
Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins in Corning, New York, on September 14, 1879. Margaret grew up in a very poor family of 11 children. She trained as a nurse at the White Plains Hospital and the Manhattan Eye and Ear Clinic in New York. She married William Sanger in 1902. Although she later divorced him she kept the last name by which she had become well known, even after she remarried in 1922.
Sanger believed in a woman's right to plan the size of her family. Her work among the poor in N.Y. convinced her of the widespread need for information concerning contraception. She was outraged at the suppression of knowledge that women needed, whether their primary concern was the support of their families or the desire for greater personal freedom. Sanger's feelings of having been trapped by marriage, as well as her resentment of her mother's premature death, made the suffering of tenement mothers her own. There seemed to be no justice for these women, whose " weary misshapen bodies...were destined to be thrown on the scrap heap before they were thirty-five".
In 1914 Sanger, then living apart from her husband, set out to remove the stigma of obscenity from contraception and to establish a nationwide system of advice centers where women could obtain reliable birth control information. She gave up nursing to devote herself full time to the promotion of that objective. Her first task was an investigation of birth control methods with the goal of discovering a safe, effective, female-controlled contraceptive. After surveying the medical literature and finding that no female methods had been clinically tested, Sanger travelled to Europe in search of better birth control technology. She returned determined to spread the good news that sex could be separated from procreation.
Sanger hoped to mobilize a mass demand for legalization of birth control through publication. In 1914 she founded The National Birth Control League and in that same year was indicted for sending out copies of the periodical The Woman Rebel, which advocated birth control. At that time the federal Comstock Law of 1873 classified such literature as obscene. After being indicted for violation of the postal code, she departed for Europe. After a year of exile in Europe, Sanger returned to the U.S. and her case was dismissed. Later that year Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. Staffed by Sanger and her younger sister, Ethel Byrne, the Brownsville clinic opened in October 1916 and provided 488 Brooklyn mothers with contraceptive advice during the ten days before it was closed by police. The trial and imprisonment of the "birth control sisters" helped make Sanger a national figure, and, in appealing her case, she won a clarification of the New York law that forbade distribution of birth control information. This change opened the way for the first doctor staffed birth control clinic in the United States, which was one of Sanger's most important achievements.
In 1921 Sanger founded the American Birth Control League and served as its president until 1928. That and later organizations became in 1942 the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Continued government harassment brought public opinion to her side, and in 1936 the 1873 law was modified. Sanger organized the first World Population Conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1927 and was also the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, organized in 1953. She helped promote family planning in India and Japan. She wrote several books, including My Fight for Birth Control (1931).
Sanger envisioned a united front of women who would claim the legalization of contraception, along with greater public candor about sexuality, as a fundamental right. Birth control, Sanger argued, would enhance the opportunities of women beyond the promises of economic reformers, on the one hand, and of suffragists on the other. It would be a tool for redistributing power fundamentally, in the bedroom, the home, and the larger community. Women would achieve personal freedom by experiencing their sexuality free of consequence, just as men have always done, but in taking control of the forces of reproduction they would also lower birth rates, alter the balance of supply and demand for labor, and therein accomplish the revolutionary goals of workers without the social upheaval of class warfare.
Throughout her career Sanger traveled extensively, particularly in Asia, to publicize the birth control movement. She worked tirelessly to raise money to keep clinics open and to fund research. Sanger believed in helping as many women as possible. When Margaret Sanger died of congestive heart failure in 1966 after a four year stay in a Tucson Arizona nursing home, her goal of reproductive autonomy for all women remained unattained, but she had done more than any other individual to give women control over their bodies. In one of her final conversations shortly before her death she was asked by her granddaughter Margaret Marston what she wanted said after she died. Sanger said she hoped she would be remembered for helping women, because women are the strength of the future. They take care of culture and tradition and preserve what is good. That, she hoped, would be her rememberance.
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Fall Semester 1998. Last modified: December 14, 1998