America’s Puritan roots have influenced many aspects of the country’s values and laws, often to the amusement of more sophisticated European nations. This has been particularly true when it came to any information about birth control, which was regarded in the United States as a taboo topic well into the 20th century. The Comstock Law, which made it illegal to mail or give out information about contraception, went into effect in 1873 and was not repealed until 1936. Even then, birth control devices, even for married couples, were still outlawed in two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, until 1965.
Margaret Sanger, born into a family of 11 children, spent most of her life trying to change this and to help women prevent the multiple, unwanted pregnancies that had exhausted and killed many. She was arrested, indicted, and jailed for her efforts, at a time when it was thought obscene to even talk about such matters. But ultimately she succeeded, writing and lecturing on birth control, funding scientific research, and paving the way in 1960 for the Pill, a method of oral contraception that would revolutionize American women’s lives and the sex lives of both men and women in the latter half of the 20th century.
Sanger’s own mother had had 18 children in all, 7 of them not surviving, and Sanger blamed her mother’s tuberculosis and early death on weakness from so many pregnancies. She became a nurse, entering a nursing program at a White Plains, New York, hospital, where she worked in the maternity ward and had to deliver many babies. Some of their mothers begged her to tell them how to prevent another pregnancy, but Sanger did not know and the doctors she asked were indignant that she would even bring up such a subject.
Later, at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital and working in poor neighborhoods on the Lower East Side, Sanger continued to deliver babies and began to encounter women sickened and dying from self-induced abortions. After seeing so much suffering, Sanger wrote in her autobiography, “I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky.”
By this time, she herself had married, to architect William Sanger, and she eventually gave birth to three children of her own. Her life’s purpose was becoming clear: to help women gain some control over their pregnancies and thus to be on more equal footing in society. Her mantra: every woman should be “mistress of her own body.” Sanger is credited with inventing the term “birth control.” She had already begun writing about this, publishing a newspaper column about sexual health and behavior on “What Every Girl Should Know.”
But the Comstock Law was in full sway, and Sanger’s articles were censored as obscene. She was arrested and indicted in 1914 for violating the Comstock Law when she published a new magazine, The Woman Rebel, which advocated birth control. She fled to England under an assumed name to escape jail. While she was away, her husband was fined in a New York City court in 1915 for distributing one of her pamphlets on contraception, which the judge called “immoral and indecent.” Meanwhile in England, Sanger met Havelock Ellis, author of The Psychology of Sex, who became a mentor and a lover and gave support to Sanger’s ideas about giving women freedom not only from unwanted pregnancy but also to take pleasure in sex.
Upon her return from England, Margaret Sanger appealed her prior conviction, and it was reversed on the grounds that distributing such information for the cure and prevention of disease was legal. Now there was a clear path for Margaret Sanger in the face of so much opposition. Despite threats from the law, she forged ahead with her one-woman campaign to bring birth control information to those who needed it most. She went back to Europe, where there was no stigma about contraception and smuggled diaphragms back from a Dutch birth control clinic. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn in 1916, but was arrested and spent 30 days in jail because of it. Once again, however, the argument that birth control information from a doctor was necessary to prevent disease freed her.
In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which she later established in 1952 as the International Planned Parenthood Federation. In the 1920s, Sanger began to write books, all on the subject of birth control, including Woman and the New Race (1920), The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Happiness in Marriage (1926), My Fight for Birth Control (1931), and her own Autobiography (1938). A book assembled after her death, Motherhood in Bondage, collects the many letters she received from women desperate for information on birth control.
And, finally, she was able to open the first legal birth control clinic, the Margaret Sanger Research Clinic, with funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr. (anonymously) among others. The year was 1940, the Comstock Law had just expired, and Margaret Sanger was just getting started. She wrote, she lectured, she traveled to Japan and back to Europe, all in the effort to discover and make known birth control methods. Margaret Sanger was a figure of controversy all her life, not only because she promoted contraception, thought so long to be a taboo, even obscene topic, but also because she became interested in eugenics, the idea that genetic control could improve the human race. While she believed that birth control was an important aspect of eugenics, she went too far, arguing against immigration and advocating that the mentally ill should be sterilized. Her views on abortion, however, were centered on the mother’s health rather than morality. By this time, she had abandoned the Catholic faith she had been raised in and considered herself an atheist. She might have welcomed the Roe v. Wade legislation of 1973 legalizing abortion.
Sanger had been born Margaret Louise Higgins to Anne and Michael Hennessy Higgins in Corning, New York, on September 4, 1879. Her father, born in Ireland, made his living as an artist and stonemason creating sculptures of angels and figures for tombstones. Sanger, a redhead like her father, later credited him for influencing her views on women’s suffrage and education. She was sent to boarding school at Claverack College but had to leave after two years to stay home and take care of her ailing mother. After nursing school in White Plains and marriage to William Sanger, she spent most of her life and career in Manhattan. She and Sanger were divorced in 1920, and in 1922 she married J. Noah H. Slee who funded many of her projects.
These would include organizing the first World Population Conference in Switzerland and establishing birth control clinics, 55 of them by 1930 in the United States. As the concepts of birth control and family planning became more acceptable, Margaret Sanger became world famous for her work in the field. She was president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation she had founded, and she continued to lecture widely. But her goal of discovering a scientific method to prevent pregnancy remained elusive. Thus had it ever been throughout human history. The Egyptians had invented a condom, made of animal intestines, by 3000 BC. Egyptian women used acids and honey as spermicides. Every possible method of prevention has been explored since, from herbal remedies to magic spells, the rhythm method, and abstinence. In the 15th century, the metal chastity belt with a padlock was introduced. Birth control devices of all kinds have been invented, including the diaphragm, the IUD (inner uterine device), and the Dalkon Shield as well as skin patches and a “morning after” pill. But the birth control pill, taken orally, has been the most successful, with a 95 percent rate of preventing pregnancy if taken properly and its effects are reversible.
In the early 1950s, Sanger recruited Gregory Pincus, a human reproduction expert, to work on developing an oral contraceptive and got financial support for the project from Katharine McCormick, the International Harvester heiress. By 1960, research by Pincus and his cohorts, Dr. John Rock and Dr. M. C. Chang, resulted in the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 (experimenting separately was Dr. Carl Djerassi, who also developed a pill).
Margaret Sanger was now 81 years old, a lifetime of working toward this goal behind her. “The Pill,” as it became known, worked on the principle of a synthetic hormone that mimicked the effects of estrogen and progesterone to prevent ovulation. Today there are improved versions in various formulations and the pill is today the most popular form of contraception. In 2010, nearly a third of American women were reportedly using the pill.
The pill has had many social and cultural consequences. It has allowed women the freedom and control that Margaret Sanger sought, and it gave women the same sexual freedom that men enjoyed. But it also had the effect of separating sex from reproduction, to the consternation of the Catholic Church, which denounced artificial contraception and tried to prevent parishioners from using the pill, casting Sanger as a dangerous subversive. But the pill has nonetheless been accepted, celebrating a 50th anniversary in 2010 and undoubtedly influencing social attitudes about premarital sex and living together before marriage, as well as the trend today toward delay of marriage and smaller families. Median ages for first marriage in the United States are now the highest they have ever been: 27.1 for a man and 25.3 for a woman. More than 12 million unmarrieds, most in the age group 25 to 34, live together, more than those in the same age group who are married, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The significance of Sanger’s contribution to human welfare and happiness has brought her recognition and honors. College and university buildings have been named after her and a major archive of her papers is at Smith College. Planned Parenthood gives an annual award in her memory, the Margaret Sanger Award, first given in 1966 to Martin Luther King. Several films have been made of her fight for birth control.
Ellen Chesler, author of an acclaimed biography of Margaret Sanger and distinguished lecturer at Hunter College, notes that Sanger’s achievements in birth control inspired psychologist Erik Erikson to say that “no idea of modern times, save perhaps for arms control, more directly challenges human destiny,” which may, Chesler adds, “account for the profound psychic dissonance and social conflict it tends to inspire.” British author H. G. Wells, who met and admired Sanger, proclaimed, “When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.”
Margaret Sanger did not live to see the extent of change her quest for birth control eventually brought to women and to society. She died in 1966, just as President Lyndon Johnson was incorporating family planning into public health programs. She had, however, succeeded in her mission to educate people about contraception and change the lives of women, believing that
Woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers–and before it can be his, it is hers alone.
–Quoted by Gloria Steinem in “Margaret Sanger,” Time, April 13, 1998
Feminist Gloria Steinem, writing about Margaret Sanger for Time magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Century,” concludes, “She lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the century.”
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Douglas, Emily Taft. Pioneer of the Future: Margaret Sanger. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1938. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999.
Steinem, Gloria. “Margaret Sanger.” Time, April 13, 1998. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988152-1,00.html .