Sanger, Margaret Higgins


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Sanger, Margaret Higgins

A feminist and founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret Higgins Sanger battled the government and the Roman Catholic Church to establish the legitimacy of Birth Control.

Sanger was born September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York, to Michael Higgins, an Irish stonecutter, and Annie Purcell Higgins, the daughter of an Irish day laborer. Sanger's mother, who had five more children and suffered chronic tuberculosis, died at the age of fifty in 1899. Sanger blamed her death on the strain of bearing eleven children.

Following her mother's death, Sanger began nursing training at White Plains Hospital. She often accompanied doctors to patients' homes to deliver babies, and she frequently had to deliver children herself. Many of the new mothers asked Sanger what they could do to prevent another pregnancy. She, in turn, asked the doctors, but they gave her no information and took little interest in the women's dilemma.

While completing her nursing training, Sanger met William Sanger, an architect, whom she married in 1902. He was a German Jew and a socialist who was active in the radical causes of the day.

By 1912, the Sangers and their three children had moved to Greenwich Village, where the couple became involved in politics and the arts, and entertained some of the most radical intellectuals of the time. Sanger became deeply involved with the Socialist party. While recruiting for the organization, she visited many working-class families with six and seven children that were forced to make their home in two- and three-room tenements. She found that the women lived in dread of having more children and the resulting increase in poverty, and she concluded that women needed the right to control their own bodies.

She soon began speaking publicly on the problems of family life, connecting the size of the family with the economic problems of the working class. Her speeches became so popular that she was asked to turn them into a series of articles for the Call, a New York socialist newspaper. In her twelve-week series, entitled "What Every Woman Should Know," Sanger explained puberty, the reproductive organs, and sexually transmitted diseases. After the paper printed an article about gonorrhea, the authorities threatened that if it published a planned article on syphilis, its mailing permit would be canceled under the Comstock Act of 1873, a strict Censorship law that barred the mailing of "obscene" material. The law was named for Anthony Comstock, a special agent of the post office with authority to open the mail and determine whether materials were obscene.

Along with her speaking and writing, Sanger returned to nursing in New York and spent much of her time assisting with home births and living with the families for several weeks afterward. She observed that the women had repeated pregnancies and were obsessed with methods of preventing conception. They sought illegal and cheap abortions, which often caused injury or death, and tried dangerous cures of their own, such as drinking turpentine and inserting instruments into the uterus. After one woman died following her second self-induced abortion, Sanger was distraught and walked the streets for hours before returning home. That night, Sanger decided to devote her life to educating women about their bodies and methods of contraception.

Sanger began her work by scouring libraries for information on preventing conception. After months of reading and research, she was convinced that no practical information existed in the United States, and she traveled to France with her family. In Paris, Sanger found that French women were well versed in contraceptive methods. She talked to druggists, midwives, doctors, and working women, and noted formulas for suppositories and douches, which she planned to write up as a pamphlet for U.S. women.

Returning home to New York, she began publishing a monthly magazine called the Woman Rebel. She deliberately decided to use the publication to engage in a frank discussion of women's liberation from the fear and reality of unplanned pregnancies, knowing that she would soon run afoul of Anthony Comstock. Sanger realized that the new movement needed a name, and after much discussion, she and a group of supporters agreed to call it birth control.

In April 1914, four weeks after the first issue of the Woman Rebel was published, the post office notified Sanger that the magazine was unmailable under the Comstock Act. While she skirmished with Comstock over her magazine, Sanger worked on her pamphlet on contraceptive techniques, called Family Limitation, in which she described the practical knowledge she had gathered in Europe. Sanger visited twenty-two printers in one week, trying to find someone who would produce the pamphlet. Finally, one hundred thousand copies were printed, addressed, and stored in San Francisco, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, to be mailed on her prearranged signal, when she thought she would be safe from Comstock's interference.

In August 1914, Sanger was indicted on charges of violating the Comstock Act. When it became clear that the judge hearing her case was biased against her, she fled to Europe to gain time to prepare her case properly. She sailed from Canada under a false name and without a passport. From the ship, where she was safely outside U.S. legal jurisdiction, Sanger sent telegrams containing the prearranged code word that indicated it was time to send out her pamphlet on contraception. After landing in Liverpool, she traveled on to London, where news of the Woman Rebel had made her a celebrity in radical circles. She later moved to Holland, which had the lowest infant death rate in the world and where all mothers were taught about contraception. There, Sanger learned how to examine women and advise them on which of the fifteen available birth control devices were appropriate. As a result of her experience in Europe, she learned the necessity of the medical community's involvement in the birth control movement and the importance of keeping thorough records and conducting follow-up studies.

In October 1915, Sanger sailed home. She contacted the district attorney about her case, and a hearing was scheduled for the following January. But in November 1915, the Sangers' daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia, and Sanger sank into a severe depression. She insisted on going ahead with her trial, however, and received an outpouring of support from people across the country who had heard of her loss. Eventually, the charges were dismissed on the grounds that they were two years old and that Sanger had not made a practice of publishing obscene articles. Although this dismissal prevented the Comstock Act from being challenged in the courts, the publicity surrounding Sanger's case made the entire country aware of the birth control movement.

Sanger next notified her supporters of her intent to establish free clinics throughout the country, at which women could receive instruction in birth control. Sanger rented a storefront tenement in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where many newly arrived immigrants lived. The three women printed five thousand circulars in English, Yiddish, and Italian, advertising the clinic and offering contraceptive information for ten cents, and posted them around the neighborhood. The posters read, "Mothers! Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them?"

In October 1916, Sanger, along with her sister Ethel Byrne, who was a nurse, and another supporter, Fania Mindell, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. After only nine days, over four hundred women had come to the clinic for assistance. Among them was an undercover policewoman, who arrested Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell and confiscated all the patient records, pamphlets, and contraceptives. The women were charged with disseminating birth control information and maintaining a public Nuisance. Byrne was found guilty and sentenced to thirty days in jail, where she nearly died from a hunger strike before the governor pardoned her. Mindell was found guilty of selling copies of "What Every Woman Should Know" and fined fifty dollars. Sanger was convicted and sentenced to thirty days in the work-house, where she gave lectures on birth control to the other inmates and taught them to read and write.

After her release, Sanger decided to focus on changing the laws on contraception and educating women about birth control techniques. Her conviction for running the birth control clinic had been upheld by the New York Supreme Court in People v. Sanger, 179 App. Div. 939, 166 N.Y.S. 1107 (1917), and she appealed to the state's high court, the New York Court of Appeals. In January 1918, in an opinion that became known as the Crane decision after the authoring judge, Frederick Crane, the appellate court upheld the lower court (Sanger, 222 N.Y. 192, 118 N.E. 637). But the court interpreted the criminal laws broadly, holding that doctors could give out birth control information to any married person to protect his or her health. This meant that clinics could operate freely and that they would be under the supervision of medical personnel, where Sanger thought they belonged.

By 1920, over twenty-five birth control leagues were operating, and Mindell's conviction for distributing literature about contraception was reversed, which meant that pamphlets and books could more easily be distributed. In 1921, Sanger formed the American Birth Control League. The Catholic Church came to lead the opposition to Sanger's efforts, and she continued to battle the church throughout her life.

"A free race cannot be born of slave mothers."
—Margaret Sanger

Sanger attacked the Comstock law, establishing the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control, headquartered in Washington, D.C., to gather support for federal legislation dubbed the Doctor's Bill. By 1931, hundreds of medical, political, religious, and labor organizations supported the bill. When Sanger appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Judicial Committee in February 1931, she testified that based on statistics for the period since the Comstock Act took effect in 1873, one-and-a-half million women had died during pregnancy and childbirth; seven hundred thousand illegal abortions had been performed each year; and fifteen million children had died during their first year because of poverty or their mother's poor health. But the proposed legislation was vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church, the Patriotic Society, the Purity League, and other groups, and was defeated.

After further attempts to pass the legislation were unsuccessful, Sanger decided to turn to the courts. In 1933 she had had a new type of pessary (vaginal suppository) sent to Dr. Hannah Stone, in New York, and the package had been seized under the Comstock Act. Stone filed charges. After a trial, the court ruled that the doctor was entitled to the package (United States v. One Package, 13 F. Supp. 334 [S.D.N.Y. 1936]). The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which upheld the lower court, ruling that the aim of the Comstock law was not to "prevent the importation, sale, or carriage by mail of things which might intelligently be employed by conscientious and competent physicians for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well being of their patients" (One Package, 86 F.2d 737 [2d Cir. 1936]). In 1937 the American Medical Association adopted the position that all doctors should receive information about the legal dispensation of contraceptives and that new contraceptive techniques should be studied.

In 1939 the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the Birth Control League merged into the Birth Control Federation of America, which was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Sanger continued her work, initiating birth control programs in rural clinics. Here, she decided that the relatively expensive and difficult-to-use diaphragm was impractical and that women needed a birth control pill or injection. In the 1950s, she supported the work of Dr. Gregory Pincus, whose research eventually produced the birth control pill.

In 1966 at the age of eighty-two, Sanger received the Presidential Medal of Valor from lyndon b. johnson. Later that year, she died in Tucson, Arizona.

Further readings

Chesler, Ellen. 1992. Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Coigney, Virginia. 1969. Margaret Sanger: Rebel with a Cause. New York: Doubleday.

Reed, Miriam. 2003. Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words. Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books.

Sanger, Margaret. 2004. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover.

Topalian, Elyse. 1984. Margaret Sanger. New York: Watts.

Cross-references

Griswold v. Connecticut; Women's Rights.