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How Margaret Sanger Led the Birth Control Movement - and Why the GOP Still Hates Her

Enjoy the freedom of that little daily pill? Meet the fierce, independent-minded woman who dared to take on every Todd Akin of her day.
 
 
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Editor's Note: In an inspiring new book, scholar Peter Drier sets out to celebrate the movements that have made our lives better by bringing attention to the figures who sparked them. Reaching out to historians, political scientists, journalists, and other experts, he set out to find out who had helped make America great over recent generations, and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger's name was a sure winner. Loathed by conservatives for nearly a century, Sanger was a pioneer who fought tirelessly to ensure than women would have control over their reproductive lives -- which she knew was also the key to economic well-being. In light of the relentless GOP attacks on women's reproductive rights and the shocking ignorance displayed by figures like Todd Akin, it seems like a good time to remember Sanger and the pivotal role she played in the quest for freedom and equality. Excerpted with permission from The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, by Peter Dreier. Available from Nation Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

Margaret Sanger (1879–1966)

When federal agents arrived at Margaret Sanger’s home with a warrant for her arrest in 1914, she calmly ushered the men into her cluttered living room and quietly spent the next three hours explaining why she had mounted a campaign to promote birth control, especially to women of little means. She had been indicted by a grand jury on nine counts of breaking federal laws against distribution of birth control information with her newsletter the Woman Rebel. The potential prison sentence was forty-five years. By the time Sanger completed her persuasive argument, the agents agreed with her. Nevertheless, they said she had broken the law, and they had no power to rescind the warrant.

Throughout  her life, Margaret Sanger ran afoul of the law in her quest to promote women’s health and birth control.

Born Margaret Higgins, she was the sixth of eleven children in a working-class family in Corning, New York. Her father, Michael Higgins, a stonemason, was a freethinking atheist who gave Margaret books about strong women and encouraged her idealism.  Her mother, Ann, was a devout Catholic  and the strong and loving mainstay of the family. When her mother died from tuberculosis at age fifty, Sanger had to take care of the family. She always believed her mother’s many pregnancies had contributed to her early death.

Sanger longed to be a physician,  but she was unable  to pay for medical school. She enrolled in nursing school in White Plains, New York, and as part of her maternity training delivered many babies—unassisted—in  at-home  births. Some of the women had had several children and were desperate to avoid future pregnancies. Sanger had no idea what to tell them.

Soon  after her 1902 marriage to architect  and would-be painter William Sanger,  she became  pregnant,  developed tuberculosis,  and had a very difficult birth,  followed by a lengthy illness and recovery. The young family moved from New York City to the suburbs for Margaret’s health, but two babies and eight years later, Sanger insisted that they return to the city.

In the city the Sangers were part of a left-wing  circle  that included John Reed, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Lincoln Steffens,  and Emma Goldman . Goldman had been smuggling contraceptive devices into the United States from France since at least 1900 and greatly influenced Sanger’s thinking.  Sanger joined the Socialist  Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, providing support for its strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 and in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913. Sanger also returned to nursing, working as a visiting nurse and midwife at Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side. Again, women repeatedly asked her how to prevent future pregnancies. In those days poor women tried a range of quack medicines and dangerous methods to end pregnancies, including knitting needles. A turning point for Sanger came when one of her patients died from a self-induced abortion. Sanger decided her life’s mission would be fighting for the right of low-income women to control their destinies and improve their health through family planning.