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

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.

The Sangers went to France, which was then, with regard to contraception, the most progressive nation.  After learning as much as she could from the French, she returned to the United  States and launched her newsletter the Woman Rebel in 1914, with considerable backing from unions and feminists. As Sanger and her friends sat around her dining  room  table addressing newsletters, they brainstormed what to call their emerging movement for reproductive freedom. From that conversation, the term “birth control” was born. Encouraging working-class women to “think for themselves and build up a fighting character,” Sanger wrote that “women cannot be on an equal footing with men until they have full and complete control over their reproductive function.”

Sanger also began writing on women’s  issues for the Call, a socialist newspaper. She developed two columns that later became popular books, What Every Mother Should Know (1914) and What Every Girl Should Know (1916). When she covered the topic of venereal disease, she went up against the US postal inspector Anthony Comstock, a one-man army against all things sexual. In 1873 Congress had passed the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material and banned contraceptives  and information about contraception from the mails.

Comstock censored her column, the first of many run-ins. He then seized the first few issues of the Woman Rebel from Sanger’s local post office. She got around him by mailing future issues from different post offices. Thousands  of women responded to the newsletter, anxious for information on contraception.

Sanger’s next project was an educational pamphlet, Family  Limitation, which described clearly and simply what she had learned in France about birth control methods such as the condom,  suppositories, and douches. She planned to print

10,000 copies, but there was great demand from  labor unions,  representing members from Montana copper mines to New England cotton mills. She scraped up enough money to print 100,000. Over the years, 10 million copies would be printed, and the pamphlet was translated into thirteen  languages. In the 1920s in Yucatán, Mexico, feminists distributed the pamphlet to every couple requesting a marriage license.

But before she could distribute Family Limitation  in the United States, Sanger had to go to court for the Woman Rebel, whose distribution  was the “crime” for which she had received the arrest warrant. With  very little time to prepare her defense and faced with a judge who seemed hostile to her cause, she made the snap decision to jump bail and flee, alone, to England. While in Europe,  she visited a birth control clinic in Holland run by midwives, where she learned about a more effective method of contraception, the diaphragm, or “pessary.”

By the time Sanger returned to the United  States, Comstock  had died. Her hopes were raised that the laws might not be so vigorously enforced and that she might not have to stand trial. A well-publicized open letter to President Woodrow Wilson, signed by nine prominent  British  writers, including H. G. Wells, supported Sanger and her work. Newspapers wrote about Sanger’s notoriety, and she gained sympathy when they reported that her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, had died suddenly of pneumonia. In the face of public pressure, the government dropped the case, but the laws remained on the books.

Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in October 1916 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, primarily serving immigrant Jewish and Italian women. She, her sister Ethel Byrne (a registered nurse), and Fania Mindell (who helped translate for the immigrant  patients) rented a small storefront space and distributed flyers written in English, Yiddish, and Italian advertising the clinic’s services. Sanger smuggled in diaphragms from the Netherlands and tried to re- cruit a physician to properly fit them in her patients, but no doctors were willing to face possible imprisonment.  Although doctors were allowed to provide men with condoms  as protection  against venereal disease, they were not allowed to provide women with contraception.

Instead, Sanger and Byrne provided the services. The  ï¬rst day the clinic opened, they  saw 140 women. Women—some  from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts— stood in long lines to avail themselves  of the clinic’s services. After nine days, the vice squad raided the clinic, and Sanger spent the night in jail. As soon as she was released, she returned to work. Again, the police came, and this time they forced her landlord, a Sanger sympathizer, to evict them.

Following the eviction, Sanger, her sister, and two others were arrested for “creating a public nuisance.” Ethel was the first to be convicted, and she responded to her sentence of thirty  days of hard labor by going on a hunger strike. After four days, the judge ordered her to be force-fed; it was the first time this punishment had been used in the American penal system. Headlines around the nation publicized her plight. “The  whole country seemed to stand still and anxiously watch this lone woman’s fight against an iniquitous  law,” wrote a reporter for the Birth Control Review in 1917. Ethel almost died before Sanger was able to secure a par- don from the governor and rescue her.

Sanger’s trial began on January 29, 1917. She was also convicted,  but the judge offered her a suspended sentence  if she would agree not to repeat the offense. She refused. Offered a choice of a fine or a jail sentence, she chose the lat- ter and spent thirty days in jail.

Sanger  appealed her conviction,  and a year later the New York Court  of Appeals upheld her conviction.  However, the judge ruled that physicians could legally prescribe contraception  for general health reasons rather than exclusively for venereal disease.

Sanger continued to fight for the right to disseminate birth control information and to import contraceptives from abroad. She launched the monthly Birth Control Review in 1917 and started the American Birth Control League (the pre- cursor to Planned Parenthood) in 1921, focusing particularly on physicians, nurses, and social workers. Two years later she opened the Birth Control Clinic Research Bureau in New York, the first legal clinic to distribute contraceptive information  and fit diaphragms, directed by women doctors. But it was not until

1936 that a federal district court in New York City ruled that the US government could not interfere with the importation of diaphragms for medical use.

Feminists and progressive reformers were divided over Sanger’s crusade for birth control. Alice Hamilton, Crystal Eastman, and Katharine Houghton Hepburn (mother of actress Katharine Hepburn)  supported Sanger, but others, such as Charlotte  Perkins Gilman and Carrie Chapman Catt, thought that birth control would increase men’s power over women as sex objects.

To the detriment of her reputation and the cause of reproductive freedom, Sanger  was also attracted  to aspects of the eugenics movement.  In the 1920s, some  scientists viewed eugenics as a way to identify the hereditary bases of both physical and mental  diseases. Some, however, viewed it as a means  of creating  a “superior” human race. Among them were leading Nazis, who opposed birth control or abortion by healthy or “fit” women in order to promote  a white master race. In fact, the Nazis banned and burned Sanger’s books on family planning.

Sanger’s primary  focus was on freeing women who lived in poverty from the burden of unwanted pregnancies, but by embracing eugenics, she appeared to be crossing the line in troubling ways. For example, in a 1921 article, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control  Propaganda,” she argued that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” Although many of the eugenics movement’s  leaders were racists and anti-Semites  who promoted involuntary sterilization in order to help breed a “superior” race, Sanger was not among them. Her embrace of eugenics was intended to stop individuals from passing down mental  and physical diseases to their descendents. She believed that reproductive choices should be made on an individual basis. She always repudiated the use of eugenics, including sterilization, for specific racial or ethnic groups. In the 1920s, when anti-immigrant  sentiment  reached a peak and some scientists sought to justify restricting immigration by claiming that some ethnic groups were mentally and physically inferior, Sanger spoke out against the stereotyping that led to the Immigration Act of 1924.

In 1930, with the support of W. E. B. Du Bois, the Urban League, and the Amsterdam News (New York’s leading black newspaper), Sanger opened a family- planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a black doctor and a black social worker. In

1939, encouraged by Du Bois,  Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem’s powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church,  journalist Ida Wells, sociologist E. Frank- lin Frazier, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and other black leaders, Sanger expanded her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans lived.

Sanger remained an activist for birth control and women’s rights throughout her life. She helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952. She spent the end of her career raising money for research. Her efforts contributed to the development of the birth control pill.

In 1961, Estelle Griswold, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic in New Haven with Dr. C. Lee Buxton,  a licensed physician and professor at Yale’s medical school. They  were arrested in November 1961 for violating  a state law prohibiting  the use of birth control. They appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which in 1965 ruled in Gris- wold v. Connecticut  that the law violated the right to marital privacy. The case es- tablished a woman’s right to control over her personal life and made birth control legal for married couples. This paved the way for Roe v. Wade,  the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that recognized a woman’s right to choose abortion.


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