Margaret Louise Sanger Biography (1879-1966)

nurse, birth control activist

Margaret Sanger was a pioneering feminist who advocated the right of women tocontrol their bodies sexually and reproductively. She educated women about contraception and worked tirelessly for its legalization.

Born Margaret Higgins on September 11, 1879, in Corning, New York, Sanger wasthe sixth of eleven children. Her parents, Anne Purcell and Michael Hennessey Higgins, believed that it was every person's duty to help others and improve their lot. Her father was considered a freethinker who spoke out about labor reform and social equality. The Higgins home was a busy place where meetings were often held for like-minded progressives interested in social reform. The Higgins family was somewhat ostracized by their community for their outspoken activism. Margaret learned early in life to value controversy and to weather criticism.

Throughout Sanger's education, she displayed an interest and a passion for women's history and the push for equality. Sanger taught for a year after graduating from Claverick College and Hudson River Institute. After this year, hermother fell desperately ill with tuberculosis and Sanger returned home to nurse her. After her mother's death, Sanger recognized that nursing would be aprofession that would allow her to help society in the way that she had always dreamed. Sanger went on to study nursing at White Plains Hospital and Manhattan Eye and Ear Clinic in New York. Shortly thereafter, she married her first husband, William Sanger.

After a hiatus in her career during which her three children were born, Sanger began her career as a visiting nurse in New York City. Serving women in themost desperate slums of the city, she was stricken by the specter of so manywomen dying in childbirth and dying of illegal attempts at abortion. Despitethese desperate scenes, contraception remained illegal. Women told her of their agony: unable to prevent pregnancies, knowing that their health was compromised by many pregnancies, and bringing children into increasingly desperatepoverty. Her female patients literally begged Sanger to teach them what theycould do to change the cycle of poverty, childbirth, and death in which theywere trapped.

Sanger became increasingly passionate about the topic of what she termed "birth control" (then called "voluntary motherhood"). She spent time researchingsuch issues in the library, and even traveled with her family to Europe to learn more. She returned to New York in 1914, ready to champion the cause.

Sanger began publishing a magazine called Woman Rebel. She encouragedwomen to stand up and think for themselves. She published information on theright to vote and family planning. The Comstock Law, however, stated that thedistribution of birth control information through the mail was illegal. TheU.S. Postal Service, therefore, refused to deliver her magazine, terming itscontents obscene. Eventually, Sanger was charged with breaking the law, and she fled to London for two years. She used this time to learn more about birthcontrol and politics and returned to the United States in 1915, armed with more information and renewed passion.

Sanger began lecturing throughout the United States, gathering support for her political efforts to repeal the obscenity laws and anti-birth control lawsthat prevented activists from distributing both birth control information andbirth control itself. She established the National Birth Control League, which over time became the Planned Parenthood Federation of American (still a vital advocate for safe contraception, family planning, and education about sexuality).

Sanger opened her own Brooklyn clinic in 1916, where she, her sister, and another nurse distributed pamphlets, collected histories to document the suffering of women, and provided health care. In short order, the police raided andclosed down the clinic. Sanger was jailed and sentenced to labor in a workhouse. Upon her release, she simply reopened the clinic out of her own home. Hernew publication, The Birth Control Review, debuted in 1921 and had anational mailing list. In 1928, Sanger collected 500 of the million letters she had received from women nationwide. These letters described the agony of poverty, their enslavement to uncontrollable pregnancies and childbirth, and the wrenching sadness of the many deaths of their own mothers, sisters, and daughters due to the lack of available contraception. Sanger published these letters in her 1928 book, Mothers in Bondage.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Sanger traveled all over the world, lobbyingand lecturing for appropriate birth control legislation. She published numerous articles, pamphlets, and books. She organized conferences on the subject of birth control, including the first International Birth Control Congress inGeneva, Switzerland. The Comstock Law was finally repealed in 1936, allowinginformation on birth control to be distributed through the mail. Shortly thereafter, the American Medical Association at last agreed that doctors could give their patients contraceptives.

In 1952 Sanger traveled to Bombay, India, for the founding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, for which she served as the first president. Sanger helped fund research that led to Gregory Pincus's development of thebirth control pill. Sanger died on September 6, 1966 in Tucson, Arizona.

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