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birth control advocate
Margaret Louise Higgins was born in Corning, New York, on September 14, 1879. She was the sixth of eleven children in a working-class Irish Catholic family. Her mother was often sick and/or pregnant (she suffered seven miscarriages in addition to the eleven live births), and died of tuberculosis at a relatively early age. Her father taught his children to question everything and to stand up for what they believed in. Margaret believed that her mother's death was brought on by her multiple pregnancies, and she decided to become a nurse and start helping pregnant women.
Margaret was a nursing student when she married architect William Sanger in 1902. The couple soon became part of the radical political and intellectual world of New York City's Greenwich Village. Despite periodic bouts of tuberculosis, she gave birth to three children between 1902 and 1910.
Sanger began working as a nurse and mid-wife in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. After watching many women die during childbirth and many others suffer serious (often fatal) injuries due to self-induced abortions, she determined that post-contraceptive education was seriously inadequate and that the only true remedy was birth control education, despite the fact that it was actually illegal for a couple (whether married or not) to practice any form of birth control.
Sanger began her campaign by publishing a series of articles called What Every Girl Should Know, which she distributed to the female members of the lower classes. Although the articles only discussed such topics as physical growth, mental development, puberty, reproduction, pregnancy hygiene, and venereal diseases, they were considered lewd and obscene by the general public.
In 1914, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League. That same year, she published a pamphlet entitled The Woman Rebel. When she was subsequently indicted on nine counts of sending vulgar and pornographic material through the U.S. Mail, she fled to Europe to escape prosecution. As soon as her ship left U.S. waters she cabled a radical publisher to distribute 100,000 copies of another pamphlet, Family Limitation. In 1915, after her husband was jailed for distributing just one copy of her pamphlet, Sanger returned to the U.S. to face her charges. Before she could stand trial, however, her 5-year-old daughter died suddenly from pneumonia. Public sentiment actually swayed in her favor, if only for a short time, and the charges against her were ultimately dismissed.
Although the sudden death of her daughter had brought Sanger temporary sympathy from the public, her continued insistence on teaching birth control insured that she would continue to be a target of public indignation. While in Europe she had learned how birth control clinics had helped women lead healtheir lives, and she had determined to bring such institutions to America.
On October 16, 1916, Margaret and her sister Ethel Byrne, also a nurse, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Jewish and Italian immigrant women were soon lining up around the corner to receive information. Nine days later, however, authorities shut the clinic down and arrested Sanger, Byrne, and the clinic's interpreter. Released on bail, Sanger reopened the clinic, and was arrested again. Both women were tried and convicted, and Sanger spent 30 days in jail.
Sanger's time in jail failed to quench her desire to educate women about birth control. By the 1920's and 30's she was traveling and lecturing throughout Asia and Europe, introducing birth control methods into nations which were in serious danger of becoming overpopulated. The American Birth Control League became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. In 1952, Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and served as its first president until 1959. In 1965, the Supreme Court decision in the case of Griswold v Connecticut made birth control legal for married couples.
Margaret Sanger died in Tucson, Arizona, on September 6, 1966. Although she had lived long enough to gain a partial victory in her battle to make birth control legal, unmarried couples would not have that option until 1972.
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This page was last updated on April 18, 2017.