Margaret Sanger Biography
Born: September 14, 1884
Corning, New York
Died: September 6, 1966
American author, nurse, and activist
The pioneering work of Margaret Sanger, an American crusader for scientific contraception (birth control), family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.
Influenced in childhood
Margaret Higgins Sanger was born Margaret Higgins on September 14, 1884, in Corning, New York. Her father was a fun-loving freethinker. Her mother was a devoted Roman Catholic who had eleven children before dying of tuberculosis, a deadly disease that attacks the lungs and bones. Margaret was greatly influenced by her father's political views in support of women's suffrage (the right to vote) and tax reform (improvements), although these and other beliefs caused the family to be seen as radical (extreme) in the eyes of their neighbors.
After graduating from the local high school and from Claverack College at Hudson, New York, Margaret took a teaching position in New Jersey, until she was forced to return home to care for her dying mother. Her mother's death in 1896 left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. Soon afterwards Margaret moved to White Plains, New York, where she took nurse's training. She then moved to New York City and served in the extremely poor conditions in the slums of its Lower East Side. In 1902 she married William Sanger. Although Margaret herself was plagued by tuberculosis, she had her first child, a son, the next year. The couple had another son, as well as a daughter who died in childhood.
Begins work in birth control
Margaret Sanger's experiences with slum mothers who begged for information about how to avoid more pregnancies transformed her into a social radical. She joined the Socialist Party, a political party that believes the government should own and distribute all goods, began attending radical rallies, and read everything she could about birth control practices. She became convinced that oversized families were the basic cause of poverty. In 1913 she began publishing a monthly newspaper, the Woman Rebel, in which she passionately urged family limitation and first used the term "birth control." After only six issues, she was arrested and charged with distributing "obscene" literature through the mails. She fled to Europe, where she continued her birth control studies, visiting clinics and talking with medical researchers.
Sanger returned to the United States in 1916 and, after charges against her were dropped, she began nationwide lecturing. In New York City she and her partners opened a birth control clinic in a slum area to give out materials and information about birth control. This time she was arrested under state law. She spent a month in prison, as did her sister. Leaving prison in 1917, Sanger intensified her activities, lecturing and raising money from a group of wealthy patrons (supporters) in New York, and launching the Birth Control Review, which became the voice of her movement for twenty-three years. Encouraged by a state court decision that loosened New York's anticontraceptive law, she shifted her movement's emphasis from direct action and open resistance to efforts to secure more flexible state and federal laws. Although regularly in trouble with New York City authorities, she continued lecturing to large crowds and keeping in touch with European contraceptive research. Her visit to Japan in 1922 was the first of several Asian trips. A year later she and her friends opened clinical research bureaus to gather medical histories and dispense birth control information in New York City and Chicago, Illinois. By 1930 there were fifty-five clinics across the United States. Meanwhile Sanger divorced her husband and married J. Noah H. Slee.
Margaret Sanger's fame became worldwide in 1927, when she helped organize and spoke before the first World Population Conference at Geneva, Switzerland. She and her followers continued to lobby for freer state and federal laws on contraception and for the distribution of birth control knowledge through welfare programs. By 1940 the American birth control movement was operating a thriving clinic program and enjoying general acceptance by the medical profession and an increasingly favorable public attitude.
For most Americans, Margaret Sanger was the birth control movement. During World War II (1939–45), when European forces and the United States clashed with Germany, Italy, and Japan, her popularity continued to grow, despite her opposition to American participation in the war. (Sanger strongly believed that wars were the result of excess national population growth.) In 1946 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This was one of her last great moments. She was troubled by a weak heart during her last twenty years, but she
For More Information
Bachrach, Deborah. Margaret Sanger. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1993.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970.
Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger; an Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1938. Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999.
Whitelaw, Nancy. Margaret Sanger: "Every Child a Wanted Child." New York: Dillon Press, 1994.