Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was one of the most influential advocates of Contraception and founder of the American Birth Control League (later Planned Parenthood). Her campaigns led to the development of the first Contraception .
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Education and Early Career
Born Mary Higgins on September 14, 1879 in New York, United States, she was the eighth child out of eleven children, a fact that would later influence her birth control campaigns. Sanger studied to be a nurse in White Plains. In 1902, she married William Sanger, an architect, and had her first child, Stuart, in 1903.
The family settled in New York, where she worked as a nurse in the poorer suburbs of Manhattan. Sanger had daily experience of helping women who suffered physically due to frequent childbirth, like her mother, or from self-induced abortions, with many not having access to information on birth control. One woman, Sadie Sachs, whom Sanger had helped after one self-induced abortion was found dead after another self-inducted abortion.
Legal Obstacles and ‘Birth Control’
Sanger started writing a column for the New York Call entitled “What Every Girl Should Know.” Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to women, Sanger repeatedly caused scandal and risked imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.
Sanger felt that in order for women to have more “equal footing” in society and to have physically and mentally healthy lives, they needed to be able to decide when a pregnancy would be most convenient for themselves. In addition, access to birth control would also fulfill a critical psychological need by allowing women to be able to fully enjoy sexual relations, without being burdened by the fear of pregnancy. In her journal The Woman Rebel, Sanger instructs women on times when it would be wise for women to avoid pregnancy, such as in the case of illness or poverty. Margaret Sanger coins the term “birth control” in a June 1914 issue of The Woman Rebel.
While in Europe for a year to avoid severe criminal penalties ensuing from the publication of this material, she learned more about contraception, the politics of sexuality and the commonality of women’s experience. During her trip to Europe, she learnt more about contraception practices, including on the greater efficacy of the diaphragm in the Netherlands; she smuggled some back to distribute to women. Her case was dismissed after her return to the State; she separated from her husband soon after.
Advocacy, the Pill and Eugenics
Sanger continued to push legal and social boundaries by initiating sex counseling. She opens the first birth control clinic in 1916 with her sister and a friend in New York City; it is closed down by the vice squad six months later. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League (which became, in 1942, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America). She was on the boards of a number of birth control-related organisations, and lectured across the country as well as overseas (she travelled 6 times to Japan) to promote birth control. She was heavily influenced in the development of the first History of Oral Contraception and the Sexual Revolution in the 1950s.
She was a prominent believer in eugenics, a social philosophy which claims that human hereditary traits can be improved through social intervention. Methods of social intervention (targeted at those seen as “genetically unfit”) advocated by eugenicists have included selective breeding, sterilization and euthanasia. This position has attracted criticism from that Sanger may have been racist by establishing birth clinics in neighborhoods inhabited by predominantly by the poor, black Americans and minority groups. Notably, she received praise from Martin Luther King for her work, and it appears that her target was more likely capitalist systems which she blamed as a key catalyst of oppression of women;
“It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.” (Sanger, “What every boy and girl should know”.)
Sanger died in Tucson, Arizona in 1966.