Margaret Sanger (1879)
It was on this date, September 14, 1879, that Margaret Sanger, the founder of the modern birth control movement and the organization that later became Planned Parenthood, was born Margaret Louise Higgins in Corning, New York. She was the sixth of eleven children: her mother died at 50 after eighteen pregnancies and seven miscarriages. Sanger grew to believe that a woman must control her own body – an idea generally accepted today, due in large part to Sanger’s work, but radical in her time. Sanger spent jail time for it on about eight occasions.
She studied nursing at the turn of the 20th century and married architect William Sanger, but kept busy as a visiting nurse in New York’s tenements, where she found women “deprived of their health, sexuality, and ability to care for children already born.” Sanger knew that in order to show women how to control their own bodies and reproduction, she would have to defy both church and state:
My fight is for the personal liberty of the women who work. A woman’s body belongs to herself alone. It is her body. It does not belong to the Church. It does not belong to the United States of America or to any other Government of the face of the earth. The first step toward getting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for any woman is her decision whether or not she shall become a mother. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.*
Contraceptive information was forbidden by Comstock Laws passed in the 1870s by self-appointed anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. Comstock was born a Congregationalist, but believed he had a holy mission.** In a July 1915 article entitled “Comstockery in America,” Sanger wrote,
The passing of the Comstock laws in 1873 was designed to aid and abet both moral and religious prejudice and persecutions. This aroused the wrath of the free-thinking and liberty-loving populace, and in 1878 great agitation was aroused against these laws: a petition was presented to Congress, headed by the name of Robert G. Ingersoll and signed by 70,000 “freemen,” requesting the repeal of these outrageous laws. They were passed and executed ostensibly to prevent the passage of obscene literature through the U.S. mails, but actually were designed and enforced to destroy the liberty of conscience and thought in matters of religion and against the freedom of the press.
In 1914 Sanger founded the National Birth Control League. She opened the first birth control clinic in the US in 1916 – only to have police close it in less than two weeks and spend a month in jail for her efforts. But the incident put birth control before the public for debate at last. Sanger persisted in publishing articles on family planning, such as “What Every Girl Should Know” (1916). In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva. She founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and served seven years as its president.
Sanger died on 6 September 1966, about a week shy of her 88th birthday. She had lived to see the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the 1965 Griswold decision, in which the US Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut ban on contraceptives for married couples. If Sanger made one contribution to humanity that no church or priest ever made, it was to nearly double the lifespan of women: Before contraception, the average life expectancy of a female born in 1900 was 48 years; today, due to birth control, women live 80 years or longer. Margaret Sanger’s motto, on the masthead of The Woman Rebel, was, “No gods, no masters.”
* The Woman Rebel, article “Suppression” Vol.1., No.4., June 1914.
** In 1873, Comstock succeeded in getting the U.S. Congress to pass the “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” using such slogans as: “Morals not art and literature.” The act was popularly called The Comstock Law. Comstock was remarkably successful: his laws inspired 3,697 criminal prosecutions, and destroyed 160 tons of “obscene” literature and pictures, as well as contraceptive items. In a country where free press is a Constitutional right, he was history’s greatest book-burner. His reign of terror over freethinking people ended with his death in 1915, but his legacy in his puritanical laws lives on. In a 1915 interview, Comstock addressed the tenuous connection between pornography and contraception with typically muddy logic: “If you open the door to anything, the filth will all pour in and the degradation of youth will follow. … God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.