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margaret sanger

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger, Founder of Birth Control League (Planned Parenthood)

September 14, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
After seeing what she felt were too many women dying a result of unintended pregnancy, Margaret Sanger decided it was time for a revolution. She brought birth control—and controversy—to the masses, operating under the belief that every child should be a wanted child. In the 1920s, she sparked a heated national conversation about reproductive choice that continues to this day.

Margaret Sanger's Early Days

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On Sept. 14, 1879, in a small home in Corning, N.Y., Anne Purcell Higgins gave birth to her sixth child, a daughter she called Margaret. This was but one of the 18 pregnancies Sanger's mother experienced, only 11 of which resulted in a living child.

Although there were many mouths to feed, the family got by; Sanger’s father was a stonemason who made his living decorating tombstones. As in many large families, Sanger shouldered the responsibility of a good number of household chores: cleaning, childcare, cooking. When not at work, Sanger’s father, Michael Higgins, was a political activist who supported, among other causes, women’s suffrage, tax reform and free public education.

When Sanger was 20, her mother passed away from tuberculosis. After tending to her mother while she was ill, Sanger felt she found her calling. She enrolled that year in a nursing school in White Plains, N.Y.

Sanger's Notable Accomplishments

As a trained nurse in New York City in the early 20th century, Sanger was often called to people’s homes or apartments for obstetrical care and deliveries. Sanger wrote in her 1938 autobiography that it was her work on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that drew her attention to contraceptives:

“As soon as the neighbors learned that a nurse was in the building, they came in a friendly way to visit, often carrying fruit, jellies, or gefilte fish made after a cherished recipe … Always back of the little gift was the question, ‘I am pregnant (or my daughter, or my sister is). Tell me something to keep from having another baby. We cannot afford another yet.’”

Having already started to circulate pamphlets on sexual health and preventing pregnancy, in 1914, Sanger started a feminist monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel, to promote information about birth control and activism. Three issues of the magazine were banned and Sanger was arrested for violating Comstock laws, which prohibited the shipment of contraceptives or information about contraceptives through the mail. When released from jail, Sanger jumped bail, and left for England where she studied the theory of prevention of pregnancy with a number of social and economic radicals.

Upon returning to the States, Sanger opened the country’s first birth control clinic on Oct. 15, 1916, in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She offered married women a new contraceptive device she had discovered while abroad: the diaphragm. After nine days in operation—and after seeing more than 400 patients—the clinic was closed and Sanger was arrested.

After her story gained the notice of New York’s wealthy, Sanger was able to use a legal loophole to open another birth control clinic that was staffed by doctors and social workers.

Sanger continued to promote contraceptive reform, both within families and the government. In the late 1920s, Sanger helped found the Birth Control League, which would eventually become Planned Parenthood.

The Rest of the Story

Her continued efforts to support research of contraceptives and the legality of their use led to a 1965 Supreme Court decision that finally made the use of birth control legal for married couples. Sanger died shortly after that decision on Sept. 6, 1966.

Although there is no time in recorded history when some men and women have not attempted to prevent pregnancy, Sanger mainstreamed what was once a delicate matter.
But her brash, blunt approach to human sexuality upset many people. From the publication of her very first pamphlet, she had her detractors and they are no fewer in number today.

Sanger also was a player in the debate over the morality of abortion. She wrote that she felt contraceptives should be used to decrease a need for abortion, but many feel her condemnation of large families was in itself a tacit approval of pregnancy termination.
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