Margaret Sanger

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Margaret Sanger.

Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist. Initially meeting with fierce opposition, Sanger gradually won the support of the public and the courts and was instrumental in opening the way to universal access to birth control. She was also a fervent believer in eugenics.



Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic who had 11 children before dying of tuberculosis. After graduating from Claverack College in Hudson, Sanger trained as a nurse and worked for ten years in the affluent New York suburb of White Plains. In 1902, she married William Sanger. Although stricken by tuberculosis, she gave birth to a son the following year, followed in subsequent years by a second son and a daughter who died in childhood.

In 1912, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the poverty-stricken East Side slums of Manhattan. That same year, she also started writing a column for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to poor women, Sanger repeatedly risked scandal and imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873 which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.

In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, a newspaper advocating birth control. She also separated from William Sanger. In 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided by the police and Sanger was arrested for violating the post office's obscenity laws by sending birth control information by mail. Sanger fled to Europe to escape prosecution. However, the following year, she returned to the U.S. and resumed her activities, launching the periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News. She also contributed articles on health for the Socialist Party paper, The Call.

In 1916, Sanger published "What Every Girl Should Know," which was later widely distributed as one of the E. Haldeman-Julius "Little Blue Books." It not only provided basic information about such topics as menstruation, but also acknowledged the reality of sexual feelings in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every Mother Should Know. That year, Sanger was sent to the workhouse for "creating a public nuisance."

With Lothrup Stoddard, and C. C. Little Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. The next year, she married oil tycoon James Noah H. Slee.In 1923, she established, under the auspices of American Birth Control League, the Clinical Research Bureau, the first legal birth control clinic in the US (renamed Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in her honor in 1940). That year, she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president of until its dissolution in 1937 after birth control under medical supervision was legalized in many states. In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

In 1928, Sanger resigned as the president of the American Birth Control League. Two years later, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In 1937, Sanger became chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications, The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News. From 1939 to 1942, she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America. From 1952 to 1959, she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time, the largest private international family planning organization.

In the early 1960s, Sanger promoted the use of the newly available birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics.

Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona at age 87 only a few months after the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the US. It was the apex of her fifty-year struggle.

Sanger's books include Woman and the New Race (1920), Happiness in Marriage (1926), and an autobiography (1938).


Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, a freethinker, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. She also criticized the censorship of her reproductive literacy message by the civil and religious authorities, justified on moral grounds, as an effort by men to keep women in submission. An atheist, Sanger attacked the Christian church for its opposition to her message, blaming it for obscurantism and insensitivity to women's concerns. Sanger was particularly critical of the lack of awareness of the dangers of and the scarcity of treatment opportunities for venereal disease among women. She claimed that these social ills were the result of the male establishment's intentionally keeping women in ignorance. Sanger also deplored the contemporary absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration of those with infectious diseases such as measles).

Sanger was also an avowed socialist, blaming the evils of contemporary capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of the young working-class women. Her views on this issue are evident in the last pages of What Every Girl Should Know.

Psychology of sexuality

While Sanger's understanding of and practical approach to human physiology were progressive for her times, her thoughts on the psychology of human sexuality place her squarely in the pre-Freudian 19th century. Birth control, it would appear, was for her more a means to limit the undesirable side-effects of sex than a way of liberating men and women to enjoy it. In What Every Girl Should Know, she wrote: "Every normal man and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse. Men and woman who have it in control and constantly use their brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sexuality, for her, was a kind of weakness, and surmounting it indicated strength:

Though sex cells are placed in a part of the anatomy for the essential purpose of easily expelling them into the female for the purpose of reproduction, there are other elements in the sexual fluid which are the essence of blood, nerve, brain, and muscle. When redirected in to the building and strengthening of these, we find men or women of the greatest endurance greatest magnetic power. A girl can waste her creative powers by brooding over a love affair to the extend of exhausting her system, with the results not unlike the effects of masturbation and debauchery.

Her thoughts on human development were also laden with racism:

It is said that a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.

Sanger also considered masturbation dangerous:

In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.

For her, masturbation was not just a physical act, it was a mental state:

In the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous forms of masturbation, i.e. mental masturbation, which consists of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain, for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to free the thoughts from lustful pictures.


Sanger was a fervent believer in eugenics, a philosophy which led to the rise of such practices as compulsory sterilization (which was ultimately embraced in Nazism). In 1932, for example, Sanger argued for

A stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.

"...certain dysgenic groups in our population," she continued, should be given their choice of "segregation or sterilization." [1] ( Then considered enlightened in some circles, today such measures are often regarded as violations of human rights.

In a mix of socialist and eugenic thought, Sanger blamed economic factors in choice of spouses for contributing to suboptimal human reproduction, and argued for more assertive public health and eugenics measures.


Sanger remains a controversial figure. She is widely acknowledged to have been the founder of the birth control movement and remains an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements. She is reviled, however, by some who condemn her as "an abortion advocate" (unfairly so: abortion was illegal during Sanger's lifetime and Planned Parenthood did not then support the procedure or lobby for its legalisation) or who disagree in principle with Eugenics.

Although Sanger's views on abortion (like many of her opinions) changed throughout the course of her life, she was acutely aware of the problem of abortion in her early years, typically self-induced or with the aid of a midwife. Her opposition to abortion stemmed primarily from a concern for the dangers to the mother, and less so from legal concerns or the welfare of the unborn child. She wrote in a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, "no one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable," though she framed this in the context of her birth control advocacy, adding that "abortions will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. (Care is) the only cure for abortions." Sanger consistently regarded birth control and abortion as the responsibility and burden first and foremost of women, and as matters of law, medicine and public policy second.1



  • Note 1: Gray, Madeline (1979). Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control, p. 280. New York: Richard Marek Publishers. ISBN 0-399-90019-5.

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