Margaret Higgins Sanger

The pioneering work of Margaret Higgins Sanger (1884-1966), American crusader for scientific contraception, family planning, and population control, made her a world-renowned figure.

Margaret Higgins was born on Sept. 14, 1884, in Corning, N.Y. Her father was a thoroughgoing freethinker. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic who had eleven children before dying of tuberculosis. Although Margaret was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. After graduating from the local high school and from Claverack College at Hudson, N.Y., she took nurse's training. She moved to New York City and served in the poverty-stricken slums of its East Side. In 1902 she married William Sanger. Although plagued by tuberculosis, she had her first child, a son, the next year. She had another son by Sanger, as well as a daughter who died in childhood.

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, 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 indicted for 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 dismissal of the indictment against her, began nationwide lecturing. In New York City she and her associates opened a birth control clinic in a slum area to give out contraceptive information and materials. 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, raising money from a group of wealthy patrons in New York, and launching the Birth Control Review, which became the organ of her movement for 23 years. Encouraged by a state court decision that liberalized New York's anti contraceptive statute, she shifted her movement's emphasis from direct action and open resistance to efforts to secure more permissive 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 brilliantly successful 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. By 1930 there were 55 clinics across the United States. Meanwhile Sanger obtained a divorce 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 follower continued to lobby for freer state and Federal laws on contraception and for the dissemination 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 her popularity continued to grow, despite her opposition to United States participation in the war based on her conviction 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 20 years, although she continued traveling, lecturing, and issuing frequent statements. She died in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 6, 1966.


Further Reading on Margaret Higgins Sanger

Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1938) incorporates much of Sanger's earlier My Fight for Birth Control (1931). The most recent biography is Emily Taft Douglas, Margaret Sanger (1969), a carefully researched and sympathetic account. See also Lawrence Lader, The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control (1955). David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), focuses on her public career and examines the whole controversy over birth control. Less solid but of possible interest is the fictionalized biography by Noel B. Gerson, The Crusader (1969). Brief treatments of her are in Mary R. Beard, Woman as a Force in History (1946); Mark H. Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (1963); and Donald K. Pickens, Eugenics and the Progressives (1968).