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Herstory — Margaret Sanger: pioneer of modern birth control


Margaret Sanger: pioneer of modern birth control

By Connie Wolfman

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

––Margaret Higgins Sanger (Slee): nurse, writer, social activist

(b. 1879 New York—d. 1966 Arizona

Margaret Sanger’s career as an activist for women’s reproductive health took off in 1914 when she published The Woman Rebel, a monthly newsletter promoting contraception and thereby challenging the 1873 federal Comstock Act that forbade the circulation of “obscene literature,” including giving women information on birth control options. Throughout her life, Sanger relentlessly fought for women’s reproductive rights through the media, the legal system, and the medical community. Among her many accomplishments, she:

  • 1916 opened the nation’s first family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn.

  • 1921 founded The American Birth Control League, which eventually meshed with other women’s health organizations to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

  • 1932 instigated a showdown with the US legal system that would become the defining moment of her career. Her clinic ordered a diaphragm from Japan, knowing it would be confiscated by the US government under the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The ensuing legal challenge led to a 1936 victory (US v. One Package) when the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that “the law could not be used to intercept shipments which originated from a doctor.” In 1937, this legal triumph inspired the American Medical Association to adopt contraception as a normal medical service and to add the subject to medical school curriculums.

  • 1952 was named the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the world’s largest nongovernmental organization devoted to women’s reproductive health.

  • Late 1950s sparked the development of Enovid, the first US birth control pill, which was approved by the FDA in 1960. Sanger is credited with connecting an innovative biologist with funding sources to accomplish the task.

  • Between 1953 & 1963 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 31 times.

Along the way, Sanger and her colleagues replaced the term “family limitation” with that of “birth control.” A skilled propagandist, she authored 12 books and pamphlets advocating contraception, sexual education, and reproductive freedom; launched several magazines and wrote numerous newspaper columns; and lectured on these subjects throughout the country and abroad. She publicized her cause and changed laws by purposefully getting arrested, being jailed, and getting her cases heard in court.

Sanger’s views on reproductive prevention began to take shape at a young age. Born Margaret Higgins, she was the sixth of 11 surviving children whose parents conceived 18 times. Sanger eventually concluded that her mother died at age 49 from “having too many children and working herself to death.” After moving to New York City with her first husband, Bill Sanger, and their three children, she began work as an obstetrical nurse in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. She witnessed many women who, without contraceptive knowledge or resources, suffered and died from self-induced abortions. These experiences were pivotal to her future work: “I resolved that women should have knowledge of contraception. They have every right to know about their own bodies.”

Sanger initially viewed birth control as a freedom-of-speech issue, deliberately provoking the legal system with articles, pamphlets, and books on contraception, which were considered obscene and therefore illegal. She was arrested eight times for publicly speaking about birth control. Sanger believed unsafe abortions could be avoided by practicing contraception and sanctioned a safe procedure only when the mother’s health was at risk.

She was arrested for the first time in 1914 and fled to Europe. There she learned about the effectiveness of diaphragms; on returning home, she began importing them, for which she was arrested and jailed. Later, her second husband, Noah Slee, smuggled diaphragms in through Canada and legally manufactured them. In 1916, she and her sister, Ethyl Byrne, were arrested for distributing contraceptives.

Over the years, Sanger used the publicity about her illegal activities, court challenges, and political changes to advance the cause of birth control. Gradually she gained support from the medical community and ignited a nationwide movement. She lived to witness the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1966 of Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized birth control.

Recognized as one of the most influential contributors to women’s reproductive rights in US history, the accolades for Margaret Sanger’s work are numerous. Here are just a few:

  • 1966 Planned Parenthood created its highest honor, the Margaret Sanger Award, which is bestowed annually.

  • 1981 Sanger was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

  • 1993 The Margaret Sanger Clinic in New York City was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Another fitting tribute to Margaret Sanger is the comic-book character Wonder Woman, created in 1941 by William Marston, who was married to her niece and was inspired by his firsthand knowledge of Sanger’s life.

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