Lucy Stanton, Educator and Abolitionist, Was the First African American Woman to Graduate from College

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

On August 27, 1850, Lucy Stanton proclaimed the coming day when slavery would be abolished and encouraged the women at her commencement exercises at Oberlin College to be on the right side of history. She moved them with stories of women torn from their children and a brother killed in an attempt to protect his sister. She also connected the abolition of slavery to women’s rights, saying that “the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause.” 

She called on the women to do their Christian duty and join the fight. “Woman, I turn to thee. Is it not thy mission to visit the poor? To shed the tear of sympathy? To relieve the wants of the suffering? Where wilt thou find objects more needing sympathy than among the slaves!”

Lucy was born free, but she had a passion to see others free as well. Born on October 16, 1831 in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the daughter of Samuel and Margaret Stanton. Samuel died before Lucy’s second birthday and her mother soon married John Brown, a wealthy businessman. Brown was an abolitionist and the family became involved in the Underground Railroad, often hiding as many as 13 runaway slaves in their home at one time. He also organized the city’s first school for African Americans, the Cleveland Free School, which Lucy attended.

In 1846, Lucy enrolled at Oberlin Collegiate Institute, later Oberlin College, where she became involved in the Ladies’ Literary Society and was elected its president. She completed the four-year Ladies’ Liberty Course, which is recognized as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, becoming the first known African American woman to graduate from college. (Mary Patterson graduated in 1862 as the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.) Her commencement address, “A Plea for the Oppressed”, was a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was expected to pass later in the year. It was well-received and reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.

After graduation, Lucy became the principal of a school in Columbus, Ohio, a position she held for two years until she returned to Cleveland and married William Howard Day on Nov 25, 1852. Day was a prominent abolitionist, a librarian, and the editor-in-residence of the abolitionist newspaper Aliened American, Cleveland’s first newspaper specifically for African Americans. In 1854, she published “Charles and Clara Hays” in the Aliened American, the first published short story by an African American woman.

In 1856, the couple moved to the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Canada to run a school for escaped slaves. The Elgin Settlement was a community established by the Rev. William King, a former slave owner turned abolitionist. King purchased 9000 acres and relocated there with 15 of his former slaves to create a refuge for fugitive slaves from the United States. While at Elgin, their only child, Florence, was born. A year later, William traveled to England to raise money for the settlement and when he returned he asked Lucy for a divorce.

Elgin Settlement is not the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Elgin Settlement is now the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Lucy moved back to Cleveland and worked as a seamstress to support her daughter, but she also requested a position with the American Missionary Association. Because she was married, but estranged from her husband, the Association questioned her morality and required endorsements of her character. Lucy’s character had always been above reproach and she had no trouble gathering endorsements from religious and community leaders in Cleveland. In spite of this, the AMA rejected her.

The Cleveland Freedman Association, however, welcomed the opportunity to employ someone of her character and education. So in 1866, they sponsored her to move to Georgia, and later Mississippi, to teach in schools for newly freed slaves. It was in Mississippi that she met Levi Sessions. Having received her divorce in 1872, Lucy and Levi married in 1878 and moved to Tennessee.

In Tennessee and later in Los Angeles, California, Lucy continued her activism and philanthropic work. She was an officer in the Women’s Relief Corps, a grand matron of the Order of Eastern Star, and in Tennessee the president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Like many black women, Lucy’s accomplishments are often overlooked and not as well documented as her white counterparts. She lived a life of purpose, promoting education and the rights of African Americans and women until she died on February 18, 1910 in California.

Resources

Sessions, Lucy Stanton Day (1831-1910) at BlackPast.org Remembered & Reclaimed
A Plea For the Oppressed by Lucy Stanton at BlackPast.org
“I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support”: Lucy Stanton
Day, the American Missionary Association,and the Politics of Respectability at Oberlin
College Archives
ALIENED AMERICAN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
STANTON (DAY SESSIONS), LUCY ANN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Lucy Stanton at Wikipedia

 

Madame Mathilde Anneke – Revolutionary

Mathilde Anneke (source)

Mathilde Anneke (source)

In her older years, Madame Anneke was described as tall, rigid and erect, with a “white silk cloth at her wrist where her right hand had been amputated.” She presided gently, but firmly, over her students at the girl’s school she founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But in spite of her gentle demeanor, her fighting spirit could be seen in her opposition to slavery and her fight for women’s rights. This spirit and her considerable skills had been developed at the printing press and on the battlefield of her native land.

Mathilde Franziska Giesler was born April 3, 1817, to a wealthy, noble family in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia, in the Ruhr Valley of present day Germany. Her father owned coal and iron mines and extensive lands where she was raised in luxury. Mathilde was educated by private tutors and showed an interest and ability in writing as a girl as well as a love for nature.

Mathilde’s happy life ended when she married Alfred von Tabouillot at the age of nineteen.The marriage ended in divorce one year later and was followed by a bitter custody battle over their daughter. This experience gave her first hand knowledge of the injustice of laws related to the rights of married women and she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights.

After the divorce, Mathilde turned to her writing skills to support herself. She did well, writing and editing, publishing a volume of poems and short biographies. She even wrote a play, Oithono oder die Tempelweihe, “The Inauguration of the Temple”, which was successfully performed in both Germany and later in the United States.

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

In 1847, Mathilde married Fritz Anneke, a Prussian artillery officer. They shared common political ideas and together began publishing a daily paper for working class people in Cologne. This was during a time of increased desire for freedom among the people of the German Confederation, and eventually, Fritz was imprisoned for his political activities, but Mathilde continued publishing their paper until it was banned. Unwilling to have her voice silenced, the next year she started the first German feminist newspaper, Frauen-Zeitung.

When Fritz was released from prison, he joined the revolutionaries fighting against the Prussian invasion of the Palatinate. Mathilde cut off her long hair, donned trousers and went with him to serve as his adjutant. She was nearly six feet tall, courageous, and an excellent horsewoman. She also handled a gun well as one stranger found when he tried to sneak into camp late at night. Coming face-to-face with Mathilde’s pistol he said “My God, a woman!” Fortunately for him, he was able to explain his presence in the camp.

When the revolutionaries were defeated, Mathilde and Fritz were force to flee and joined many Germans who fled to the United States. In the US, Mathilde was faced with many of the same social conditions for women and she was also appalled at the conditions of African Americans. In 1852, she started the first feminist journal published by a woman in the US, Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung, and spoke out against slavery. She was an eloquent speaker and spoke and wrote in support of the Union cause. She and Fritz were in accord on this matter and he served in the Union Army as colonel and commanding officer of the 34th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

While other publishers conspired against her in Milwaukee, possibly out of professional jealousy, Mathilde went on a speaking tour to raise funds for her own printing shop. The tour was very successful and the next month she began publication in New York, Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey. She traveled abroad to report on international events as well as news within the United States. Mathilde worked hard and was successful for three years until ill health forced her to stop the paper.

After the Civil War, separation from her husband, and his death in 1872, Mathilde Anneke continued to speak out for women’s rights, the vote, and economic opportunities. She had also continued to bob her hair since the war in Germany. In spite of her strong opinions and commanding presence, she was known for her tact and the ability to win others to her way of thinking. This skill was very useful to her when she began her career as a teacher.

In her final years, Mathilde, now usually called Madame Anneke, chose to pass on her knowledge and ideals to young girls. She opened a school where she instructed about 40 girls at a time (and over the years a few boys.) Her style was unusual and surprisingly modern. Instead of standing to recite, the girls sat around a long table with their teacher at the head. In a newspaper article from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1930, one of her former students, Miss Ida Fernekes had this to say: “It was not her idea to pour knowledge into a child. She drew out, removed obstacles, gently led the way. She allow a child to grow, standing by only to give the growth guidance and purpose.”

For roughly 18 years, Mathilde Anneke imparted wisdom, bolstered confidence, and encouraged talents. I’m sure she was greatly missed when she died November 25, 1884.Madame Anneke was buried beside her husband and wrote the words which adorn the headstone. A loose translation says the following:

“We have never bent the knee
before false gods,
We have never cowered in
stormy weather,
Be we have always had faith
in a divinity
That ever consecrates a
shrine to love.
 – From “Ruins and Ivy”

Mathilde Anneke's headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

Mathilde Anneke’s headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

Resources
National Honor Sought for Madame Anneke: Older Residents Recall Fight for Women’s Rights, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 27, 1930, retrieved from Wisconsin Historical Society website
Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (Giesler) 1817 – 1884 (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Madame Mathilda Franziska Anneke: An Early Wisconsin Journalist, The Wisconsin magazine of history: Volume 21, number 2, December 1937

Harriet Boyd Hawes – On the Dig at Kavousi

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting.

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting before she began her search for a site.

In 1965, the journal Archaeology published two articles from the memoirs and letters of Harriet Boyd Hawes. The materials were provided by her daughter, Mrs. Mary N. Allsebrook, who also wrote a biography of her mother. I enjoyed reading them and I thought I’d share a little with you about Harriet’s first excavation at Kavousi. Links to both articles are below.

Background

Crete had been under Ottoman rule since the seventeenth century, but there were a number of uprisings in the late 19th century. In August 1898, hundreds of Cretan Greeks were massacred along with the British Consul and 17 British soldiers. As a result, Turkish forces were expelled from the island and an autonomous Cretan State was established under the protection of an international force with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner.

This change in the political landscape opened the door for archaeologists and “England, Italy and France applied for sites on which to excavate.” The American school at Athens that Harriet attended had all of its funds tied up in excavations at Corinth, so Harriet “believing that Americans ought, if possible, to have a share in the exploration of Crete,” decided to use what money was left from her fellowship and explore.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving on Crete

On April 10, 1900, Harriet set sail with a Miss Patten of Boston who wanted to study plant life, their foreman Aristides Pappadias and his mother. They were “much tossed about” in a dingy little boat before they spied the walls of the fort guarding the harbor of Candia. Their luggage was tossed on another boat and Harriet says, “I was lifted and swung from steamer to boat by a huge Soudanese, black as Egypt’s darkness, who seemed to enjoy immensely the exercise of his strength. It must have been a funny site – the boat plunging up and down, for the waves were high, and I wriggling in the big black man’s arms, in mid air.”

They were met by a man from Arthur Evans staff and made welcome at the British School house and the excavation at Knossos. They soon rented a little house of their own for $4/month where their lives were simple. They had “a table, two chairs, our two cot-beds, a few cupboards and boxes – plates etc. enough to serve with very frequent washing.” Aristides did the shopping and Manna, his mother, did the cooking and housekeeping.

Finding Their Site

Game table found at the chief's house at Kavousi. (source)

Game table found at the chief’s house at Kavousi. (source)

When they set out to explore, they had no roads to follow, only mule tracks. Manna stayed behind in charge of the house, and Harriet, Jean (I assume this is Miss Patten) and Aristides took off on their mules with a guide. They encountered numerous villages which had suffered during the conflicts which ended just a couple of years before. They encountered “villages, many of which we found utterly ruined, about an equal number of Mohammedan villages burned by Christians, and of Christian villages burned by Mohammedans.”

Although Harriet had visited many excavation sites in Greece, she was unsure of her ability to see and select her own site. She talked to the locals, asking about items they had found in the fields, but said that “it is not easy to discriminate between worthless gossip and valuable evidence.”

Aristides was evidently an impressive man , dressed in traditional Greek clothes associated with patriotic heroes. He rode ahead of the ladies and ordered coffee, treating others and laying the groundwork. When the ladies arrived it was assumed that they were very important since they accompanied someone like Aristides. Soon people began to bring them items that they had found and offer to show them the locations.

Everywhere they went they were treated exceptionally well. It was Holy Week, but they were offered wonderful food even though most people were eating sparsely for Lent. They were also offered shelter every night. Harriet thought there were three main reasons for the hospitality: 1) the Cretans were hospitable people, 2) the village they excavated at would benefit financially, and 3) the fact that ladies could travel without fear was evidence that the land was safe again.

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

They couldn’t dig without official authorization, so they had to make their selection based on what they found above ground, but were surprised how much there was to choose from. But Kavousi had been recommended by Arthur Evans, so they wanted to wait until they had seen it.

When they reached Kavousi, the people welcomed them warmly and as usual began to show them pieces they had found. Harriet saw several locations where she believed tombs existed, but she made up her mind when an “old, old man” brought her “three fine early bronzes.” At the site where he found them, she found a “small acropolis and many early walls” and what she thought would be a temple.

Harriet made up her mind to excavate at Kavousi and wasted no time obtaining permission. They “made sixty miles from Kavousi in two days – quite fast for mules and wooden saddles.” She submitted her petition at Herakleion and waited. She wrote home, “I hope within five days to have permission to excavate ‘in the neighborhood of Kavousi and Episcope,’ and within ten days I hope to be at work with thirty men.”

On the dig

Harriet and Miss Patten rented a small house to live in and for their headquarters at Kavousi. It had a wooden gate that led into a courtyard surrounded by “storerooms, stables and kitchen.” The room where they slept was reached from the roof of one of the storerooms and was one of only two rooms in the village with a wooden floor. They placed tables and chairs on one of the roofs where they had a spectacular view. They were pleased with the available food: sheep’s milk, eggs, bread, lamb, chicken, artichokes and beans, with olive oil and spices. Canned food was used only for lunch at the site.

On the first day after they were settled, Aristides asked the men of the village who wanted to dig to come to the courtyard. Harriet was familiar with the language because of her nursing activities during the war, so together they chose ten men who became “Firsts.” These men took on supervisory roles as more workers were added and nine of them stayed with Harriet throughout all of her excavations on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

At times the digging was boring and seemed unfruitful, but finally an exciting find was made on the Kastro, a 2000 foot peak. They transferred the workmen and “daily made the difficult ascent on mules as far as the Ridge, an hour’s climb, whence we reached the top by a hand and foot scramble.” There they excavated what Harriet called the “home of a Highland Chief of Homer’s time.”

Another exciting find occurred near the end of the season when she allowed two boys to dig at a place that didn’t seem promising at all. She gave them permission because she didn’t want to discourage their enthusiasm, but when they yelled “Lady, Lady” she knew they had found something exciting. It turned out to be a bee-hive tomb that was undisturbed from 3000 years earlier. In this tomb they found skeletons, vases, a large pithos and many small metal objects.

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (source).

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

Overall, Harriet was very pleased and so were the villagers. “They would have much to discuss through the winter, much to tell passing travelers, and could claim for Kavousi an importance it had never before enjoyed among the villages of Eastern Crete.”

Although the digging was over for the season, Harriet’s work wasn’t done. She headed back to Candia where she spent time writing her report to the American School at Athens and cataloging her finds. Harriet’s excavation at Kavousi was the first on Crete led by an American and she undertook it purely on her own initiative. The next time she returned it would be to excavate for the American Exploration Society of Philadelphia.

Read more about Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Resources
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes (source)

“Riding on mule-back in attire like that shown in her photograph, accompanied by the faithful Aristides (a native of northwestern Greece) with his mother as chaperon, she was apparently perfectly unconscious – in the best American tradition – of doing anything unusual or courageous.” From the Introduction to Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes.

When Harriet Boyd finally decided that she wanted to study Greek archaeology at the source, in Greece, it must have been frustrating to find that her instructors didn’t think she should get her hands dirty. They expected female archaeologists to become librarians or museum curators, but she had always been more inclined to action than academics. So she set off to find her own site to excavate.

Early Life

Born on October 11, 1871, Harriet was the youngest of five children and the only girl.  Her mother died while she was still an infant and whatever her father did to try to “rouse domestic tastes” and “induce womanliness”, according to Harriet’s daughter, was useless against the influence of her brothers. Her doll house was taken over by a “military coup”, she would “scout” for the boys and took delight in pyrotechnic shows. They also had an area in their home where they kept pet squirrels. It was a happy, rowdy home and Harriet loved it.

One person who had a particular influence on Harriet was her brother Alex. Eleven years her senior he was a parental figure of sorts. He was especially influential in her love of and decision to study the Classics at Smith College. When he died her senior year it was a very sad time for her, but she graduated in 1892 and had to make a decision about what to do with her life.

For the next four years, Harriet taught school, first in a boarding school for impoverished students in North Carolina and then in a finishing school. When she became dissatisfied with teaching, she decided to take a tour of Europe. She was able to do this in part because of her inheritance from Alex. In this way he helped to set her on the path to her destiny.

Excavations in Crete

The sources I read didn’t give a name, but supposedly Harriet met a man in Europe who challenged her not to study Classics in Europe or America, but to go right to the source. Also, as a student at Smith, she heard a lecture by Amelia Edwards about her travels up the Nile. (Edwards wrote a book titled A Thousand Miles up the Nile which became a best seller about her adventures in Egypt and Egyptian archeology.) At that time she became intrigued by archaeology. Now she decided to combine the two, took the man’s advice and, in 1896, enrolled at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia. (Author: Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons)

Her graduate studies went well, but as she advanced she wanted to take part in field work. As I mentioned, the common expectation for women in archaeology was that they would work as librarians or curators. Harriet had already made a bit of a stir by traveling to Greece without a chaperone and riding around Athens on her bicycle, so when she couldn’t get an excavation site through the school she decided to strike out on her own.

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

In the spring of 1900, Harriet decided to go to Crete and look for her own site. This involved traveling around and talking to farmers and villagers about the artifacts they found. She obtained all the necessary permissions to excavate and decided on Kavousi. With the help of hired workers, she excavated baskets of artifacts, a house, a number of Iron Age tombs, a small “castle” and one 3000 year old undisturbed bee-hive tomb. It might not have compared to the finds Arthur Evans was currently finding at Knossos, but it was her excavation. She returned to the US and published her work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Returning the next year, Harriet made the discovery that she would be primarily remembered for, Gournia. After several discouraging weeks of searching for a new site, they were led to a place with “old walls” by a local man named George Petakis. Deciding that it looked promising, Harriet sent the men ahead the next day while she took care of mail. When she arrived, the site was buzzing with excitement. All the men were eager to show them what they had found and it was clear they had their site. Three days after first seeing Gournia, she sent a telegram saying “Discovered Gournia Mycenaean site, street, houses, pottery, bronzes, stone jars.”

Gournia consisted of a small acropolis surrounded by paved roads, more than 70 houses and “the small palace of the local governor.”  It was a town of workers and artisans with evidence of weaving, fishing, bronze-casting, and the making of pottery of different types. They discovered pottery ranging in age from around 2500 to 1000 BCE. Gournia was rich with history. All of this provided three years work for Harriet and her crew, 1901, 1903, and 1904.

Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete; excavations of the Wells-Houston-Cramp expeditions, 1901, 1903, 1904. By Harriet Boyd Hawes, Blanche E. Williams, Richard B. Seager, Edith H. Hall Philadelphia, The American Exploration Society, Free Museum of Science and Art, 1908

Pottery found at Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete by Boyd’s team. (source)

Harriet had a talent for organizing, but she also had a desire to share her passion. She took on a number of younger archaeologists such as Blanche Williams, Edith Hall, and Richard Seager. And since excavating is a seasonal activity, she also taught Greek archaeology at Smith and gave lectures for the Archaeological Institute of America becoming a recognized authority on Crete.

Nursing

Harriet took time out from her life regardless of where she was to be of service through nursing. Her talent for organizing extended to field hospitals. In 1897, she took time off from school to nurse soldiers during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1915, she took supplies and relief to wounded Serbian soldiers at Corfu. The next year she went to France.

Then in 1917, she spoke to an alumnae group at Smith about war relief. The first Smith Relief Unit sailed for France in August of that year led by Harriet and consisting of doctors, professors, social workers and of course a few archaeologists.

Personal Life

Gournia was the last excavation that Harriet directed. Her active life was complicated by the fact that at the age of 35, she decided to marry. During one of her trips to Greece, she met and fell in love with Charles Henry Hawes a British anthropologist. They married on May 3, 1906 and had two children, Alexander Boyd Hawes and Mary Nesbit Hawes.

Even though she gave up field work, she didn’t give up archaeology. In addition to publishing the results of the Gournia excavation, she and Charles wrote a book together called Crete: The Forerunner of Greece. She also continued teaching, lecturing and nursing.

Harriet did consider having a family an “interruption” in her active life, but she said that whether or not a woman was happy in this decision would “depend largely on her having anticipated it as part of the Good Life.”

Harriet Boyd Hawes was a pioneering woman in archaeology and should be remembered as such. She died on March 31, 1943 at the age of 73.

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis, Wikimedia Commons

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis at en.wikipedia

 

Resources
Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure by Amanda Adams
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

Smith College: Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition: Bryn Mawr and the First Generation of Women Archaeologists “Edith Hayward Hall Dohan (1877-1943)

This is the video on YouTube where I first heard of Harriet Boyd. The focus is primarily on Knossos, but the video is great.
The Ancient World: The Minoans with Bettany Hughes

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Read about other Famous Women in Science

Margaret Sanger – Mother of Modern Contraception

I am very excited to welcome guest blogger Tami Stout. She is currently studying political science and women and gender studies and has kindly offered to give us her insight about Margaret Sanger. Thank you Tami!

margaret-sanger-1-sizedMargaret Louise Higgins Sanger (1879 – 1966) was an American activist born in 1879 in Corning, New York.  Sanger was one of eleven children born to an Irish-Catholic immigrant working class family.  Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins died of tuberculosis and cervical cancer at the age of 50 having born the strain of 11 pregnancies and seven stillbirths.  As the story goes, Margaret lashed out at her father over her mother’s coffin that he was responsible for Anne’s death due to so many pregnancies.

Margaret was determined to have a different future.  She left Corning to attend nursing school in the Catskills.  Margaret married William Sanger in 1902 and had three children of her own.  In 1910, the Sangers moved to New York City and settled in Greenwich Village.  The area was known as being bohemian and supported the more radical politics of the time.

Margaret returned to New York City to work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East side.  Here was where she saw the lives of poor immigrant women.  Without effective contraceptives many of these women, when faced with another unwanted pregnancy, resorted to five-dollar back-alley abortions or attempted to self-terminate their pregnancies.  After botched abortions Margaret was called in to care for the women.  After watching the suffering and trauma so many women experienced, Sanger began to shift her attention away from nursing to the need for better contraceptives.  Sanger objected to the suffering and fought to make birth control information and contraceptives available.  She began dreaming of a “magic pill” to be used to control pregnancy.  “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother,” Sanger said.

Indicted under Comstock Laws for sending diaphragms through the mail and arrested in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the country, which was only open for nine days before she was arrested, Margaret Sanger would not take no for an answer.  In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, the forerunner to Planned Parenthood and she spent the next thirty years trying to bring safe and effective birth control to the American woman.

Gregory Pincus

Gregory Pincus

By the 1950’s, although Sanger had many victories, she was far from finished.  Frustrated with limited birth control options on the market, Margaret still was in search of the “magic pill”.  No longer a young woman and in failing health, she was not ready to give up and made it her mission to find someone to complete her vision of a contraceptive pill as easy to take as an aspirin, inexpensive, safe, and effective.  In 1951 Sanger met Gregory Pincus, an expert in human reproduction.  Now all she needed was the money to make her vision happen and she found that in heiress Katherine McCormick.  Pincus partnered with Dr. John Rock and the collaboration led to the FDA approval of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive in 1960.

Katherine McCormick

Katherine McCormick

There were of course bumps in the road on the way to an effective contraceptive available to the masses.  Pill trials in Puerto Rico did cause health problems and deaths due to extremely high levels of hormones.  Sanger also faced controversy over her association with eugenics.  Sanger’s grandson, Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood stated that his grandmother “believed that women wanted their children to be free of poverty and disease, that women were natural eugenicists, and that birth control was the panacea to accomplish this.”

With the invention of the “magic pill” Margaret Sanger accomplished her life-long goal of bringing safe, affordable, and effective contraception to the masses.  Not only did she see the pill realized, but four years later, at the age of 81, Margaret Sanger witnessed the undoing of Comstock Laws.  In the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the court ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right.  When Sanger passed away a year later, after more than half a century of fighting for the rights of women to control their own fertility, she died knowing she had done what she set out to do.

Margaret Sanger was a champion of women and by giving women the right to control their own fertility, she gave them the right to control their lives.  No longer held hostage by your body, you have the right to seek education, employment, and a rich and fulfilled life whether that involves children or not.

 

Sanger's Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau operated from this New York building from 1930 to 1973. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau operated from this New York building from 1930 to 1973. It is now a National Historic Landmark.