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.

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13 thoughts on “Margaret Sanger – Mother of Modern Contraception

  1. What a difference that little pill made in so many lives for the last 3(ish) generations! Excellent post Tami, and thank you so much :-)

  2. I have said more than once, especially to my students, any women or couple who do not wish to be pregnant, or wish to plan when they will have children, should be celebrating Sept 14 (Sanger’s birthday) and Aug 27 (McCormick’s birthday) as national holidays. Their contributions to society are beyond measure.

  3. Except, a woman already has the ability to choose if she wants to be a mother or not, without having to take a “magic pill”.
    And you left out the fact that she was very racist. Among a few other things that would not be considered admirable.
    I must disagree that Margaret Sanger was any heroine.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Sifa. I had a couple of thoughts while I was reading your comment.

      Yes women in theory have always had the ability to choose whether or not they wanted to have children, but in reality it’s not always easy. During the time Sanger lived it usually meant that a woman was choosing to stay single and celibate. Even for women who wanted families, many women died early deaths due to the danger in childbirth and the toll many pregnancies have on health, (as is still true today in many countries.) Illegal abortions and abortifacients have been used for centuries, but were not necessarily safe alternatives and of course are objectionable for some on moral grounds.

      The other is that Sanger is definitely controversial, but it’s hard to come up with historical figures that don’t have characteristics or values that are not admirable. It’s much easier to think of those that do such as Thomas Jefferson and other “founding fathers” who were slave owners, or who are controversial for other reasons such as Rachel Carson and Florence Nightingale.

      It’s hard to summarize anyone’s life in a blog post. My hope in starting this blog was that people would be intrigued to learn more about women and women’s history. Comments like yours help. It presents another side and hopefully people will learn more and form their own opinions. Thanks again for commenting. Even if I disagree I appreciate your viewpoint and the dialogue. :-)

  4. I am grateful to be free of many hindrences that women used to be under including lack of birth control, unable to own property, limited educational opportunities, unable to work at jobs to support themselves, and unable to vote. The independence I have and the ability to live successfully as a divorced, single parent with the financial stability of a career is a luxury that many women have not had.

    • I agree completely. Love learning about these women, and even though there is still work to be done I’m very glad to live now.

  5. A brilliant post. Loved reading it. And thank god contraception is now available!

    i did read somewhere that the first contraceptive pills were distributed with a eugenics programme in mind. That they were only given to working class women and immigrints in order to control their reproduction (with or without their consent) and therefore population of such classes and ethnicities.

    • I’m not sure about the distribution of contraceptives for that purpose, although it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I think forced sterilization was more wide spread than we know (at least than I know.) Fannie Lou Hamer is a good example; the youngest of 20 children, she grew up picking cotton. She was sterilized without her consent at age 44. She also grew up to be a voting and civil rights activist and a force to be reckoned with :) Also within the last couple of years there has been publicity about a doctor here in North Carolina who routinely sterilized poor and minority women.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Eleanor. I’ll pass the compliment on to Tami.

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