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 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.
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.
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.