Margaret Sanger (Corning, 1879 – Tucson, 1966) was an American nurse, sex education activist, writer and founder of the American Birth Control League. This League became in 1942 the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) which, together with other similar associations in many countries, contributed to create in India, in 1952, the International Planned Parenthood Federation of which he was president until 1959.
Sanger was at the center of several court cases that facilitated the legalization of abortion in the United States. Sanger has been a frequent target of criticism from those who oppose the use of abortion for contraception but remains an iconic figure in the U.S. reproductive rights movement.
In 1916 Sanger opened the first population development control clinic in the United States in New York, which led to her arrest for disseminating information on contraceptive methods. Her subsequent trial and appeal generated enormous support for her cause. Sanger believed that true equality for women required free motherhood, i.e., that women should be able to decide if, when and how many children they wanted to have. She also wanted to prevent the practice of unsafe abortion, which was common at the time because abortion was usually illegal. She also opened a clinic in Harlem.
Children and youth
Sanger, born Margaret Louise Higgins, was the sixth of eleven children. Her parents were Michael Hennessey Higgins, an Irish freethinking bricklayer, and Anne Purcell Higgins, a Catholic worker who was also Irish by birth. Margaret”s mother, Anne, along with her parents emigrated to Canada when she was still a child, due to the Great Irish Famine, later settling in New Jersey. Her father, Michael Hennessey Higgins emigrated at the age of 14 to the U.S. and served in the army during the American Civil War or Civil War, although he had to wait until he was 15 to enlist as a drummer in the Twelfth New York Volunteer Cavalry. After leaving the army, he studied medicine and phrenology, but ultimately chose to become a stonecutter, carving stone angels, saints and tombstones. Michael Hennessey was a Catholic who became an atheist and an activist for women”s suffrage and free public education. Margaret”s mother, Anne Higgins was pregnant 18 times – having 11 live births – over 22 years before her death at the age of 49.
Sanger spent much of her youth helping with household chores and caring for her younger siblings. The family went through long periods of extreme poverty and her mother was regularly ill. Sanger attended St. Mary”s in Coming elementary school. The children ridiculed her for wearing old, worn-out clothes, she dreamed of escaping poverty. With the support of her two older sisters, Margaret Higgins attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute but had to drop out to care for her mother. In 1902, at the age of 22, she graduated as a nurse. Later she started at White Plains Hospital as a trainee nurse, a job she left in the summer when she married architect William Sanger, who was also an anarchist, more firmly opposed than her father to all organized religion. Despite the recurrent tuberculosis she suffered, Margaret Sanger gave birth to three children with her husband, enjoying a quiet life in Westchester County, New York.
In 1911, the Sangers had been badly affected by the horror of the TriangleShirtwaist Factory. One hundred and forty-six immigrant seamstresses had died in the first 15 minutes of the fire. Employers had locked the emergency doors to prevent them from taking breaks. The Sangers became active members of the workers” rights movement. They organized and marched. And they joined the Socialist Party, befriending Emma Goldman, one of Sanger”s early mentors on women”s rights and reproductive rights. The Sangers supported the three main premises of the labor movement: workers have the right to organize unions, women who do the same work as men should receive equal pay, and all people deserve a decent standard of living. During this time she participated in debates in radical circles and came into contact with the birth control movement. At the end of this period she left these circles to devote herself to nursing work.
In the winter of 1911-12, Margaret rescued 119 workers” children from the violence of the Massachusetts spinning mill strikes. The state”s armed forces had been called in to prevent 25,000 workers from organizing, 50 percent of whom were women. One woman was killed. Sanger kept the children out of harm”s way and secured temporary homes for them in New York City. She later spoke on their behalf to a legislative subcommittee in Washington.
In 1912, Margaret Sanger was also working as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City. Many of the women she cared for were Jewish and Italian immigrants. Sanger had the opportunity to see as many as 50 women lined up waiting for $5 abortions because they had no access to contraceptives. She cared for women who were seriously ill and at risk of dying from trying to get abortions themselves because they did not have the $5 for a less dangerous alternative. The miserable situation of these women reminded Sanger of the poverty of her childhood, and of her own struggle with tuberculosis, which Sanger had caught from her mother while caring for her in the last days of her life.
Sanger”s experience as a nurse was crucial. It strengthened what would become her lifelong commitment, helping women escape poverty, disease and death due to over-pregnancy. She summed up the misery of all the women she had cared for in her famous account of Mrs. Sadie Sachs. In late 1912, Mrs. Sachs had nearly died after a self-induced abortion and asked her doctor how she and her husband, Jake, could avoid another pregnancy. Sanger was appalled by the doctor”s advice, “Tell Jack to sleep on the roof.” Time passed. Sadie became pregnant again and tried to have another abortion. By the time Sanger arrived, Sadie was in a coma. All Sanger could do was hold her hand as she died.
She began to dedicate herself to birth control outreach, vowing to find a way to do more than simply comfort women and their families at the time of death. She became an activist for social change with a goal of global transformation, every child loved and wanted, and every woman responsible for her own destiny.
Toward the end of the year, she had published the first article in a series, “What Every Girl Should Know,” in The Call, a socialist monthly. She wrote candidly about how a woman”s body matures from childhood through puberty. She wrote about women”s sexual and reproductive health. With this publication, not intending to violate federal and Comstock laws – she did not include information about contraceptives. He was also a victim of censorship. In 1913, Anthony Comstock banned her column, stipulating that the words “syphilis” and “gonorrhea” were obscene. When The Call was reprinted, an empty box appeared in place of Sanger”s column. A headline in the box read, ” What every young woman should know, nothing: by order of the U.S. Post Office.”
In the end, socialism let her down. Its leaders were not ready to accept the idea that women had the right to decide when to have a child or not to have a child. Disillusioned by her “comrades,” Sanger would eventually turn away from the doctrinaire socialist movement of her day. Her views evolved after World War I, the Soviet Revolution and the increasingly intense anti-communist crusades of the U.S. government. She moved from a class-based view of economics to a more centrist position. He became a
progressive who believed in reforming the capitalist system and building a strong welfare state. But he would never forget the working poor Americans who had to feed several mouths. He would find a way to alleviate their suffering, on his own. In 1914, Sanger decided to found her own newspaper, The Woman Rebel. The slogan on the masthead of the first edition read “No gods and no masters”. Through the paper she defied the Comstock laws. It undertook to publish all existing information on “birth control” – a phrase that was printed for the first time. Defiance was the theme of its first issue. At the bottom of the back cover appeared a small box that read :”
“A woman”s duty. To confront the world with a go-to-hell look in her eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention.”
The federal government warned Sanger to stop publishing. She did not heed the warning and continued to write, publish and distribute copies of The Woman Rebel – through the U.S. mail. The government suppressed the March, May and July issues and refused to have them mailed. Sanger was arrested in August 1914. She could have been given a maximum sentence of 45 years.
Three of the four charges he faced were for obscenity as defined by Comstock. The fourth was for incitement to murder and manslaughter. He had published an article advocating the murder of tyrants, including contemporary Americans. And he had written an inflammatory commentary in defense of violence in response to a vicious massacre by the Colorado National Guard, which occurred at the behest of John D. Rockefeller, killing 74 coal miners and their families, including 13 women and children.
Later, Sanger would recall the brief existence of his publication in this way,
“I”m told that The Woman Rebel was poorly written; that it was raw; that it was emotional and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, I plead guilty to all these accusations.”
Sanger was given six weeks to prepare his defense. Instead, she wrote a short book on birth control, Family Limitation, in a calculated provocation to Comstock. Family Limitation described with illustrations, the most common methods of birth control, and which at the time were available even if illegally, to women with more resources than Sadie Sachs had had, condoms, chemical spermicides, douches, caps, sponges, suppositories, the withdrawal method, and the new rubber diaphragm that was gaining popularity in countries like Holland where contraceptives were legal. Upper-class women learned about these methods from their doctors, friends and during their travels to Europe. Sanger believed that poor women, like Sadie, also had a right to know about them. There were many women who wanted to come up with Margaret Sanger”s theories. With a quarter, they could buy a copy of Family Limitation and the information they needed to help them avoid an unplanned pregnancy. Eventually, Family Limitation sold 10 million copies and became the bible of the pioneering birth control movement.
When it came time to face charges for publishing Woman Rebel, Sanger”s lawyer advised her to plead guilty. Fearing that she would be harshly punished like her anarchist and socialist friends at the time, she decided to leave the country. Her decision to become a fugitive from justice was difficult. Her growing obsession with her work had taken her away from her husband, William, and her three children – Grant, Peggy and Stuart. But as she wrote from Canada on her way to England:
“Dear Peggy, my heart longs for you. It brings tears to my eyes to know you are gone , my dear , if only I could touch your chubby little hands . But work cannot wait, work that will ease your fate , and the fate of those who come after you.”
In England, where he had already earned the right to free speech, Sanger lived off the royalties he received for Family Limitation. He rented an apartment near the British Museum where he spent all day studying the history of family planning. She discovered that throughout recorded history, and not just on New York”s Lower East Side, it was common for women to resort to abortion, infant abandonment, and even infanticide to protect themselves and their families. She read everything she could about contraception and sexuality and immersed herself in the writings of Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill and Robert Owen. And she met Havelock Ellis, who became her mentor and lover. One of the world”s first and most famous sexologists, Ellis promoted tolerance for sexual diversity and pushed for reform of repressive sexual laws in England. He tried to convince society that masturbation and homosexuality were natural behaviors and, like Sanger, believed that contraceptives were the key to sexual liberation.
While in Europe, Sanger also visited Holland. He made attempts to meet with Dr. Aletta Jacobs, who had founded a nationwide network of birth control clinics there. However, Dr. Jacobs was reluctant to meet with Sanger because she was not a physician, but Dr. Johannes Rutgers, Jacobs” chief assistant, who had been very impressed with Family Limitation, had no problem explaining to Sanger the Dutch system – run by doctors and nurses, a model he would later adopt in the United States.
While Margaret Sanger was learning about human sexuality, sexual rights and how contraceptives were provided in Europe, William, her estranged husband, was arrested by Anthony Comstock himself, in the privacy of their own home. William had given a copy of Family Limitation to an undercover government official posing as one of Margaret”s needy friends. Comstock also participated in the prosecution of the case against William Sanger and despite public outrage was found guilty. Faced with the choice of paying a $150 fine or going to jail for thirty days, Sanger considered the effect on public opinion and opted for jail time. Two weeks later, Anthony Comstock died of pneumonia. With her husband in jail, Comstock”s death and public opinion strongly in her favor, Sanger decided to return to the country. She returned to New York where she was warmly welcomed in October 1915. But she would soon find herself in trouble as she tried to find allies to champion her cause.
In her absence, her former collaborators, Mary Ware Dennett, Clara Stillman and Anita Block, took over her files and subscriber lists and formed the National Birth Control League. Upon Sanger”s return, they informed her that they and their organization had decided that they could not support or defend her methods of direct action, confrontation and lawbreaking. But before long, even more devastating events occurred. On November 6, Peggy, her four-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, a loss Sanger never consoled herself for.
The opening was advertised in trilingual flyers, English, Italian and Yiddish. The flyers invited women to come to Sanger”s clinic and learn how to avoid an abortion by using contraceptives. That first day, before the clinic opened its doors, a long line of mothers with babies in their arms and in strollers had already formed. Sanger and her staff, her sister, Ethel Byrne; a registered nurse, Fania Mindell, who spoke all three languages; and a social worker, Elizabeth Stuyvesant, received 10¢ for each consultation.
The clinic was only open for 10 days. One of the women they had counseled was an undercover police officer. Sanger, Byrne and Mindell were arrested and jailed. When Byrne went on hunger strike, the wave of public outrage reached a boiling point. And it exploded when Sanger was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in the Queens County Penitentiary, where she did not miss the opportunity to inform her fellow inmates about contraceptive use. During her incarceration, support for Sanger intensely resurfaced, not only in the New York press, but also in communities across the country. When she was finally released, Sanger was undoubtedly a national celebrity, with enormous fundraising power for the cause she loved (Sanger appealed her conviction and in 1918 won a major legal victory). Doctors, but not nurses, would now have the right to prescribe contraceptives when medically necessary, the model she adopted as she built the modern family planning movement.
After her imprisonment, Sanger was at the forefront of a rapidly advancing reproductive rights movement. In 1917, with Dennet and other collaborators, she founded The Birth Control Review, the first scientific journal devoted to the subject of birth control. She herself was in charge of publishing The Review until 1929. In her editorials for The Review, Sanger also expounded her views on another American movement, the eugenics movement. In its most benign version, eugenicists argued that careful “breeding” could improve the human race by limiting population growth and reducing the frequency of undesirable genetic characteristics, such as inherited diseases. At their most mischievous, eugenicists thought that forced breeding or sterilization could increase or decrease certain ethnic populations. Sanger made it clear that he had no confusion on this point:
“I admire the courage of a government taking a stand on sterilization of the unfit, although my admiration is subject to the interpretation of the word “unfit”. If by “unfit” is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, then it is an admirable gesture, but if “unfit” refers to races or religions, then it is another matter, which frankly I find regrettable.”
Eugenics had the enthusiastic sympathy of many progressives but despite Sanger”s warning, it soon deteriorated into a blanket excuse for sterilization and control of “undesirables” on the basis of race or class. Today, Sanger”s involvement in the American eugenics movement and her adherence to some of its principles and values strikes us as outdated and even questionable. On the other hand, Sanger firmly believed that the word “voluntary” was key to achieving all eugenics ideals. It was her fundamental view that voluntary family planning was not only the essential first step toward equal rights for women, but it was also essential in attempting to halt rapid population growth or to “produce” a healthier society, a healthier human race by reducing diseases and disabilities that were considered hereditary and untreatable during their lifetime. Although in some writings she exempts the mentally ill, she refused throughout her life, to give in to her conviction that every woman has the right to make her own decisions, especially about having children.But despite the years she spent working, maneuvering and lobbying the eugenicists of the time, she did not succeed in getting them to accept her cause. Just as she had been disillusioned years earlier when she sought support from the socialists, Sanger would be equally disappointed with the leaders of the American eugenics movement for their refusal to support every woman”s basic right to self-determination. That only took place in the 1930s, when U.S. eugenicists, shocked by the Nazi plan, supported universal, voluntary birth control. A good example of Sanger”s early attempts to reason with the leaders of the eugenics movement, and her disenchantment with them, is found in the article she wrote for The Birth Control Review in February 1919:
“Eugenicists…believe that a woman should have as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We consider that the world is already overpopulated. Eugenicists imply or insist that a woman”s first duty is to the state; we hold that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state.”
She stressed this point in many of her books, but especially in The Pivot of Civilization. Although she failed to get the socialists or eugenicists of her day to support her cause, the worldwide birth control movement grew in size and impact under Sanger”s leadership during the years following World War I. She became a tireless ambassador who toured the world in pursuit of birth control. From an expert speaker in small towns, she became a tireless ambassador who toured the world in pursuit of family planning, traveling to the poorest cities in Asia.
The Catholic Church and civil authorities in major U.S. cities did everything they could to silence Sanger. In 1921, for example, Sanger organized the first American Conference on Contraceptives, which took place in New York City. During the conference, Sanger and Mary Winsor were arrested for attempting to speak about contraceptives at a mass meeting at the Town Hall Club. The arrests, which took place at the instigation of the Catholic archdiocese, sparked public outcry that Sanger and Winsor were being denied their constitutional rights. Public opinion once again rose in their favor, and Sanger gained the loyalty and financial support of a growing number of educated women and men who became interested in the birth control movement after hearing her lectures around the world.
In 1922, when Sanger emerged as a leader of the international birth control movement, he also founded the American Birth Control League. The mission of this ambitious new organization went beyond simply legalizing contraceptives. It encompassed global policies such as slowing world population growth, achieving disarmament and ending world hunger. Sanger was filling a gap left open by her rival, ;Mary Dennett The National Birth Control League had disintegrated in 1919, when Dennett left it to found the Voluntary Parenthood League (VPL). Dennett identified three crucial goals for the VPL. The first was to change contraceptive laws through the legislative process. The second was to establish birth control services without recourse to medical professionals, whom Sanger considered the gatekeepers of the national birth control program. VPL also rejected Sanger”s view that birth control should be under the control of women. It believed that men should have equal rights in making decisions about contraception. The Voluntary Parenthood League ceased to exist in 1927 with no legislative achievements, but with a large number of unsold books on birth control laws that no one wanted to read. Like Emma Goldman, Dennett eventually left the reproductive rights movement. Two decades earlier, Goldman had left for Europe to try to do something to stop World War I. Now, Dennett would return to her first love, art and craft. In an ironic twist of life, a few years later, Dennett, who had been so critical of Sanger”s legal infractions, was prosecuted for obscenity. Although she was later acquitted on appeal, she was convicted in 1929 for publishing, in 1918, the highly successful pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life An Explanation for Young People.
In 1923, Sanger opened the Office of Clinical Investigations for Birth Control on Fifth Avenue in New York. Dr. Stone headed the staff. The research office provided contraceptives to women under licensed medical supervision and studied the effects of contraceptives on women”s health in order to broaden the interpretation of the Comstock Act and allow women to use contraceptives for medical reasons. (Existing laws allowed men to use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted infections, but not contraceptives.
In 1928, Sanger”s second husband, J. Noah Slee, who was deeply sympathetic to her work, began smuggling diaphragms, called “thimbles,” into the U.S. The diaphragms came from Canada in Three-InOne Oil Company products. The diaphragms arrived from Canada in Three-InOne Oil Company products (Slee later became the first legal manufacturer of diaphragms in the U.S.). Contraceptive smuggling eventually led, 10 years later, to U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, one of Sanger”s most significant legal victories for the reproductive rights movement.
Sanger”s written prenuptial agreement with Slee was highly unconventional for the time. She demanded that they live in separate residences in New York City, that they not have a key to each other”s homes, keep her professional name, and that she would be free to live her own way. Slee, however, supported her unconditionally. One example of his affection for Sanger had to do with the book she published in 1928. It was a heartbreaking collection of letters she had received from women who desperately pleaded for birth control information because they were living in a crippling situation of poverty and disease. The book was called Motherhood in Bondage. Despite its intensity and strength, Motherhood in Bondage did not find an audience and did not sell well. To spare her feelings, Slee bought all the unsold books so that Sanger would think her book sold well.
By 1929 Sanger was a figure of world and national fame, but even so she was still forced to confront entrenched, recalcitrant and highly organized opposition. In Boston, for example, the Catholic hierarchy had the authorities prevent him from speaking in defense of his position. Sanger asked Harward University historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger to read her speech on her behalf while she appeared on stage with her mouth covered. The press loved it, but even though Sanger had the press on her side, the law and the church remained opposed.
That same year, New York City police raided the Office of Clinical Investigations for Birth Control. Doctors and nurses were arrested and medical supplies and confidential medical records were seized. However, as today, the invasion of the confidential relationship that exists between a physician and his or her patient caused protests and resulted in strong support from the medical profession and community leaders. All of the defendants were acquitted, and the issue of birth control once again became front-page news across the country. In addition, that same year, Sanger found the time to create the National Committee on Federal Birth Control Legislation to fight for the repeal of the federal Comstock statutes. The Catholic Church and the New York Police Department were not the only organizations to disapprove of Sanger”s work. In 1933, Nazi eugenicists in Germany demonstrated their contempt for Sanger”s approach to reproductive freedom and her egalitarian views by dramatically burning copies of her books, including The Birth Control Review, along with those of her mentor, Havelock Ellis, and also those of her rival, Sigmund Freud. All were torn from the shelves of the library of the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft), founded and directed by Magnus Hirschfeld, Germany”s foremost sexologist. Thousands of books were ceremoniously torn to pieces and thrown into the tremendous bonfires, which gained scandalous notoriety thanks to the film newsreels of the time. But Sanger was not easily intimidated. In 1935, she traveled to rural India in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade Mahatma Gandhi from his abstinence-only position on family planning. (Ironically, in 1952, India would become the first nation in the world to adopt family planning as part of its development program.)
It was in 1936 that Sanger managed to have a considerable impact on the laws that stood in the way of the reproductive rights movement, and, after two decades of activism, she helped bring about one of the movement”s greatest victories. Judge Augustus Noble Hand, ruling for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, ordered a broad liberalization of federal Comstock laws regarding the importation of contraceptive devices. Judge Hand”s decision, while not declaring the Comstock laws unconstitutional, determined that contraceptives could not be classified as obscene in light of contemporary data on the harm caused by unplanned pregnancies and the benefits of contraception. The young lawyer Harriet Pipel, who helped Morris Ernst gather evidence for Sanger, would later become the first legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Federation of America . It was Sanger herself who had instigated One Package by disclosing to postal authorities information about her request for her allies in Japan to send contraceptives to the U.S. Sanger also found a donor for a donor to send her contraceptives. Sanger also found a donor to put up money to pay the litigation costs. Judge Hands ruled against the government and wrote in his decision:
“While it is true that the policy of Congress has been to prohibit the use of contraceptives altogether if the sole purpose of using them is to prevent conception in cases where it would not be injurious to the welfare of the patient or her offspring, it is going far beyond such a policy to hold that abortions, which destroy incipient life, may be permitted in proper cases, and yet that no steps may be taken to prevent conception, although a probable result should be to require the termination of pregnancy by operation. It seems unreasonable to suppose that the national system of legislation involves such inconsistencies and requires the complete deletion of the articles, the use of which in many cases is advocated by such weight of authority in the medical world.”
Thinking it had achieved its goal of repealing the federal Comstock laws, the National Committee on Federal Birth Control Legislation disbanded. But this goal would not be achieved during Sanger”s lifetime. Ultimately, the One Package decision applied only to New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. It would be nearly 30 more years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples across the country were entitled to obtain contraceptives from licensed physicians. And it wasn”t until 1970 that the last Comstock laws were repealed. But in the years following One Package, the ideas that made Sanger controversial ceased to shock and entered American public life.
Also in 1936 Sanger would go to India for a meeting of the World Theosophical Society.
Finally in 1937, the American Medical Association officially recognized contraceptives as an integral part of medical practice and education. And that year, North Carolina became the first state to recognize birth control as a public health measure and to provide contraceptive service to indigent mothers through its public health program. Before long, six other southern states joined the initiative. But this victory was marred by a malicious tinge of racism and eugenicist manipulation, which came to Sanger”s attention after she launched one of the last major projects of her career. Some of Sanger”s detractors, such as Angela Davis, have interpreted the passage “as evidence that she led a calculated effort to reduce the black population against its will.”
In the mid-1930s, Sanger was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt”s New Deal and incorporated the new trends for social planning into her own agenda, encouraging family planning through voluntary, publicly funded birth control and state support for children from poor families. Despite the praise and accolades she received from the elite of her day, Sanger never forgot the poor and the marginalized. In 1930, Sanger successfully opened a family planning clinic in Harlem in New York City. She hired an African-American doctor and an African-American social worker. The clinic had the support of the city”s leading African American newspaper, The Amsterdam News, as well as the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League and leading black community figure, W. E. B. Du Bois. As now, opinion on birth control in the African American community was divided between modernists like Du Bois and black nationalists like Marcus Garvey, who, along with African American fundamentalists, opposed birth control or any control of family size.
A few years later, Sanger also established birth control clinics in the rural South to serve poor communities and to research methods that were cheaper and easier to use than the diaphragm for poor women. In 1939, the American Birth Control League merged with the Office of Clinical Investigations to become the Control Federation of America. One of the first and major campaigns was called the Negro Project, a program created by Sanger. The historical data leave no doubt about Sanger”s goal. She believed that African Americans in the South were:
“…a group notoriously disadvantaged to a large extent, due to a “caste” system, which operated by further hindering their efforts to obtain a fair share of the finer things in life. “We believe that providing this group with knowledge of birth control is the most direct and constructive way to help improve their immediate situation.”
Sanger believed that through the Project, she could help African Americans have better access to safe contraceptives and maintain birth control services within their community, as she had done in Harlem nearly a decade earlier. She assembled an advisory committee, including African American leaders who had supported her cause in Harlem. The project also had the sponsorship of Eleanor Roosevelt and leading black New Deal supporters. But the Negro Project became something very different from what Sanger had envisioned.
After securing the funding to launch the project, Sanger lost control of it. She had proposed that the money be used to train a prominent African American physician and an equally renowned African American clergyman to travel for a year through as many southern cities as possible, preaching the virtues of birth control. Sanger felt it was essential to gain the support of black communities before attempting to establish clinics. And then, as he had learned in Harlem, it would be equally essential to find black medical personnel to operate the birth control centers. But the leadership in the new federation followed the advice of Robert Seibels, chairman of the South Carolina Medical Association”s Committee for Maternal Welfare. Seibels considered Sanger and her collaborators to be “vinegary zealots” who had no business giving direction to physicians. He insisted that money should not be spent to win the support of black communities, as Sanger had envisioned. Under his direction, the money Sanger raised was used to encourage black women to go to clinics where white doctors distributed contraceptives and did follow-up examinations. Relatively few women chose this alternative, and many of those who did, dropped out of the program. In the end, the Negro Project was carried out in a manner that was basically indifferent to the needs of the community and permeated a certain racism, becoming similar to the paternalistic “sexual hygiene” caravans sponsored by white doctors that occasionally crisscrossed the region. Sanger”s view put her at odds with leading American eugenicists, such as Charles Davenport, who took a racist view of inherited traits. In A History of the Birth Control Movement in America, Engelman also noted that “Sanger looked the other way effortlessly when others expressed racist discourse. He had no reservations about relying on flawed and overtly racist works to satisfy his own propaganda needs.”
From 1940 to 1943, Sanger had more success with the “Division of Negro Service,” an education program that had an advisory committee of more than 100 well-known African American leaders. Under the direction of Florence Rose, the Division of Negro Services organized exhibits, instigated the national and community press, and inundated black organizations across the country with printed family planning materials published by the newly formed Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rose also hired a black physician, Ernest Mae McCarroll , to teach other black physicians about birth control and lobby medical groups. Satisfied with these circumstances, Sanger wrote to Albert Lasker, who, with his wife Mary, had provided funding for the Negro Project and for Planned Parenthood”s Division of Negro Services;
“I think the Negro question is definitely becoming relevant in the United States, not only because of the war, but also in anticipation of the place that Negroes will occupy once peace is signed. I think it”s great that we”re laying the groundwork, helping blacks get birth control, reduce the number of births and the maternal and infant mortality rate, to maintain a better standard of health and standard of living for those who have already been born and create better opportunities for those who will be born.”
Sanger made clear his hopes for all people of color in an article he wrote in 1944 called “Population Everybody”s Business” for Tomorrow magazine:
“We must protect the Chinese baby as well as the Indian baby of the future. To the English, Russian, Puerto Rican, Black and White American babies who will stand by our side to heal the scars of this World War II conflict and bring the promise of a better future.” …. Never before in history have we realized how important it is to all of us that each of these children be born strong and with the potential to become a useful and decent adult.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Sanger began to ”retire” from leadership in the family planning movement, having moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1937 to be more comfortable in her struggle with the tuberculosis that afflicted her. Until her death in 1966, however, she continued to exert considerable influence in the reproductive rights movement and lent her personal support to projects she considered urgent. In 1952, for example, Sanger and Dhanvanthi Rama Rau of India jointly chaired the first meeting of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. It was attended by nearly 500 family planning advocates, representing delegations from more than a dozen countries around the world. At the age of 70, Sanger was the driving force behind the research and development of the most revolutionary medical breakthrough of the 20th century after penicillin – the pill.
The development of contemporary hormonal contraception, from the pill to the contraceptive patch, ring and injection used today, grew out of Sanger”s ideas. She had won women the right to use contraception. Now she would develop a method that was nearly 100 percent effective. Her quest for an oral contraceptive began in earnest in 1951. Her closest collaborator was also an ardent fighter for women”s rights, Katharine McCormick, who had also been a leader in the suffragist movement and had helped establish the League of Women Voters. The second woman to graduate from MIT and a close friend of Sanger, McCormick used her expertise in biochemistry and endocrinology to oversee and drive the research process for the development of the Pill by Gregory Pincus, John Rock and M.C. Chang at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. McCormick also donated most of the financial resources, millions of dollars, that were needed for the research, allowing the dream he shared with Sanger, to achieve a safe, reliable, low-cost, woman-controlled contraceptive, to be fulfilled.
Sanger”s dogged fight, even as her health deteriorated, spurred the creation of a safe and effective oral contraceptive that changed the human sexual environment forever. It made the sexual revolution of the 1960s safer for millions of people and established family planning as a cultural norm for the U.S. and many other countries around the world.
On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the first oral steroid pills for contraception. Approved to regulate menstruation in 1957, the pill was already used by at least 500,000 women, who probably also enjoyed its contraceptive benefits.
By 1965, one in four married women in the U.S. under the age of 45 had used the pill. By 1967, about 13 million women worldwide were using it. And by 1984, that number would reach 50-80 million. Today, 100 million women use the pill. Margaret Sanger”s legacy and her thousands of friends, allies and supporters around the world have made the world a better place, especially for women. Like every human being, Sanger had many flaws. She could be moody, vain and outrageously unconventional in her personal life. In her professional life, she could be obstinate and stubborn, uncompromising, fanatical, condescending and rhetorically pompous. She also had some definitely old-fashioned, embarrassing and harmful ideas.
Today, anti-family planning ideologues, having lost the battle to win the hearts and minds of people around the world, attack Sanger as a demonic corrupter of moral values. Not content with emphasizing Sanger”s very real weaknesses, they put words in her mouth that she never said, assign motivations to her that she never had, and attribute to her opinions that she never held in order to discredit the modern reproductive rights movement. But the actual historical record of Sanger”s life and times clearly confirms that generosity of spirit, unwavering courage, passion, humanity, and a brilliant intellect were also indisputable qualities that characterized Margaret Higgins Sanger”s life and work.
A year before Sanger died, Mrs. Coretta Scott King accepted PPFA”s Margaret Sanger Award on behalf of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. From Dr. King”s acceptance speech, Mrs. King read:
“There is a remarkable sisterhood between our movement and Sanger”s initial efforts….. “The beginnings in the struggle for equality by direct nonviolent means might not have been so strong without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and others like her.”
Biologist, historian, writer and social critic H.G. Wells predicted that:
“When the history of civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine. The movement she started will grow to become, a hundred years from now, the most influential in the world.”
On the day Sanger died, September 6, 1966, Senator Ernest Gruening (D-AK) read for the Legislative Record:
“…a great woman, a brave and reckless person who lived to witness one of the most striking revolutions of modern times, a revolution that her torch lit.”
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