Reproductive Rights Advocate Blazed Trail
March is Women's History Month. Over the centuries, nothing has been
more important to women than reproductive freedom, yet such freedom was
long in coming and hard won. Well into the 20th century, the mailing or
distribution of basic information about contraception was a criminal
offense. Margaret Sanger, a New York nurse concerned about the adverse
effects of frequent childbirths, miscarriages and abortions, became the
self-appointed crusader on behalf of reproductive rights in the United
In 1912 Sanger began to distribute birth control
information to working-class women. Through her steadfast efforts over
the next decade, women for the first time began to gain easy access to
contraception. "The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred
years from now, the most influential of all time," predicted the British
futurist and historian H.G. Wells in 1931.
Sanger embraced the
cause of reproductive freedom because of her personal experiences. Born
Margaret Higgins in upstate New York in 1879, the child of Irish
immigrants, she blamed her mother's premature death on her frequent
pregnancies and the taxing demands of caring for a large family. Mrs.
Higgins, a devout Catholic, conceived 18 times and gave birth to 11
Margaret married architect William Sanger and soon
thereafter they moved to New York City and immersed themselves in the
bohemian culture and radical idealism of Greenwich Village. Sanger
worked as a nurse and midwife in Manhattan tenements. There she saw many
struggling young mothers who did not have enough money to provide basic
support for their growing families. She also witnessed the consequences
of unwanted pregnancies.
While sitting at the bedside of a young
woman dying of a self-induced abortion, Sanger resolved to spend her
life helping women gain control of their own bodies. "No woman can call
herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will
not be a mother," she asserted.
In 1914 Sanger defied the law by
publishing The Woman Rebel, a monthly journal that advocated the right
to practice "birth control," a term she coined. Six months later, the
police arrested Sanger for violating postal obscenity laws. Unwilling to
risk a lengthy imprisonment, she fled to England.
crusader returned to New York a year later, eager to garner media
attention through a sensational trial. The case, however, never made it
to court. When Sanger's only daughter died suddenly of pneumonia,
sympathetic publicity convinced the attorney general to drop the
In 1916 Sanger opened the nation's first family
planning clinic in Brooklyn. To promote its opening, she distributed
fliers in English, Yiddish and Italian, asking: "MOTHERS! Can you afford
to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do
you have them? DO NOT KILL, DO NOT TAKE LIFE, BUT PREVENT!"
of women flocked to the new clinic, arousing intense opposition from
the Catholic Church. Police raided the clinic and arrested Sanger and
her staff. The judge offered clemency if she would stop circulating
information about contraception. She refused and spent 30 days in jail.
trial produced an important legal victory. The New York State Court of
Appeals ruled that contraceptives were legal if prescribed by
physicians. Between 1914 and 1918 birth-control leagues developed in
every major city of the United States. An excited Sanger reported that
"millions of women are asserting their right to voluntary motherhood."
1921 Sanger organized the American Birth Control League, which in 1942
changed its name to Planned Parenthood. The organization distributed
birth control information to doctors, social workers, women's clubs and
the scientific community, as well as to thousands of individual women.
the 1920s Sanger continued to champion a woman's right to "own and
control her own body," but her tactics and style grew more conservative.
She abandoned socialism and became a Republican. Divorced from her
bohemian first husband, she remarried a wealthy industrialist in part
because he promised to bankroll the cause of birth control. Now intent
upon attracting support from middle-class Americans, Sanger downplayed
the earlier association of reproductive control with women's rights and
sought instead a compromise whereby contraceptives could be acquired
through a physician.
During the 1920s Margaret Sanger alienated
supporters, then and since, by endorsing sterilization for the mentally
incompetent and those with hereditary deficiencies. Birth control, she
stressed, was "the most constructive and necessary means to racial
health." In 1928 Sanger resigned as president of the American Birth
Margaret Sanger was a free spirit. Charismatic
and egotistical, charming and demanding, she loved the limelight and
brooked no opposition. Yet for all of her faults, eccentricities and
reversals, she never lost focus on women's freedom and its wider
implications for social justice. She insisted that women should direct
their own lives. In 1936 a federal court ruled that physicians could
prescribe contraceptives — a vital step in Sanger's efforts to realize
her slogan, "Every child a wanted child."