Margaret Sanger

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Through the establishment of low-cost birth control clinics, Sanger made birth control information and contraceptive devices available to American women of all social classes.

Early Life

Born in Corning, New York, to poor Irish parents, Margaret Higgins was the sixth of eleven children. Her mother died at the age of forty, and Margaret always believed that her mother’s premature death was a consequence of excessive childbearing. During her mother’s illness, Margaret acted as a nurse and also helped care for her younger siblings. Margaret enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who worked as a headstone carver. Higgins advised his resourceful children to use their minds to make a contribution to the world and to try to leave it better than they found it.

As a young girl, Margaret formed the conclusion that poverty, illness, and strife were the fate of large families, whereas small families enjoyed wealth, leisure, and positive parental relationships. Being from a large family, Margaret always felt inferior, and she longed to be rich and comfortable.

After the death of her mother, Margaret decided to become a nurse. During her final training at a Manhattan hospital, she met an architect named William Sanger, who fell in love with her at first sight. Margaret married Bill Sanger in 1902 after a six-month courtship. Over the next few years, Bill continued his work as an architect and Margaret stayed home with their three children. Sanger’s restlessness and boredom in her role as a housewife led to her return to obstetrical nursing in 1912. She felt a need to regain her personal independence, and her mother-in-law agreed to move in and take care of the children. At the same time, Margaret and Bill Sanger began attending Socialist meetings in Greenwich Village. Margaret observed forceful speakers, such as Emma Goldman, who were rethinking the position of women and the future of worldwide political and economic systems. Sanger was considered a shy, delicate woman who rarely voiced her opinion at meetings.

Sanger’s speaking debut was as a substitute before a group of working women. Her topic was family health. The working women liked Sanger’s demeanor and believed what she said. Throughout her life, much of Sanger’s impact was attributable to her personal appearance: She was petite, feminine, and demure. Sanger invariably gained support after the publication of her picture in the newspaper. Although her appearance was described as Madonna-like, Sanger was single-minded, stubborn, and intolerant; she was also charming, personable, and energetic. Sanger’s personality was such that people either worshiped her or despised her.

Life’s Work

During her years as an obstetrical nurse, Sanger frequently made house calls to the Lower East Side of New York City to attend poor women who were giving birth or experiencing complications from self-induced abortions. These women were worried about the health and survival of the children they already had and were desperate to find a way to stop having more children. They would beg Sanger to tell them “the secret” of the rich women and would promise that they would not tell anyone else. Sanger would suggest coitus interruptus or the use of condoms, but she quickly realized that the women rejected initiating these methods, placing contraceptive responsibility on men. Sanger herself never believed in male-oriented contraceptives because she saw men as opponents, rather than partners, in the struggle for conception control.

A turning point in Sanger’s life occurred when she met a young mother of three named Sadie Sachs. Sanger was called to nurse Sadie during the sweltering summer of 1912. Sadie had attempted an abortion and was near death when Sanger was called to the apartment. Two weeks later, Sadie was finally out of danger. Sadie believed that another pregnancy would kill her and she pleaded with the attending physician to help prevent another pregnancy. The doctor callously told Sadie that she could not expect to have her cake and eat it too. His only suggestion, jokingly added, was that she have her husband, Jake, sleep on the roof. After the doctor left, Sadie turned to Sanger, who was more sympathetic than the doctor but who had no better suggestion for contraception. Sanger promised the anguished woman that she would return at a later date and try to provide helpful information. Sanger did not return, and three months later she was again summoned to the Sachs apartment. Sadie was in critical condition from another abortion attempt, and this time she died minutes after Sanger arrived. Sanger was burdened with guilt over the death of Sachs and resolved that she would find out how to prevent conception so that other women would be spared the pain, suffering, and heartache of unwanted pregnancies.

After two years of research, including a trip to France, Sanger decided to publish a journal aimed at working women which would encourage them to rebel and to insist on reproductive freedom. It was at this time that Sanger coined the term “birth control.” In 1914, the first issue of The Woman Rebel was published. Although Sanger advocated that women limit births, she was prohibited by Anthony Comstock from explaining to women the precise methodologies for limiting births. Comstock was the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and Sanger had experienced problems with him several years earlier when she wrote articles for The...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)