Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) almost single-handedly founded the birth control movement in the United States.
In the early 1900s, while working as a midwife among poverty-stricken women in New York City’s Lower East Side, she often met women who asked her for the secret to preventing pregnancy. Sanger knew no secrets and instead witnessed countless women bear one child after another, sometimes at personal risk. When Sanger witnessed one patient die of septicemia from a self-induced abortion after the woman pleaded with her doctor for a reliable means of contraception, Sanger became an activist in the service of women’s reproductive health education.
Sanger lectured and wrote papers on sex education in The Call, a socialist newspaper. Her writing about pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, and menstruation was controversial. And, when Sanger launched the first edition of The Woman Rebel, a magazine on women’s health in 1914, she was arrested for sending “indecent” materials through the mail. The Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal and obscene to post anything about birth control.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger—along with Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell—opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Ten days later, Sanger and a clinic volunteer were arrested for maintaining a public nuisance. When she reopened the clinic on November 20, police raided the facility and closed it for good. Sanger was found guilty of the charges against her and she was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
Sanger organized the American Birth Control League in 1921—one year after women won the right to vote. She previously established the term “birth control” and started National Birth Control League in 1914. Both organizations sought to inform the general public about family planning and women’s health issues. She opened the first legal birth control clinic in 1923, and by 1940 these actions and organizations became Planned Parenthood of America.
Watch: Margaret Sanger Mini Biography
By 1950, Sanger met and collaborated with Gregory Pincus, a biologist who researched and developed the birth control pill, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960. The landmark Supreme Court ruling Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) guaranteed women the private use of contraception as a constitutional right. Abortion became a safe and legal option for women in 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court.
Margaret Sanger was married to William Sanger, an architect. They had three children.
Jean H. Baker, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2012)
Margaret Sanger, The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger (2004)