Margaret Sanger: Radical Heroine
Margaret Sanger founded a movement in this country that would institute such a change in the course of our biological history that it is still debated today. Described by some as a "radiant rebel", Sanger pioneered the birth control movement in the United States at a time when Victorian hypocrisy and oppression through moral standards were at their highest. Working her way up from a nurse in New York's poor Lower East Side to the head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret Sanger was unwavering in her dedication to the movement that would eventually result in lower infant mortality rates and better living conditions for the impoverished. But, because of the way that her political strategy changed and evolved, Margaret Sanger is seen by some as a hypocrite; a rags to riches story that involves a complete withdrawal from her commitment to the poorer classes. My research indicates that this is not the case; in fact, by all accounts Margaret Sanger was a brave crusader who recognized freedom and choice in a woman's reproductive life as vital to the issue of the liberation of women as a gender. Moreover, after years of being blocked by opposition, Sanger also recognized the need to shift political strategies in order to keep the movement alive. Unfortunately, misjudgments made by her in this area have left Margaret Sanger's legacy open to criticism. In this paper, I would like to explore Margaret Sanger's life and career as well as become aware of some of the missteps that she made and how they reflect on both.
Margaret Sanger was not born a crusader, she became one. A great deal of her early life contributed to the shaping of her views in regards to birth, death, and women. Born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York to Michael and Anne Higgins, she was the sixth of eleven children. Anne Higgins was a devout Catholic while Michael Higgins was a stonemason with iconoclastic ideas and a flair for rebellion. It was her father that fascinated Margaret. Corning, being a strictly Catholic town, disapproved of Michael Higgins and, consequently, the stone cutting commissions that kept the family fed were often lacking. The children did not fair much better than their father in terms of public ridicule. The Higgins children would arrive to school to chants of "Children of the Devil". One day, her teacher saw to it that Margaret was made the brunt of the torment in class, at which point she simply picked up her things and left the schoolhouse vowing never to return. Margaret was exceptionally bright in school and her father pleaded with her to go back. Margaret refused. Margaret's two older sisters, Mary and Nan, offered to pay for the cost of a private school out of their paychecks if Margaret agreed to wait tables for her room and board. So, in 1896 Margaret ended up at Claverack, one of the first coeducational schools in the East. It was there that her natural leadership skills blossomed in the form popularity and pranks (Miller 199-203).
After graduation, Margaret taught first grade in a public school in New Jersey; she loved it. Unfortunately, Margaret had to leave her job that same year to care for her mother who had become critically ill. Anne Higgins had suffered from tuberculosis since before Margaret was born, but Margaret still tried her hardest to nurse her mother back to health. All of her attempts failed and, in March of 1896, Anne Higgins died. Margaret always believed that it was her mother's frequent pregnancies (18 total) that led to her ill health and premature death. Realizing that it was her turn to pitch in and help the family, Margaret stayed at home and took over most of her mother's duties. Margaret did not mind the housework much, but it was the change in her father that she could not handle; he had turned in to a bitter tyrant that rant the girls ragged. Margaret reconciled with her father, but left soon after to pursue nursing as a career (Miller 204).
In 1900, Margaret enrolled in the nursing program at White Plains Hospital with maternity work as her focus. The work was grueling and the tuberculosis that she had caught from her mother flared up twice, causing Margaret to need operations both times. Still, Margaret excelled at her work and eventually realized the extent of the problem that she had before only associated with her mother; childbearing was slowly killing most of the women that she saw as patients. Moreover, the patients themselves would beg Margaret for the "secret" to preventing any more babies. Margaret had no advice to give them, but eventually made up her mind to ask the doctor what she could tell these women. The doctor simply looked at her aghast and commented on what a horrible thing that was to have asked a nice girl (Miller 204).
During her time at White Plains, Margaret met, was courted by, and married William Sanger. In the time that followed her marriage to Bill, Margaret moved with him to the suburbs of New York and bore him three children: Stuart, Grant, and Peggy. Margaret's tuberculosis was so terrible with each pregnancy that after Peggy the doctors forbid her to have any more. Time went by, and in 1910, after the three children were in school; Margaret realized that she could no longer bear the life of a suburban housewife. Margaret talked to William about it and shortly thereafter they moved back into the city. Bill's mother moved in with them to take care of the children and, at 31 years old, Margaret returned to nursing (Miller 206-207).
In 1910, most women still had their children at home and so Margaret felt that she was most needed in her old field of maternity nursing. She worked night and day tending to the women in the families that crowded the Lower East Side of New York where 3,000 people lived miserably crowded together (Clark 74). The conditions in the tenements were atrocious; they were sweltering in the summer and frozen in the winter, some never even saw any sunlight or fresh air. Margaret soon realized that pregnancy was a permanent condition for most of these women. An estimated 204 infants was dying for every 1,000 born (Clark 74). Time and time again women would plead with Margaret to help them, to tell them the "secret" to avoiding a pregnancy. Their pleas were so desperate that Margaret could not keep herself from thinking about their plight. To her it made no sense that the poor should always have such large families, did the poverty breed the large families or did the large families breed poverty?
The difference between the world where she worked and the world where she lived astounded Margaret. At home, Bill would host dinner parties for prominent socialists and radicals; in this he was much like her father. Margaret once pointed out to them, "Poverty and large families seem to go and in hand. If unions are fighting for better wages and hours, they should be equally concerned with the size of the workingman's family"(Miller, p.209). It was then that she realized that neither the suffragettes who demanded votes for women, nor the radical socialists who wanted to strike for better labor conditions recognized that the real issue for women was childbearing and that until women could control that, they would not be free (Miller 209).
One night, in the summer of 1912, the troubling connections between pregnancy and illness, poverty and large families became all too evident for Margaret to muse over any longer. That night she was called to the tenement home of Sophie Sachs, a woman in her 20's who had tried to abort herself. The scene was awful; Jake, Sophie's husband, sat crying nearby and Sophie herself could barely sit up. Sophie was informed that another child would kill her. Upon crying out to the doctor for advice on what to do to prevent that outcome, the doctor replied that the only thing to do was to have Jake sleep on the roof. After the doctor had left, Sophie pleaded with Margaret for the secret, as one woman to another. Unfortunately, Margaret had no advice for Sophie and the next time she was called to the Sachs' apartment, just a few moths later, it was already too late; Sophie was dead from the effects of another self-induced abortion. Margaret simply could not keep still any longer; she resolved to do whatever she could to help the countless women who were left to the mercy of husbands and doctors (Sanger 88-92)
On Sunday, November 12, 1912 the column "What Every Girl Should Know" appeared in the socialist newspaper The Call. The article was the first of what was intended to be a series of articles for adolescent girls that focused on educating and shifting their attitudes on sex. The column did not run for very long. This was to be Margaret Sanger's first run-in with the Comstock laws.
Anthony Comstock was the founder and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In 1873, Comstock persuaded Congress to pass a very powerful and encompassing censorship law, the Comstock Act. Moreover, he was then made a special agent of the post office with the authority to open letters, packages, books, anything at all that drew his suspicion. There was no rhyme or reason, no guidelines or rules about it; it was simply his judgment. Comstock personally decided what was too lewd or vulgar for the American population to send or receive via the mail (Miller 210). Though the impact of this may be lost on us today, it is important to remember that every major magazine, circular, and journal was sent though the mail and that these were the primary sources of information for most people at the time. So, while health authorities were praising Margaret's work, Comstock informed The Call that he would cancel their mailing permit if they ran the next article in Margaret's series (Miller 210).
On February 9, 1913 readers of The Call opened the newspaper to find:
WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW
By Order of the Post Office Department
No more articles in that series ran, but it was too late to stop Margaret; she had already made her decision. Eventually, Margaret came to see her struggle as against one man; Anthony Comstock (Douglas 42). It became apparent to Margaret that the only way open to her was to challenge the Comstock laws in court; first, though, she needed information.
For months, Margaret read through the dusty books and medical journals available in public libraries for information on contraceptives. Most of the information she found was no better than tips on abortion and infanticide, until she came across a pamphlet written in 1832 by a doctor from Massachusetts. The doctor believed that too many pregnancies could be detrimental to a woman's health and outlined the known methods of contraception, though none of them placed the control with the woman. (Miller, 211) Margaret was frustrated and felt that she had made no progress in the months she had spent researching. It was on the suggestion of an old friend that Margaret decided to go to France for her information. So, in 1913, the family packed up and moved to France.
France was a special case as the laws of the land made it practical to keep limit the size of one's family. Under the Napoleonic Code, a man's children must share his estate equally after he is gone and so the families in France were usually very small. From countless interviews with women from the poor and middle class quarters of Paris, Margaret learned all about the douches, sponges, and solutions as well as where to obtain the diaphragms and pessaries that she so desperately sought. Margaret packed all of her newly acquired information and, on the last day of 1913, set sail back to America with her children. William Sanger chose to stay in Paris and paint. Unbeknownst to both of them, they would never live together as man and wife again (Miller 211-212).
Upon her return to the States, Margaret rented an apartment for herself in Manhattan and began her own newspaper called The Woman Rebel. In it she advocated "militnet feminism" and the right to practice birth control. The motto of her newly founded newspaper was: "To look the world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an idea; to speak and act in defiance of convention." (Douglas 50). Money was never of any concern to Margaret; she had no needs that could not be met simply and she paid out no salaries as she did all the work for the newspaper herself.
The first issue of The Woman Rebel was published in 1914 and was 8 pages long. Praised by some and condemned by others, The Woman Rebel was the first solid step taken in the birth control movement; in fact, it was at this time that Margaret and her friends came up with the term "birth control". Margaret was promptly informed that the Comstock laws deemed her second issue unmailable. Soon after, Margaret was informed that the next three issues of The Woman Rebel were also banned; she never received an explanation as to why. Despite mailing the "unmailable" issues of The Woman Rebel, Margaret never felt that she had broken any laws; now, though, she set out to do just that (Miller 2120213).
Margaret put together a pamphlet entitled "Family Limitation" in which she answered her readers directly and outlined all of the known contraceptive methods that she had learned abroad. Due to the fact that the pamphlet was in direct violation of the Comstock Laws, she had them printed in secret and shipped out to friends in the labor movement for safekeeping. Shortly thereafter, Margaret was officially indicted on 9 counts of violating the Comstock laws for her escapades with The Woman Rebel. If convicted, Margaret could face up to 45 years in prison. A hearing took place in August of that year and the trial was postponed. Then World War I broke out in Europe and when it became obvious that her movement and trial would take a backseat, Margaret Sanger set sail for Europe under the name Bertha Watson. In what has been referred to as "the tactical decision of her life" (Douglas 56), Margaret put herself in a position to be tried at a time that she felt would be advantageous to her movement. After she had been at sea for three days, Margaret cabled four of her friends and, using a codeword, released a flood of 100,000 copies of her "Family Limitation" pamphlet into the mainstream population of the U.S. Finally, Margaret accepted that she had broken the law.
In Europe, Margaret worked, studied, and researched anything she felt could be of use to her new movement. She traveled from England to the Netherlands in search of useful information until a telegram informed her that Bill Sanger had been arrested for handing out copies of "Family Limitation". This was an old Comstockian device geared at obtaining her whereabouts from her estranged husband. Margaret knew that Bill would not tell them where she was and she refused to let him go to jail for her; so, she headed home. Margaret arrived in New York, in October of 1915, and immediately began to go about the task of imparting upon the Nation's doctors the valuable information she had gathered in Europe. She was rudely rebuffed. Next, the newly formed National Birth Control League turned her away informing her that her methods were "too violent" (Miller 217). Margaret's attempts to disseminate her knowledge were cut short when her daughter, Peggy, caught pneumonia. Margaret immediately dropped everything to nurse her daughter, but, as with her mother, all attempts were futile and Peggy died. The loss left Margaret numb. Public sympathy and backing were with Margaret at the time and the district attorney offered to drop the charges if she would simply promise never to break the law again. Eager for her day in court to challenge the Comstock laws, Margaret refused; moreover, she decided to appear without an attorney (Miller 216-218).
On January 18, 1916, the day her trial opened, the courthouse could not even hold the number of people who had turned out to support Margaret. The district attorney asked that the trial be postponed and the judge granted the postponement, despite Margaret's objections. And so it followed that there was postponement after postponement until the case was finally dismissed. Margaret was being congratulated by all on her "victory", but she was left unsatisfied by the fact that the Comstock laws had yet to be challenged in open court.
To further her cause, Margaret next set out on a whirlwind speaking tour of the United States. From Pittsburgh to Portland, Margaret would speak to packed halls (when they were not locked and barred against her) and in her wake she left hundreds of local birth control leagues. It was Margaret's premise that "the first right of every child is to be wanted, to be desired, to be planned with an intensity of love that gives it's title to being "(Miller 218). After the tour, back at her apartment, Margaret, who was both physically and emotionally exhausted from the tour, found that there would be no rest for her; women would knock on her door at all hours of the morning on their way to work, her mailbox was always jammed to capacity with letters from women begging for information, her phone rang constantly. Margaret knew what she had to do and when a $50 donation came in the mail to her, she felt it was enough to start with (Douglas 103).
With only those fifty dollars, Margaret and her sister, Ethel, set out to open the country's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. They wrote to the district attorney and outlined their plans; the two women waited for a reply from him as long as they felt they could, but none ever came. Finally, on October 16, 1916 the Brownsville Clinic was opened. The staff consisted only of Margaret, Ethel (also a nurse), and Fania (a volunteer). Of course, the women had advertised, but none of them had anticipated the results; by seven a.m., on opening day, there were 150 women lined up around the block. In the next few days, women began to arrive from as far away as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. On the 9th day of operation, police raided the clinic and the staff arrested by an undercover policewoman. Margaret spent the night in jail, but headed straight back to the clinic the next day only to find that the city had made the landlord evict them as a "public nuisance". The police were waiting for her and she was taken back to jail for violating section 1142 of the state's penal code that stipulated that no one may give contraceptive information for any reason. Margaret posted bail and began working on a plan (Miller 219-221).
Section 1145 of the state's penal code declared that physicians could distribute contraceptive information for the cure and prevention of disease. Margaret knew that, legally, the law was intended for men; to protect them from the diseases acquired through sexual , but she believed that the law could be interpreted to include women who were susceptible to disease and death from too much childbearing. She was in desperate need of money and turned to rich women like Mrs. George Rubilee and Mrs. Charles Tiffany, who responded by forming the "Committee of 100" to help fund Margaret's movement (Miller 221).
The trial, which had been postponed several times, opened in January of 1917. Margaret was offered leniency in return for a promise that she would never break the law again. Margaret replied, "I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect" and was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse (Douglas 122).
On January 8, 1918, the decision that Margaret had been waiting and hoping for finally came; Judge Crane of the N.Y. Court of Appeals interpreted section 1145 of the penal code to include the health of married women which permitted doctors to give them birth control advice. In the months that followed, Margaret focused her energy on her new monthly publication The Birth Control Review. Aside from asking for money from the wealthy elites of her time, this was the first real break that Margaret had with her straightforward grassroots past. After the end of World War I, there was a worldwide urge to suppress the radical left. Margaret, astute as always, realized this and decided to gain support for her birth control movement by "promoting it in the basis of medical and public health needs". Despite her efforts, Margaret faced a rising tide of opposition on from the Church, which, apparently, could control both the government and the police force of New York. Still, the public, the press, and the medical profession were all backing her now and, in 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League.
The League was part of Margaret's campaign to educate the general public and gain more mainstream support for birth control. In what seemed almost a contradictory move, Margaret sought the support of the liberal wing of the eugenics movement. In retrospect, it seems like a logical next step as she was also seeking support from the socialist reform movement at the time. Also, it is in keeping with the views that Margaret held at the time; she rationalized birth control as a viable means to reducing, what she felt to be, genetically transmitted mental or physical defects. In her more radical moods, Margaret would even advocate sterilization for the mentally incompetent, though she never felt that birth control should be supported or implemented solely on the basis of class, ethnicity, or race.
Also around this time Margaret met and was courted by Noah H. Slee. Mr. Slee was the president of a successful oil company, wealthy, and in love with Margaret Sanger. After following her around the globe on one of her many speaking tours, Noah proposed marriage to Margaret. Not eager to make the same mistake twice, Margaret set forth some conditions (that included financial and sexual independence as well as the use of her own last name). Slee agreed to her terms and they were wed in 1922; it is not surprising that he also became the main founder of Margaret's birth control movement (Miller 228-229).
Aware that the current resources available to women were not enough, Margaret soon realized that she would need an extension of the Brownsville Clinic in order to handle the influx of patients and requests for information. Margaret decided to strike while the iron was hot and take the opportunity to found a research bureau that could be used as a model for future clinics. For months Margaret labored to bring together a skilled and prominent group of physicians and scientists, even going so far as to obtain a sociologist and a psychologist. The end result was a group that was to be the board for her new clinic; all she needed now was a doctor willing to take the risk of heading up the clinic staff. Dr. Dorothy Bocker accepted the position and in January of 1923, the Clinical Research Bureau opened at the same Fifth Avenue address as the American Birth Control League, though they were to be kept separate so that the League might escape criticism when the Bureau came under attack. The opening was not publicized, in fact, it was not even announced publicly for two years; patients were referred directly from the League. The Bureau soon became a center of study for doctors and scientists from all around the country. The number of patients grew so fast that the Bureau soon had to relocate to larger facilities (Miller 230).
In 1928, Margaret Sanger angrily resigned as the head of the American Birth Control League due to conflicts within the organization. The "conservatives" had come to resent Margaret's leadership; they felt that it was too personal and impulsive. Margaret, in turn, condemned them for being women of high social position who always took the easy way out to save themselves. After her resignation, the only position that Margaret actually held was that of director of the Clinical Research Bureau (Miller 231).
Then one day, as it had all happened before, her clinic was raided. It happened on March 29, 1929 without warning or proper warrant. The staff was all taken to jail, the case files confiscated, and the patients bullied into leaving. The medical community was outraged, though the magistrate admitted there had been a mistake made. While the physicians defended themselves on the grounds that there was a doctor/patient privilege to be upheld, Margaret seized the opportunity to have the Crane decision enlarged to establish birth control clinics as essential to the public health of women.
The outcome of the court battle was a decision that favored birth control. The judge ruled that birth control clinics were "an important public health measure and a valuable aid in the conservation of family health" (Miller, p.233). Encouraged by this victory, Margaret set up the National Committee on Federal Birth Control Legislation; it's goal: to lobby for the passing of legislation favorable to the birth control movement. The gem of the Committee was a "Doctor's Bill" that had been written from the ground up, starting on a local level and gaining support until it was introduced by Senator George Norris in 1931. In the years between 1931 and 1935, the bill was killed in Congress more than 5 times, each time by the direct influence of the Roman Catholic Church. At one hearing for the bill, after hours of expert and emotional personal testimony, the opposition took the stand in the form of Father Charles Coughlin; his only comment being "All this bill means is how to fornicate and not get caught" (Miller, p. 235). The bill failed that time as well. The time spent lobbying in Congress was not wasted, though, as Margaret and her movement came to have the backing of the entire medical profession and a majority of the population (who, by that time, was in the midst of the Great Depression).
It became apparent to Margaret that the movement would go no further if it depended on what happened in Washington D.C., and so, when a package from Japan containing contraceptives was confiscated and not delivered to her, she saw another golden opportunity. Margaret quickly wrote to Japan and had another package with the same contents mailed to the head physician of her Clinical Research Bureau, Dr. Stone. The package was again confiscated and Margaret knew that her showdown with the Comstock Laws had finally come. She and Dr. Stone took the matter to court in December of 1935; their attorney argued "The government cannot prevent contraceptive material from being mailed to a physician, even from a foreign country, when it is to be used to safeguard the life and health of mothers and children" (Miller 237). The court ordered the package delivered. The government appealed, but lost. In January of 1937, it was announced by the Supreme Court that the government would not challenge the second ruling. In a case that came to be known as U.S. v. One Package, Margaret and her birth control movement had their long awaited day in court and won. With this decision, the Comstock law lost a great deal of footing in the federal arena, so much so that the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control disbanded, considering itself no longer necessary.
Though elated over her victory, Margaret realized that the poorest women were the ones that still had to be reached. She took the field organization of the newly disbanded Committee and made it a part of the Bureau, creating the Educational Department. The first target of the Department was the impoverished South, from there it moved on to the dustbowl of the Southwest. Then, in 1939, the Department merged with the Bureau to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (Miller 237).
With that done, Margaret tried to turn her attention to the world effort, but was interrupted by World War II. After that there was a string of personal tragedies in Margaret's life that conspired to keep her from actively participating in the birth control movement, the most detrimental of which was the stroke that her husband suffered in December of 1941. They both moved to Tucson, Arizona in the hopes that the warm weather and sunshine would help Noah, but he died less than a year later. It seemed to those around Margaret that, at 60, she was content to live the life of a wealthy socialite (Miller 238).
In actuality, Margaret was simply biding her time until the end of the war and the time when she could once again focus her efforts on the rest of the world. The first trip after her semi-retirement was to Japan. Then, in 1952, Margaret went to India for the first meeting of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She then returned to the States to turn the Clinical Research Bureau over to a board of directors to ensure its continuance; the clinic was renamed the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau (which was fundamental to the development of The Pill). In her 80's, Margaret Sanger threatened to leave the country when she head that a Catholic (JFK) would be elected President. Fortunately, John F. Kennedy was the first U.S. President to recognize the world's population problem. Margaret Sanger lived to see the right to privacy triumph in the courts in 1965 with Griswold v. Connecticut. Margaret died a year later in September of 1966, just 8 days after her 87th birthday (Miller 238-239).
At first glance, Margaret Sanger's career seems much like that of any dedicated heroine of her time; Dorothea Dix, Bessie Hillman, and Carrie Chapman Catt were all women with a cause. Upon closer inspection, though, Margaret stands out as a woman who, not only had a cause to fight for, but also had a movement to found and a life of example to live.