Margaret Sanger: Champion of Public Health
Margaret Sanger devoted her life to helping people with little or no money to be self-sufficient in hopes to raise children who could do the same. She was an active Socialist and participated in the Industrial Workers of the World, which tried to help laborers achieve higher pay and better conditions, in the first part of the twentieth century. Margaret is best known for her involvement in the birth control movement.
Margaret grew up in Corning, New York. The family was poor and Margaret was the sixth daughter of eleven children. As stated by Topalian (1984) “Her father was a full-blooded nonconformist – an artist, rebel, and philosopher who liked to spend long hours debating the fine points of socialism.” He taught Margaret that independent logic and progressive ideas were the very essence of life (Topalian, 1984). At the age of seventeen Margaret entered the Claverack College, a private school in the Catskill Mountains of New York. She took general classes and learned how to prepare and recite essays. She was there for three years before her father needed her to come back home to help with her mother who was dying from Tuberculosis and cancer of the cervix. After her mother’s death she left home again, this time she was accepted as a nurse-probationer at a small hospital in White Plains. She worked as a nurse-probationer for a couple years and was accepted for a three-year nurses’ training school but she was married soon after and never went to the school. She returned to the nursing field a few years later working as a midwife for the Visiting Nurses Association. It was at this time she saw first hand the poverty and crowded lives that the poor lived in and the need for contraception information.
It was during her time as a midwife that she also learned just how little most people, especially the poor, knew about their bodies. “They did not know about proper hygiene, or even of the names and functions of their own reproductive organs” (Topalian, 1984). Most women also wanted to know how to prevent pregnancy but there was little information to be found. At that time it was illegal, even for a doctor, to give out any information about contraception (McCann, 1994). This law was Section 1142 of the Comstock Law and was passed by Congress in 1873. Anthony Comstock was the sponsor of the bill and not only was he able to get the harsh law passed but he was also appointed the special agent with the power to see that it was strictly enforced (Gray, 1979). He went to great lengths to find people who would violate his law so he could prosecute them. One of the things he did was send out letters to doctors that he would sign with a woman’s name. In the letters he would ask for contraception suggestions that were desperately needed because of disease, poverty and despair. Comstock obtained five-year sentences plus large fines for the doctors who replied to these decoy letters (Gray, 1979). Due to these circumstances almost nobody in the United States had knowledge of reliable contraception. There were even reports in medical journal at that time that stated that contraception is bad for your health. Gordon (1976) notes that The American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children wrote in 1899 that contraceptive practices led to permanent sterility.
Margaret did not know much more about contraception than anyone else at the time. She did extensive research on the subject, traveling to France, Germany and Holland to gain knowledge of modern techniques. She was looking for methods that women could take themselves without relying on any support or help from men. Margaret’s final victory of making knowledge of sexual issues and contraception public knowledge came about through a trial and error process. She first started to make knowledge available through a series of articles in the Socialist newspaper, the Call. The first was a series called What Every Woman Should Know in which she tried to convince each woman to “clear her own mind of prudishness and to understand that the procreative act is natural, clean and healthful.”(Topalian, 1984). Next was What Every Girl Should Know in which Margaret used straight-forward language to explain thechanges that take place during puberty in girls, the function of each of the reproductive organs, and the causes and preventions of social diseases (Topalian, 1984). Her second article in the series was on syphilis but it was not printed as scheduled because Anthony Comstock found out about it and notified the newspaper that if they printed it their mailing permit would be taken away. That was Margaret’s first run-in with the Comstock Law. She began the newspaper, The Woman Rebel in 1914 in which she openly advocated contraception, sex and socialism. It was during the publishing of this newspaper that the phrase “birth control” coined by Robert Parker was made a household word by Margaret (Gray, 1979). Comstock repeatedly seized shipments of The Woman Rebel for violations of the Comstock Law so Margaret had to find ways to get around Comstock. During this time Margaret was putting together a booklet titled Family Limitation in which she published in much more detail contraception techniques. She had to flee the United States in 1914 because Comstock wanted to make an example of her in court and she was not prepared for the trial. While she was gone, she ordered the people who were helping her to stockpile the Family Limitation booklet to send them out which locked in her exile. She was gone for a year before she decided to come back to the United State and stand trial. Margaret was able to get wide spread public support and that plus the fact that Comstock died helped her get the case against her dropped. The birth control movement got wide spread publicity during this trial and it taught Margaret how to get support and that the only way to fight the Comstock Law was to go to court to get the law changed. In 1916 she opened up a Clinic to consult woman on birth control methods. On the eleven day after the clinic was opened the police raided it, closed it and arrested Margaret and the others running it. Margaret was finally sentenced to 30 days in jail after refusing a suspended sentence in which she would have to agree to never break the Section 1142 of the Comstock Law again. She answered “I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect.” and gained even more publicity for the cause (Gray, 1979). She had learned how to get the birth control issue out in the public and throughout her life time she set up various ways of organizing money to test and research birth control devices including the birth control pill.
Margaret never gave up trying to overturn the Comstock Law. In 1929 she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control to lobby for birth control legislation to grant physicians the right to legally disseminate contraception (Katz, 2002). She was able to finally defeat the Comstock Law in 1936 when United States v. One Package overturned the old statues by permitting physicians to import contraceptive devices and most importantly that they could send out birth control information through the mail within the medical community (Topalian, 1984). The victory led the American Medical Association to endorse contraception as a legitimate medical service and a vital component of medical education in 1937. In 1952 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
There were many ethical issues surrounding Margaret’s work. The Catholic Church was one of her strongest opponents regarding the moral issue of birth control. They thought that interfering with the natural reproductive act was wrong in the eyes of God. Margaret was even denounced by priests as a disciple of the devil. Margaret decided to hold the first American conference on birth control. In the last day she set aside time for a debate called “Birth Control: Is It Moral?” The Catholic Church heard about the debate and ordered the police to shut down the hall she rented. The police illegally shut down the hall on the authority of the church which had none. “This move actually backfired for the church in creating a case that was so clear-cut that not even the most conservative editorialists could side with the Church” (Topalian, 1984). Due to this the Church lost credibility and support even within its own ranks. Many others thought that Sanger was a racist because her largest target was poor immigrant families. It was thought that she was trying to limit the number of minorities by promoting minorities to use birth control. To this day many people think that this was the case and some even think she influenced Hitler, which is unsubstantiated and untrue.
Margaret Sanger truly was a champion of public health. She helped with many causes but found her calling in the birth control movement which started from her Socialist beginnings. Through her work millions of woman learned about their bodies and how to take care of them. Her fundraising efforts helped bring birth control methods out years sooner than they would have been without her help. She devoted her life to this cause, even to the point of neglecting her own children so that the people in the United States and the world could openly get information that could save their lives. She was a major factor in bring the infant and maternal mortality rates down in the United States. Her impact on current society can be seen today with the Planned Parenthood Federation which was initially a Federation she started called the Birth Control Federation of America.
Gordon, L. (1976). Woman’s Body Woman’s Right. New York: Grossman Publishers
Gray, M. (1979). Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control. New York: Richard Marek Publishers
Katz, E. (2002, December 6). Biographical Sketch: Margaret Louise Higgins. Retrieved October 1, 2003from New York University Sanger’s Papers Project web site: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/msbio.htm
McCann, C. (1994). Birth Control Politics in the United States 1916-1945. Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press
Topalian, E. (1984). Margaret Sanger. New York: Franklin Watts