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Women Who Inspire Change: Margaret Sanger
Legendary birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger would likely have loved Jean H. Baker’s description of her in Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion as “an activist, propagandist, organizer, educator, advocate, and occasional martyr.” An often imperious, singleminded crusader, Sanger spent more than six decades championing family planning as an essential element of societal betterment—donning numerous hats as she fought to achieve her dream of a woman-controlled contraceptive.
Baker’s astute social history begins in Sanger’s birthplace of Corning, New York, where her family home demonstrated a clear link between fecundity and suffering. Anne Higgins, Sanger’s mom, bore 11 children—and suffered seven miscarriages—before dying of tuberculosis at age 48. “Very early in my childhood, “ Sanger wrote in her autobiography, “I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, and jails with large families.”
Still, it wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that Sanger—by now married to artist Bill Sanger and a mother of three—saw the human toll of unlimited reproduction more broadly. As a visiting nurse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she went from tenement to tenement and noted palpable despair among the residents of this largely immigrant community. Despite this, it wasn’t until she encountered a 28-year-old mother of three named Sadie Sachs that Sanger had an epiphany. Sachs had tried to self-abort and become gravely ill; when she recovered her question was simple: What could she do to keep from becoming pregnant again?
“Another baby will finish me,” Sachs reportedly told her physician. “Tell Jack to sleep on the roof,” the doctor callously replied.
Months later, Baker writes, “Margaret was called back to the Sachs apartment. Again Sadie had become pregnant and again she has resorted to a dangerous self-abortion.” This time she died.
“I was now finished with superficial cures, with doctors and nurses and social workers who were brought face-to-face with this overwhelming truth of women’s needs and yet turned to pass on the other side. I resolved that women should have the knowledge of contraception,” Sanger wrote to her sister.
This wasn’t in-the-moment bluster. After her interaction with Sachs, Sanger decided it was high time to take on Anthony Comstock, the man responsible for pushing Congress to make it a criminal offense to send information on contraception, abortion, or “sexual implements” through the mail. Thumbing her nose at the law, Sanger wrote a series of articles for the progressive New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Among the topics covered were venereal disease and pregnancy. Predictably, the Post Office suppressed the newspaper “on the grounds that Sanger’s extended discussion of syphilis and gonorrhea violated the law.”
Thrilled by the notoriety, Sanger continued her defiance, writing numerous articles and pamphlets on “family limitation.” By 1914, however, she wanted to do more than write: She set out to open a center where women could get solid information about pregnancy prevention. Two years later, in 1916, the nation’s first birth control clinic opened in Brooklyn’s Brownsville. A voluntary ten-cent registration fee made the storefront clinic affordable, and Baker writes that multitudes flocked to see the knowledgeable staff. Then, 10 days after opening, a plainclothes policewoman entered the facility and arrested Sanger and other employees for operating an illegal business and violating state obscenity laws. Sanger was sentenced to 30 days in prison; her sister, nurse Ethel Byrne, was also incarcerated.
The ensuing years did not lessen Sanger’s fire, but they did alter her tactics. She wrote endlessly and lectured all over the US—at civic clubs, women’s organizations, union halls, and universities—and later spoke at conferences and before professional societies throughout the world. Seeking financial support, she courted wealthy investors and worked tirelessly, despite frequent ill health, to bring the medical community to her cause. Sanger also founded a host of organizations, one of which eventually became the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Baker's biography portrays Sanger as a difficult, rigid personality. Nonetheless, her unwavering commitment to family planning as a force for liberation continues to make her an inspiration. Brash, bold, and savvy, 46 years after Sanger's death her message of accessible health care remains relevant. Indeed, men like Ray Blunt, Rush Limbaugh, and Rick Santorum would surely benefit from reading her story.