Part 20 – Margaret Sanger
One of the women that I did not have a chance to write about until now is Margaret Sanger. Though she was born over one hundred years ago and I am covering the women’s liberation movement, she can equally fit into this segment as she would have had I talked about her much earlier. Let me explain: According to Gloria Steinem the leader of the women’s liberation movement, it was Margaret Sanger’s crusade to have birth control legalized that gave impetus and spurred the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s. We have already discussed how this movement is considered the second wave of feminism but Margaret Sanger would definitely find her place in the first wave of feminism close a century before.
Not only did women directly associated with the movement give her praise she also received praise and recognition from men as well. H. G. Wells the historian, and English science fiction writer best known for his novels: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, the War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes and the First Men in the Moon is quoted as saying "When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine. This quote, from a man, was made in 1931.
Who was Margaret Sanger?
Margaret Higgins Sanger Slee was born in 1879 as a woman well ahead of her time. Margaret’s mother, Anne Purcell Higgins had 18 children; 11 of them survived. Both parents were devout Roman Catholics. Her father, Michael Hennessy Higgins was also a women’s suffragist activist and so Margaret was able to learn about the woman’s issues from an early age.
Margaret attended Claverack, a private boarding school for two years but was called back by her father to nurse her sick and dying mother. After her mother died she was fortunate enough to attend nursing school funded by her close friends. She also married and had a son. Sanger also contracted tuberculosis from nursing her dying mother.
Sanger started writing her first column in the New York Call, in 1912, called What a Girl Should know. She also sent out a pamphlet called, Family Limitations. She also worked in lower east Manhattan slums. Sanger was provocative and vocal and risked having to serve a jail sentence several times for defying the Comstock Laws, which prohibited the distribution of birth control material.
Margaret’s beliefs about women being able to control the amount of children they had, rather than breed like rabbits, was fueled by working with the poor, and witnessing her own mother struggling with all those childbirths. Margaret was convinced that women had to be on equal level with a man and not dictated to by their husbands when it came to producing offspring. Margaret also voiced that if women were to have any sexual pleasure from relations with their husband the fear of pregnancy had to be eliminated. This was a very critical psychological need for women for women of that time period.
Sanger worked among the poor and she saw for herself in her duties as a nurse, how the women’s health was jeopardized because of too many pregnancies. She saw the horrors of desperate women suffering from self-induced abortions and she knew without a shadow of a doubt that women needed to be educated about birth control, even though the laws said otherwise. The only advise Sanger was allowed to tell her critically ill patients who dared to self-abort was to abstain from having sexual relations. This advice did not work for Sadie Sachs who died after a second failed self-induced abortion attempt. The Sachs case was the turning point for Sanger; she realized that women were willing to die in order to prevent unwanted or needed pregnancies. She knew from that point on that she had to get birth control information out to these women before they became that desperate.
In 1914 Sanger began publishing the Woman Rebel, a newsletter concerned with the issues of contraception. Her slogan became, No Gods and no Masters. Women were to be, "the absolute mistress of her own body." She was found in violation of the US postal laws for distributing her contraception material and jumped bail. She fled to England and returned at the end of 1915. Sanger’s husband had distributed a copy of his wife’s pamphlet Family Limitations to whom he thought was a postal worker, who was actually working undercover. Michael Sanger was jailed for 30 days while his wife was still in England.
Margaret Sanger did have the opportunity to visit a Dutch birth control clinic while in Europe and she discovered that the diaphragm was a much better birth control method than douches and suppositories. Sanger was instrumental in bringing the diaphragm to America. She published What Every Girl Should Know dealing with issues of menstruation and teenage sexuality, which had become one of the series of “Little Blue Books” in 1916, a year later she published What Every Mother Should Know.
Sanger had opened a family planning clinic in 1916, it was raided 9 days later and she served was jailed for 30 days. Her appeal was rejected but it did lead to reform. By 1918 New York doctors were allowed to prescribe contraceptives.
Margaret Sanger co-founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. She started traveling to Japan in 1922 to meet with the feminist birth control lobbyist, Kato Shidzue. It was during this period she married for the second time, this time to the oil baron, James Noah H. Slee.
Sanger found a loophole in the law, in 1923, which allowed for doctors to prescribe birth control methods if their patient was classified as having a medical reason. She found out about this choice piece of information after she founded the Clinical Research Bureau, (later to be called the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in 1940).
Also in 1923, Margaret Sanger was able to open the first legal birth control center in the USA. She staffed it with all female doctors and social workers. She formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in that same year as well.
Between the years of 1921 – 1926 she lectured to women, scientists, socialists, cotton workers, churchmen and various groups. In addition, she received over a million letters from women asking about birth control. She even gave lectures to the women of the Klu Klux Klan, though she said she had to talk to them like they were almost children, she was well received and asked back on several occasion.
Sanger continued to serve the community until her death in 1966.
Sanger’s philosophy was to promote women’s health and she criticized the church for being behind the time and dealing in obscurantism and neglecting women’s needs. She was also concerned about the spread of venereal disease among young women. She wanted registration for people who had a venereal disease the same way, as there was a registration for people with measles. Sanger contended that venereal disease and other social ills woman were subjected to, to be a result of men trying to keep them ignorant.
Gloria Steinem states that Margaret Sanger was the springboard for the feminist movement, “she taught us, first, to look at the world as if women mattered.”