Today September 14th is the birthday of the woman who caused science fiction writer H.G. Wells to say: “The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time.” That woman is Margaret Sanger, (books by this author) born in Corning, New York (1879). She coined the term “birth control,” she was its most famous advocate in the United States, and she founded Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger was born into a working-class Irish family. Her mother died when she was 50, after 18 pregnancies. Margaret went to New York City, became a nurse, got married, and gave birth to three kids. As a nurse, she worked in the maternity ward on the Lower East Side, and many of her patients were poor, some of them living on the streets. They seemed old to her by the time they were 35, and many of them ended up in the hospital from self-induced abortions, which often killed them. Margaret nursed one mother back to health after she gave herself an abortion, and heard the woman beg the doctor for some protection against another pregnancy; the doctor told the woman to make her husband sleep outside. That woman died six months later, after a botched abortion, and Margaret Sanger gave up nursing, convinced that she needed to work for a more systematic change.
At the time, contraceptives were illegal in the United States, and it was illegal even to send information about contraception through the U.S. Postal Service. The information and products were out there, but a privilege only of the wealthy, who knew how to work the system.
Margaret Sanger wrote a series of articles called “What Every Girl Should Know,” and published a radical newspaper, Woman Rebel, with information about contraception. In 1914, she was indicted for sending information about birth control through the mail. She fled to Europe, where she observed birth control clinics, and eventually came back to face charges. But after her five-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, the sympathetic public was on her side, and the charges were dropped.
But Sanger kept going. In 1916, she and her sister, who was also a nurse, opened a birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, modeled after the clinics that Sanger had seen in Holland. Neighborhood residents, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, flocked to the clinic for information. Nine days later, the police closed it down and arrested Sanger, her sister, and the clinic’s interpreter. Sanger went to prison and her sister went on a hunger strike.
The publicity worked: Soon birth control became a matter of public discourse. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1946 became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. And she funded research to create a contraceptive pill.
She died at age 87, a few months after the landmark Supreme Court decision Griswold vs. Connecticut finally made birth control legal for married couples