Margaret Sanger: A Life Devoted To The Birth Control Movement

I never heard about Margaret Sanger before reading the book about the creation of Wonder Woman, The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. Sanger was the aunt of Olive Byrne who was the “mistress” of William Moulton Marston, inventor of the lie detector and creator of the famous DC Comics superheroine. The book explained why Sanger was shunned from history, in a way. She always was controversial, but her outrages didn’t fit anymore in the feminist narrative, shall we say.

Nevertheless, Sanger was an important figure, one that was certainly complicated, but that didn’t stop her to change a lot of things for the women of America.

Margaret Sanger and The Birth of an Activist

Born in Corning, New York, on September 14, 1879, Margaret Sanger was the sixth child to be born to Irish-American ardent Roman Catholics Anna Purcell Higgins and stonemason Michael Hennessey Higgins. Sanger was raised in poverty, and the loss of her mother at the age of 50 had a significant influence on her life. Her mother’s demise was linked to the strain of having eleven children and rearing them.

Before becoming a well-known advocate for women’s reproductive rights, Sanger pursued a career in nursing, attending Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896. She graduated from the White Plains Hospital nursing program in 1902 and wed architect William Sanger. The couple had three kids before relocating to Hastings, New York–she would later divorce, in 1914, and remarried eight years later to James Noah H. Slee, an oil tycoon who will help her finance her fights.

The Sangers moved to New York City in 1910, where they connected with a number of intellectuals and activists associated with the Progressive Era, including Max Eastman, Upton Sinclair, and Emma Goldman. This is during that time that Margaret Sanger joined the Socialist Party’s Women’s Committee in New York and took part in numerous women’s workplace rallies and strikes.

Sanger was convinced that limiting family size was essential to ending the cycle of poverty experienced by women. However, it was unlawful to spread birth control knowledge in the early 20th century. As a visiting nurse, Sanger worked with a lot of low-income immigrant families with lots of kids and wives who had health problems as a result of several pregnancies, miscarriages, and unsafe abortions.

Since many immigrant women believed that educated white women knew how to control family size, they would contact Sanger. The Comstock Law, which classed birth control information as obscene and forbade its distribution over the mail, inspired her to make it her mission to enlighten women about birth control and to repeal the law.

To go even further in her mission, Margaret Sanger started publishing her own feminist magazine, “The Woman Rebel,” in 1914 and promoted contraception. But she was accused of breaking the Comstock laws and was forced to leave for England. She distributed a booklet she wrote on contraceptive methods to her friends while she was away. Public pressure resulted in the accusations against her being dropped when she returned to the country a year later to face trial.

The Sisters of The Birth Control Movement

Ethel Byrne, Margaret Sanger’s younger sister, Ethel joined her sister in the fight for women’s reproductive rights after getting inspired by Margaret’s activism, and she made a substantial contribution in the early years of the birth control movement.

In October 1916, Ethel and Margaret worked to open the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Just ten days after its opening, this clinic was forced to close, which resulted in the imprisonment of both sisters.

In January 1917, Ethel Byrne and Fania Mondeil, a clinic volunteer, were tasked with disseminating information on birth control. They were imprisoned for that. But both women decided to go on a hunger strike in opposition after foreseeing their conviction.

After a week without eating, Ethel was unconscious and the authorities chose to force-feed her–she was the first woman prisoner in the US to be subject to such treatment. Her actions raised awareness for the movement, but her life was in danger. Margaret worked to put an end to it, begging the governor to free her sister and promising that, once free, Ethel would leave the movement and stop campaigning. Ethel was ready to die for the cause, but she was freed after ten days and was sent to a hospital.

The incident drew public sympathy and highlighted the urgency of the birth control movement’s goals. It further exposed the restrictive nature of the Comstock Law and the significant challenges faced by activists advocating for reproductive rights.

The birth control movement advanced significantly as a result of Ethel’s actions, which also won the support of groups and individuals who had previously been uninterested in or unaware of the issue. Others were inspired to join the fight for women’s reproductive rights by her strength in the face of hardship and her willingness to risk her life for the greater good. Something she was never allowed to do again.

Without her sister, Magaret Sanger continued to pursue her mission, launching a new journal, the Birth Control Review, and facing the law. As a matter of fact, the Comstock Law’s strangling hold on birth control knowledge was loosening because of Sanger’s court battles and campaigning. The court’s 1918 decision that doctors might prescribe contraceptives for female patients created a critical loophole that Sanger and her allies would later exploit.

Sanger persisted in challenging social norms and fighting for women’s reproductive rights in the face of hostility from conservative organizations, physicians, and the Catholic Church. She understood how crucial it was to win over medical experts and social workers in order to mainstream the birth control movement. She established the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921 in order to forge partnerships with other organizations and advance birth control as a valid and crucial component of women’s healthcare.

The Birth of Planned Parenthood

Magaret Sanger later launched another clinic in 1923 with female doctors and social workers working there, taking advantage of the gap left by her court challenges. Utilizing the legal loophole created in 1918 when the courts decided that doctors could prescribe contraceptives to women for medical reasons, this clinic, known as the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, functioned under the pretense of giving birth control information for medical purposes.

The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau developed and broadened its offerings throughout time, turning into a focal point for advocacy and information around birth control. The organization changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942 to better represent its broader goal of offering complete family planning and reproductive healthcare services.

Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, and Yiddish interpreter Fania Mindell counseling clients. (source)

The Fight For Reproductive Rights Never Stopped

Sanger’s activism extended beyond the borders of the United States. During the 1920s and 1930s, she traveled extensively to various countries to spread the message of birth control and family planning. She traveled to places like Japan and England, interacting with local groups and activists to advance the cause internationally.

Due to her support for birth control at the time, Margaret Sanger continued to run into legal issues and court battles. She was frequently accused of breaking the Comstock laws. Sanger continued her efforts despite these obstacles and used the courtroom as a forum to promote the significance of reproductive rights. Her campaigns to change people’s minds and win them over to birth control were successful.

In 1929, in order to press Congress for legislation allowing doctors to administer birth control, she established the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control. The group played a key role in pushing for legislative amendments that would open up access to contraception.

That same year, Sanger was contacted by an afro-american social worker named James Henry Hubert, a prominent member of the New York Urban League, about opening a clinic in Harlem. She secured the fund and the clinic, staffed with Black doctors and social workers, opened in 1930.

In 1936, a significant legal victory was achieved when the courts made it legal for doctors to prescribe contraceptives. This marked a substantial step forward in the acceptance and accessibility of birth control in the United States. But Margaret Sanger’s biggest win would come later.

The Creation of the Pill

In the 1950s, after decades of pushing for women’s access to birth control and seeing no advancement in contraceptive methods, Margaret Sanger grew increasingly irritated with the lack of innovation in family planning alternatives. Condoms and diaphragms were the only frequently used contraceptive techniques at the time, and both had drawbacks and were not widely accepted by women.

She was certain that a game-changing discovery was required to give women a more dependable and approachable form of contraception. She thought that if there were a “magic pill” that women could take to regulate their fertility, it would change the way society thought about family planning.

Dr. Gregory Pincus, a specialist in human reproduction and fertility studies, and Sanger began talking about developing an oral contraceptive that was simple to use, effective, and, most importantly, in women’s control in 1951. As he was already working on hormone and fertility research, Sanger’s idea piqued the interest of Dr. Pincus who agreed to take on the task.

A substantial amount of funding was needed for the Pill’s development. A wealthy philanthropist and heir to the International Harvester Company, Katherine McCormick, who shared Sanger’s enthusiasm for women’s rights and was dedicated to helping the development of an innovative contraceptive device, provided Sanger with the financial assistance required for the research.

Before human trials could start, the study method required extensive testing of numerous hormone combinations on animals. Sanger, Pincus, and their colleagues persisted in their search for a solution despite the ethical and scientific challenges.

The world’s first oral contraceptive pill, called Enovid, was finally approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, following nearly ten years of study and testing. This ground-breaking innovation signaled a turning point for women’s empowerment and reproductive health.

After being approved, the Pill became widely accessible, revolutionizing both family planning and women’s lives.

Margaret Sanger and The Controversies

Margaret Sanger was accustomed to face controversies. A century ago, being a supporter of sexual education and open sexuality dialogues to enable women and men to make informed choices about their sexual health and family planning was viewed as controversial and met with hostility from conservative groups and religious institutions.

Some controversies, though, continue to be problematic today. She was a fervent supporter of women’s access to family planning and birth control, but she first opposed abortion as a form of contraception. Early in the 20th century, when abortion was prohibited in the United States, Sanger concentrated her efforts on advocating for reliable contraception as a way to avoid unintended pregnancies and the necessity for abortions.

As the birth control movement gained traction, some of her publications and remarks revealed a shift in support for abortion access in situations when contraception failed or wasn’t available. But she continued to put a lot of effort into promoting contraceptive information and services.

The eugenics movement was another highly contentious field Margaret Sanger was involved with. Sanger disagreed with the eugenics movement’s racial and class-based elements, but she did believe that birth control might be used to avoid the birth of children who would have genetic problems and to enhance maternal health. Her reputation was damaged by her engagement with the movement.

Finally, Sanger has come under fire for making certain racially inappropriate and patronizing remarks in her books and public speeches, particularly toward minority communities. Her speeches and opinions, particularly those from the early 20th century, reflected the racial prejudices of the time. She also disapproved of much of what Planned Parenthood evolved into, criticizing its drift away from its activist roots.

Nevertheless, the impact of the Pill on women’s lives and the global population is immeasurable, making it one of the most significant medical advancements of the 20th century and a testament to the enduring legacy of Margaret Sanger’s activism. She passed away from congestive heart failure in Tucson, Arizona, in 1966 at the age of 86, nearly a year after the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which legalized birth control in the country.

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