Margaret Sanger is best known in the nursing field as a pioneer in the birth control movement. The activist was not only a nurse, but also a sex educator and founder of the American Birth Control League.
Margaret Sanger was the sixth of 11 children, born in Corning, New York in 1879. While still young, she spent much of her time caring for her younger siblings and developing the fundamental traits necessary for success in the nursing field. Sanger’s sisters paid her tuition at Claverack College for two years before she returned home in 1896 to take care of her sick mother, Anne Purcell Higgins. Sanger’s mother passed away from a combination of tuberculosis and cervical cancer in March 1896.
An arrangement made by a Claverack classmate’s mother allowed Sanger to enroll in a nursing program at a school in White Plains, New York. In 1902, the newly married Sanger and her husband William settled in New York City before moving to Saranac, New York. Sanger gave birth to her first child, Stuart, in 1903. The Sanger family would return to New York City in 1912, after a fire destroyed their home.
Margaret Sanger went to work in the East Side slums of Manhattan. Sanger was no stranger to controversy as she began distributing a pamphlet,Family Limitation, to women. This pamphlet contained radical beliefs, for the time, which included women deciding for themselves when a pregnancy would be most convenient – ultimately leading to healthier physical and mental lives. Sanger also believed women should be able to enjoy sexual relations without the fear of pregnancy, and was a proponent of birth control.
A turning point in Margaret Sanger’s life was quickly approaching. While on duty as a nurse, Sanger was called to assist an extremely ill woman named Sadie Sachs, who had performed a self-induced abortion. When Sachs later visited a doctor to seek advice on preventative methods, she was told to remain abstinent, and was sent on her way. Sadly, months later Sanger returned to Sachs’ apartment to find the woman had died from another self-induced abortion. Sanger would begin to speak out about birth control and the need for women to become knowledgeable, as Sachs’ situation was not uncommon at the time.
The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter promoting contraception, was launched in 1914. It was here, within the pages of this newsletter that Sanger coined the term “birth control.” The newsletter violated United States postal obscenity laws, and Sanger was indicted because of it in August 1914. Having separated from her husband in 1913, she jumped bail and fled to England, but in 1915 she returned to the United States. A month later, her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, died.
The first family planning and birth control clinic in the United States was opened by Sanger in 1916. She would spend 30 days in prison for opening the clinic. Two years later, in 1918, an opinion written by a New York Court of Appeals judge allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.
Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 and later the Clinical Research Bureau. Wealthy supporters allowed Sanger to finally open the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. The clinic, staffed entirely by female doctors and social workers, received grants from the Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1924 onward. The Bureau grants were part of ongoing support provided by the Rockefeller family, made anonymously to avoid public exposure.
In the years to come, Sanger would be involved with a number of projects. She was president of the Birth Control International Information Center in 1930 and a chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America in 1937. In this same year, birth control, under medical supervision, was legalized in many U.S. states.
The early 1960s brought a time for Sanger to promote the newly-available birth control pill. She would visit Africa, Asia and Europe, lecturing and establishing clinics. In 1966, a little more than a year after the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the U.S., Sanger died in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 86.
Sanger, while a controversial nurse, is widely credited as a leader of the modern birth control movement. Pro-life groups have condemned her views and attempted to attack her birth control promotion as human race “purifying.” However, civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., have respected Sanger’s work with minorities.
Sanger was named Humanist of the Year in 1957 by the American Humanist Association. Throughout her life, Sanger was a pioneer and an iconic figure whose projects and publications helped shape the landscape of American reproductive rights movements.