Margaret Sanger

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Margaret Sanger Slee
Sanger 1916.jpg

Born September 14, 1879
Corning, New York
Died September 6, 1966
Tucson, Arizona[1]
Spouse William Sanger,
James Noah H. Slee[1]

Margaret Sanger (September 14, 1879 - September 6, 1966) was an American feminist and eugenics activist who founded the American Birth Control League. She retired from the organization in 1940 and it eventually became Planned Parenthood. Her main success was in bringing discussions of Birth Control into the public arena. She argued that a major reason to promote birth control was to stop abortions.[2] She was vigorously denounced by the Catholic Church because of her position on birth control.

Early life and family

Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York as Margaret Louise Higgins[3] to Michael Hennessey Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins.[4] Her brothers and sisters were: Ethel, Henry, John, Joseph, Lawrence, Mary, Nan, Richard, Robert, and Thomas.[5][6]

Among Sanger's siblings, her brother Robert("Bob") was a well known football player who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.[7] Her sister Ethel Higgins Byrne was a radical feminist activist like Margaret was.[8]

In 1896, she was enrolled in Claverack College and Hudson River Institute by her parents. Her tuition was initially paid for by two of her sisters.[9] As a young adult, Margaret attended nursing school at the White Plains Hospital in New York.[10]

During this time, in 1902, married William Sanger, who was an architect by trade.[11] Together, Margaret and William were active radicals in New York's Greenwich Village scene.[11][12] They had three children together: Grant, Stuart, and Peggy. Peggy died young at the age of five from pneumonia.[13] William, who was a radical like Margaret, was once arrested for dispersing one of her pamphlets, Family Limitation[14] They divorced in 1921.

A year after her divorce from William Sanger, Margaret remarried to Noah Slee.[15]


Her father Michael was an atheist and an outspoken Georgist activist. He had read Henry George's work Progress and Poverty and supported the Single Tax movement.[16] The influence of George was so profound in the Higgins family that one of Sanger's brothers was named Henry George McGlynn Higgins. This is significant in not only the obvious Henry George naming, but the second middle name of "McGlynn" is a reference to Edward McGlynn, a popular Catholic priest in New York who was excommunicated for his outspoken support of Georgist ideals.[17]

Her mother Anne had 18 pregnancies, with 11 of them being born.[18] In her autobiography, Sanger recalled that even as a child she blamed big families as the main reason for society's ills. She wrote:

Large families were associated with poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, fighting, jails; the small ones with cleanliness, leisure, freedom, light, space, sunshine.

The fathers of the small families owned their homes; the young-looking mothers had time to play croquet with their husbands in the evenings on the smooth lawns. Their clothes had style and charm, and the fragrance of perfume clung about them. They walked hand in hand on shopping expeditions with their children, who seemed positive in their right to live. To me the distinction between happiness and unhappiness in childhood was one of small families and of large families rather than of wealth and poverty.[19]


After several years in Westchester, New York, Margaret and William Sanger's house at Hastings-on-Hudson was destroyed in a fire.[20] After the fire the house was rebuilt, but "A new spirit was awakening within me", and she began her new life as a social activist. When the Sangers moved to New York City, William went looking for work to sustain the family, but Margaret joined several socialist organizations and activities. In 1913 she joined the Women's Committee of the Socialist Party of New York,[21] and would eventually become a committee chair.[22]

She also became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and participated in strikes such as the 1912 Lawrence textile strike and the 1913 Paterson silk strike.[23][24]


Sanger argued for woman's liberation from the domination of men. She advocated economic independence and withdrawal from the traditional family unit, particularly marriage. She wrote “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” [25] (see self-realization).

Margaret Sanger and her two sons Grant and Stuart

In 1914, Sanger proved herself to be a radical's radical. She launched the magazine The Woman Rebel, which she new would provoke anti-obscenity laws such as the Comstock Law.[26] Seeking publicity for her cause, she sent seven issues of the Rebel through the mail before the Post Office finally responded. This led to the magazine being banned - an outcome she sought - and she was subsequently arrested.[27] She eventually was let out on bail. She quickly fled the country and went to England, where she would meet notable Fabian Socialists who helped her refine her craft.

Birth control

Margaret Sanger and Otto Bobsein coined the term "birth control".[28][29] In October 1916, Sanger opened and (illegally) operated the first birth control clinic in the United States, in Brooklyn, New York. It was raided by the police, and shut down. Sanger was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for distributing contraceptives, which were illegal at the time.

In 1917, Sanger established the magazine Birth Control Review.

Working with the Urban League in 1929, Sanger opened up the first birth control clinic in Harlem, New York.[30] That same year, Sanger established the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control as a lobbying organization, in order to influence the creation and amendment of laws pertaining to abortion and birth control.[31] It was closed in 1937, only six months after the court case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries.[32]

When the organization changed its name to Planned Parenthood, Sanger was very displeased. Even in the smallest degree, it potentially encourages having more children.[33] She wrote:

It irks my very soul and all that is Irish in me to acquiesce to the appeasement group that is so prevalent in our beloved organization.

She believed that some people should be 100% barred from procreation of any kind, rather than limited encouragement that could produce the wrong kind of people, if, albeit, less of them.[34]


For a more detailed treatment, see Malthusianism.

Sanger was a believer in the doctrines of Robert Malthus, and early on, this caused problems for her newly-formed magazine.[35] She frequently wrote that too much population was the cause of unemployment, poverty, crime, and war, and she would often issue challenges to people to provide realistic solutions to overpopulation.[36]

In 1925, she organized the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth-Control Conference together with the American Birth Control League,[37][38] and in 1927 she organized the first World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927.[39]

Eugenics and race

Margaret Sanger campaigned for eugenic controls to enforce what she called "race hygiene" and was a member of the American Eugenics Society and the English Eugenics Society.[40][41][42]

Many modern ideas of the substandard morals and inferiority of particular races are echoed in Sanger's writings. She wrote in one of her "What Every Girl Should Know" commentaries, that aboriginal Australians are in her opinion "the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development," and that they possess "so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets." She compared these aborigines to "normal man and Woman" who have demonstrated control over their sexual desires.[43] She had a very deep hatred for other races that demonstrated a greater fecundity, such as the Chinese and the aborigines.

Additionally, she wrote about the failure of traditional ethics in sexuality that "... have in the past revealed their woeful inability to prevent the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has today drifted."[44]

Margaret Sanger associated with racists[45] and in 1926, she was the guest speaker at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Silverlake, New Jersey.[46]

Death and legacy

Sanger died in Tucson, Arizona on September 6, 1966.[1]

Planned Parenthood annually gives awards to those who support them and the top award they give is called The Margaret Sanger Award.[47][48] Alan Guttmacher, who was a President of Planned Parenthood from 1962 to 1974 and who was also former Vice-President of the American Eugenics Society,[49][50] stated: "We are merely walking down the path that Ms. Sanger has carved out for us." [51][52] Similarly, Faye Wattleton, who was the president of Planned Parenthood until 1992, stated that she was "proud" to be "walking in the footsteps" of Margaret Sanger.[53]

Dr. William Moulton Marston developed the character Wonder Woman through his inspiration of Sanger.[54]


Margaret Sanger in 1961
  • "The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it." [55]
  • "Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. People who cannot support their own offspring are encouraged by Church and State to produce large families. Many of the children thus begotten are diseased or feebleminded; many become criminals. The burden of supporting these unwanted types has to be borne by the healthy elements of the nation. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born." - Statement of the American Birth Control League[56]
  • "The mass of significant Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit and least able to rear children properly." - Margaret Sanger - The "Negro Project" quoting W.E.B. DuBois with the omission of one word [57]
  • "Before eugenists and others who are laboring for racial betterment can succeed, they must first clear the way for Birth Control. Like the advocates of Birth Control, the eugenists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis upon different methods."[58][59]
  • "Organized charity is itself the symptom of a malignant social disease. Those vast complex, interrelated organizations aiming to control and to diminish the spread of misery and destitution and all the menacing evils that spring out of this sinisterly fertile soil, are the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents. My criticism therefore, is not directed at the ‘failure’ of philanthropy, but rather at its success" - Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization [NY: Brentano's, 1922], (p. 108).[60]
  • "To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun."[61]
  • "Of all lands China needed knowledge of how to control her numbers; the incessant fertility of her millions spread like a plague. Well-wishing foreigners who had gone there with their own moral codes to save her babies from infanticide, her people from pestilence, had actually increased her problem. To contribute to famine funds and the support of missions was like trying to sweep back the sea with a broom." [62]
  • "The lack of balance between the birth of the "unfit" and the "fit," admittedly greatest present menace to civilization, never be rectified by the inauguration of cradle competition between these two classes. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken, should not be held up emulation to the mentally and physically fit, and therefore less fertile, parents of the educated and well-to-do-classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism."[63]
  • In Margaret Sanger's book The Pivot of Civilization she also called for the elimination of "human weeds," for the segregation of "morons, misfits, and maladjusted," and for the sterilization of "genetically inferior races." [64]

In her book The Case for Birth Control, quoting approvingly of Havelock Ellis:[65]

  • "If it were necessary to choose between the task of getting children educated and the task of getting them well born and healthy, it would be better to abandon education."


  • What Every Mother Should Know, (1911)
  • Family Limitation, (1914)
  • What Every Girl Should Know, (1916)
  • The Case for Birth Control: A Supplementary Brief and Statement of Facts, (1917)
  • Woman and the New Race, (1920)
  • Debate on Birth Control, (1921)
  • The Pivot of Civilization, (1922)
  • Motherhood in Bondage, (1928)
  • My Fight for Birth Control, (1931)
  • An Autobiography, (1938)


  • Douglas, Emily Taft (1970), Margaret Sanger; Pioneer of the Future, New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  • Peterson, Jefferis Kent (2007), Abortion - A Liberal Cause?, Erik Rauch (MIT) Retrieved on 2007-07-25
  • Sanger, Margaret (1920), Women and the New Race, New York, NY: Truth Publishing Company Facsimile retrieved on 2007-07-24

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Margaret Sanger Is Dead at 82; Led Campaign for Birth Control
  3. Margaret Sanger
  4. A to Z of American Women Leaders and Activists
  5. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America
  6. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
  7. Robert A. "Bob, The Hig" Higgins
  8. Dorothy Day: Champion of the Poor
  9. Margaret Sanger
  10. Margaret Sanger, Nancy Whitelaw
  11. 11.0 11.1 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: MMWR, Volume 48, Issues 25-52
  12. People & Events: Greenwich Village Intellectuals in the Early 20th Century
  13. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
  14. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger
  15. The Encyclopedia of New York State
  16. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
  17. Henry George Dr. Edward McGlynn & Pope Leo XIII
  18. Women Criminals: An Encyclopedia of People and Issues [2 volumes: An Encyclopedia of People and Issues]
  19. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger
  20. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
  21. Contraception: A History
  22. To Be Young Was Very Heaven: Women in New York Before the First World War
  23. CQ Press Guide to Radical Politics in the United States
  24. The Paterson Strike, by Margaret H. Sanger
  25. II. Women’s Struggle for Freedom
  26. Written by Herself: Volume I: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology
  27. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966)
  28. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America
  29. The Pivot of Civilization in Historical Perspective: The Birth Control Classic
  30. Women and Health in America: Historical Readings
  31. Life, Death and the Law: Law and Christian Morals in England and the United States
  32. Lobbying for Birth Control
  33. The Birth Control Movement and American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue
  34. The Birth Control Movement and American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue, See footnote 49
  35. Margaret Sanger
  36. Margaret Sanger
  37. Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility
  38. The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois: Selections, 1877-1934
  39. The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in US History
  42. Angry White Female: Margaret Sanger's Race of Thoroughbreds
  43. What Every Girl Should Know, Sexual Impulse - Part II
  44. Birth Control Review, Volume 5, The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda
  45. Peterson 2007
  46. Peterson 2007 citing Douglas 1970, p. 192
  47. Allan Rosenfield Receives the Reproductive Rights Movement's Highest Honor - Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Margaret Sanger Award
  48. PPFA Margaret Sanger Award Winners
  49. What is Roe v. Wade?
  50. Eugenics Watch
  51. What the Facts Reveal About Planned Parenthood
  52. The Inherent Racism of Population Control By Paul Jalsevac
  53. The Inherent Racism of Population Control By Paul Jalsevac
  54. The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds
  55. Sanger 1920, p. 63, see also Transcript.
  56. Birth Control: What it Is, how it Works, what it Will Do
  58. Eugenics, Race, and Margaret Sanger Revisited: Reproductive Freedom for All?
  59. Birth Control and Racial Betterment, by Margaret Sanger
  61. Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (1938) p. 217 online
  62. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, p. 347
  63. The Pivot of Civilization, p. 25
  64. Who Was Margaret Sanger
  65. The Case for Birth Control, by Margaret Sanger, p. 94

External links