The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York, 14 September, 1879 to Anne and Michael Hennessy Higgins. Her mother was a devout Catholic who went through eighteen pregnancies and eleven live births in twenty-two years, dying at an early age. Margaret blamed constantly being pregnant for her mother’s death. Her father was an Irish immigrant, by way of Canada, who crossed into the US at age fourteen, to serve in the Army during the Civil War. While raised Catholic, he became an atheist and an activist for free public education and women’s suffrage. Margaret was their sixth child.
Margaret was sent to boarding school at Claverack College and Hudson River Institute. After two years, her father made her come home to help care for her mother. Several years later, her tuition at White Plain Hospital’s nursing school was paid for by some patrons (school mates families) and she finished her degree in nursing (such as it was at the time).
In 1902 she married William Sanger.
All in all… it sounds like she lead the well behaved life… doesn’t it?
But Margaret wasn’t a well behaved woman! Not by a long shot!
In 1910, Margaret and William Sanger were living in Greenwich Village, the bohemian capital of New York. She became involved in the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party and the Liberal Club. She socialized with people like Upton Sinclair and Emma Goldman. She participated in strikes and supported the unions.
By 1912, she was writing newspaper columns called “What Every Girl Should Know”, educating women about sex, while at the same time working with the immigrant population on the Lower Eastside and raising three children. She was treating women who had undergone back alley or self-induced abortions and the thought that women had to go through this suffering needlessly were abhorrent to her.
So she began her fight to make birth control information and contraception readily available to women. All women, regardless of race, regardless of social standing, regardless of religion. And she also started thinking about how much easier it would be if there was a “magic little pill” that a woman could take to prevent or control pregnancy.
"No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother," Sanger said.”
Margaret believed that every woman was the “absolute mistress of her own body” and it was her publication of The Woman Rebel, a monthly magazine that promoted a woman’s right to birth control that brought her to the attention of the postal authorities and the Comstock Act. Anything that had to do with birth control, its discussion, devices or medication fell under the definition of obscenity under the ruling. In August of 1914 she was indicted on three counts of violating the obscenity laws and a fourth count of “inciting murder and assassination”. The last charge was stemming from an article that was written in the Woman Rebel. Margaret fled to Britain, leaving behind William and her three sons.
William, ever the ally of his wife, was arrested for distributing a copy of Family Limitations, a pamphlet on birth control, to an undercover postal worker and was sentenced to a thirty day jail term. Margaret returned to the States in 1915, when Clarence Darrow offered to represent her, free of charge. The government dropped the charges.
In 1914, the only acceptable birth control methods in the United States were douches and suppositories, but in the Netherlands they were using something better… the diaphragm. Margaret was convinced that this flexible fitted contraceptive offered American women a fighting chance against unwanted pregnancies.
Opening the doors on the nation’s first birth control clinic in 1916, in Brooklyn, it was raided nine days later, with Margaret and her staff being arrested. Margaret was convicted and sentenced to thirty days. But the genie was out of the bottle. While she couldn’t get her conviction overturned, she did get the appellate court to exempt doctors from giving contraceptive advice to women. Which led to the opening of a clinic in 1923, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, this served as the model for clinics all over the country and became the center for the collection of data on the efficacy of various contraceptives.
Contrary to popular belief, Margaret Sanger did not believe in the more reactionary forms of eugenics, but in using birth control to reduce the transmittal of genetically transmitted defects, and sterilization of those who were born mentally retarded. She did not, however, advocate the use of eugenics as a means to control the population, race, class or ethnicity.
By 1928, Margaret was considered too radical for her own movement. She was too much of a feminist, and birth control was more of a “middle class virtue”. Her two organizations, the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau merged into the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939. We know it today as Planned Parenthood.
Margaret’s greatest goal for women was to find low cost, effective, simple birth control, so that no woman would ever have to feel that she was nothing more than a brood mare to any man. Margaret lived long enough to see the 1965 Supreme Court ruling Griswold v Connecticut, which made birth control legal in this country, for married couples. It would be another seven years before unmarried couples would have the same right (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972).
Margaret was a misbehaved woman… thank the Gods…