September 14 marks the birthday of Margaret Sanger, founder of the modern birth control movement. Born Margaret Higgins in 1879 in Corning, New York, Sanger would become a trailblazer and set the stage for women to control their reproductive destiny.
Margaret was the sixth of 11 children. She watched her mother struggle with the challenges of childcare and frequent pregnancies, and it made a permanent mark on Margaret’s mind. Feminist author Gloria Feldt tells us:
Margaret’s earliest childhood memories were of crying beside her mother’s bed after a nearly fatal childbirth. Anne Higgins, a devout, traditional Catholic, did die at age 50, worn out from frequent pregnancies and births.
Margaret’s father was a freethinker, a stonemason, a charmer who loved to drink and spin a tale but was less than a dependable provider. Margaret knew poverty; she identified with the struggles of women. Her experiences formed her sensibilities about the moral rightness of birth control. And she had that freethinker streak that allowed her to break boundaries.
Part of the Higgins family’s problems stemmed from the fact that Michael Higgins was very vocal in his opposition to the Catholic Church. Corning was a predominantly Catholic community, and Higgins’ opinions made it hard for him to secure commissions as a stonemason. It also made the Higgins children the subject of ridicule amongst their peers. This may have been a blessing in disguise, however, because it helped the Higgins children rely on each other for companionship. And when Margaret was ready to launch the birth control movement many years later, her sister would join the fray.
Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic at 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, New York. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Gloria Feldt explains:
On Oct. 16, 1916, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic in the Brownsville district of Brooklyn. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the nurse; it would be some time before they could get a doctor to join the effort. Handbills in English, Yiddish and Italian advertised the clinic throughout the neighborhood.
The police closed that clinic 10 days and 464 patients later. But Sanger, who would go on to establish the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, had founded something much larger than a clinic: she ignited a movement for women’s reproductive freedom.
Some of Sanger’s motivation for opening the first birth control clinic stemmed from a trip that she made to the Netherlands in 1915. The Dutch have always had a progressive attitude toward sex and health care, and in 1915, birth control methods such as diaphragms were already widely available there. Sanger became convinced after this trip that contraception should be made available to American women, too.
Sanger was also motivated to give women access to birth control because she had witnessed many women die as a result of self-induced abortions. One of those women was Sadie Sachs. Upon her fourth pregnancy, Sadie’s doctor told her that she shouldn’t have any more children. When Sadie asked how she could prevent pregnancy, the doctor said that she should tell her husband to sleep on the roof. Sadie self-aborted. When Sadie became pregnant again several months later and self-aborted yet another time, she died from complications, leaving her husband behind to tend to their three children. Sadie’s death left a firm impression on Sanger, and the birth control movement was born.
In addition to being a tireless advocate, Margaret Sanger had many interesting facets to her personality. Gloria Feldt describes her this way:
She was visionary and practical, courageous and cranky, idealistic and pragmatic, a redheaded, green-eyed feminist socialist who died a registered Republican, mother, grandmother, sexual adventurer, a woman of many contradictions — but then aren’t we all?
Two of these contradictions were Sanger’s marriages. Her first marriage was to William Sanger. Bill took Margaret away for the weekend, neglecting to tell her that they were going to be married. Sanger wrote in her journal that she was wearing an ugly blue dress, and that the surprise wedding was horrible. When Sanger later married J. Noah Slee, she consistently referred to him as a sadist in her diary. It seems so contradictory that a strong advocate for women would remain in unhappy marriages. But such is the tangled web of Sanger’s life.
It seems fitting to celebrate Margaret Sanger’s birthday. Because of her efforts, women of today have options. The movement she founded would become the organization that we know today as Planned Parenthood Federation of America. And those of us who volunteer for Planned Parenthood Arizona have the privilege of visiting the Margaret Sanger Health Center, which serves as Planned Parenthood Arizona’s administrative headquarters in Tucson. It is very inspiring to walk past the photos of Sanger in the hallways, and it makes me feel like I am connected to history.
Stay tuned in the following weeks as Anna and I bring you more stories about Margaret Sanger. Unraveling the interesting stories about Sanger’s life has been an exciting adventure, and we can’t wait to share our findings with you!