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Famous Like Me > Director > S > Margaret Sanger

Profile of Margaret Sanger on Famous Like Me

Name: Margaret Sanger  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 14th September 1879
Place of Birth: Corning, New York, USA
Profession: Director
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia
Margaret Sanger.

Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist, an advocate of certain aspects of eugenics, and the founder of the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood). Initially meeting with fierce opposition to her ideas, Sanger gradually won the support of the public and the courts for a woman's right to choose for family planning. Though her selective support of eugenics was less well received, Margaret Sanger was instrumental in opening the way to universal access to birth control.


Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic who had 11 children before dying of tuberculosis. After graduating from Claverack College in Hudson, Sanger trained as a nurse and worked for ten years in the affluent New York suburb of White Plains. In 1902, she married William Sanger. Although stricken by tuberculosis, she gave birth to a son the following year, followed in subsequent years by a second son and a daughter who died in childhood.

In 1912, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the poverty-stricken East Side slums of Manhattan. That same year, she also started writing a column for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to poor women, Sanger repeatedly risked scandal and imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873 which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.

In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, a newspaper advocating birth control. She also separated from William Sanger. In 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided by the police and Sanger was arrested for violating the post office's obscenity laws by sending birth control information by mail. Sanger fled to Europe to escape prosecution. However, the following year, she returned to the U.S. and resumed her activities, launching the periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News. She also contributed articles on health for the Socialist Party paper, The Call.

In 1916, Sanger published "What Every Girl Should Know," which was later widely distributed as one of the E. Haldeman-Julius "Little Blue Books." It not only provided basic information about such topics as menstruation, but also acknowledged the reality of sexual feelings in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every Mother Should Know. That year, Sanger was sent to the workhouse for "creating a public nuisance."

Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921 with Lothrop Stoddard and C. C. Little. In 1922, she traveled to Japan to work with Japanese feminist Kato Shidzue promoting birth control; over the next several years, she would return another six times for this purpose. In this year, she also married oil tycoon James Noah H. Slee. In 1923, under the auspices of the ABCL, she established the Clinical Research Bureau. It was the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. (renamed Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in her honor in 1940). That year, she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president of until its dissolution in 1937 after birth control under medical supervision was legalized in many states. In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

In 1928, Sanger resigned as the president of the ABCL. Two years later, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In 1937, Sanger became chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications, The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News. From 1939 to 1942, she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America. From 1952 to 1959, she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time, the largest private international family planning organization.

During the 1960 presidential elections, Sanger was dismayed by candidate John F. Kennedy's position on birth control (though a Catholic, Kennedy did not believe birth control should be a matter of government policy). She threatened to leave the country if Kennedy were elected, but evidently reconsidered after Kennedy won the election.

In the early 1960s, Sanger promoted the use of the newly available birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing and helping to establish clinics.

Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona at age 87 only a few months after the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the US. It was the apex of her fifty-year struggle.

Sanger's books include Woman and the New Race (1920), Happiness in Marriage (1926), and an autobiography (1938).


Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, a freethinker, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's medical ignorance. She also criticized the censorship of her reproductive literacy message by the civil and religious authorities, justified on moral grounds, as an effort by men to keep women in submission. An atheist, Sanger attacked the Christian church for its opposition to her message, blaming it for obscurantism and insensitivity to women's concerns. Sanger was particularly critical of the lack of awareness of the dangers of and the scarcity of treatment opportunities for venereal disease among women. She claimed that these social ills were the result of the male establishment's intentionally keeping women in ignorance. Sanger also deplored the contemporary absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration of those with infectious diseases such as measles).

Sanger was also an avowed socialist, blaming the evils of contemporary capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of the young working-class women. Her views on this issue are evident in the last pages of What Every Girl Should Know.

Psychology of sexuality

While Sanger's understanding of and practical approach to human physiology were progressive for her times, her thoughts on the psychology of human sexuality place her squarely in the pre-Freudian 19th century. Birth control, it would appear, was for her more a means to limit the undesirable side-effects of sex than a way of liberating men and women to enjoy it. In What Every Girl Should Know, she wrote: "Every normal man and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse. Men and woman who have it in control and constantly use their brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sexuality, for her, was a kind of weakness, and surmounting it indicated strength:

Though sex cells are placed in a part of the anatomy for the essential purpose of easily expelling them into the female for the purpose of reproduction, there are other elements in the sexual fluid which are the essence of blood, nerve, brain, and muscle. When redirected in to the building and strengthening of these, we find men or women of the greatest endurance greatest magnetic power. A girl can waste her creative powers by brooding over a love affair to the extent of exhausting her system, with the results not unlike the effects of masturbation and debauchery.

Her thoughts on human development were also laden with racism:

It is said that a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.

Sanger also considered masturbation dangerous:

In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.

For her, masturbation was not just a physical act, it was a mental state:

In the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous forms of masturbation, i.e. mental masturbation, which consists of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain, for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to free the thoughts from lustful pictures.


Sanger found supporters among believers in eugenics, a social philosophy (ultimately embraced in Nazism) that led to the rise of such practices as compulsory sterilization to discourage unsuitable persons from breeding in the name of perfecting the human race. In 1932, for example, Sanger argued for

A stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.

"...certain dysgenic groups in our population," she continued, should be given their choice of "segregation or sterilization." . While considered enlightened in some circles at the time, today such measures would be regarded as violations of human rights.

And yet in "The Birth Control Review of February" 1919, she clarified her position:

"Eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother."

In a mix of socialist and eugenic thought, Sanger blamed economic factors involved in choice of spouse for contributing to suboptimal human reproduction, and argued for more assertive public health and eugenics measures.

Sanger's writings often make use of the loaded terms "moron", "imbecile", and "feeble-minded", which were then used to refer to individuals affected by mental retardation or the "developmentally disabled". The later use of these terms as pejoratives has put them out of favor and diluted their original meaning. In the context of eugenics, the terms did not refer to physically and mentally normal people who were disadvantaged or considered by other groups to be inferior.

With advances in biology and genetics, it has become clear that at least some of the "negative eugenic" policies Sanger advocated to prevent the "feeble-minded" from reproducing would in practice be ineffective. For example, it is now known that Down Syndrome is, for the most part, not heritable.


Although Margaret Sanger espoused racist beliefs, she fought for the rights of minorities. In their article about Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood notes:

"In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city's health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community's elder statesman, W.E.B. DuBois."

Sanger remains a controversial figure. She is widely acknowledged to have been the founder of the birth control movement and remains an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements. She is reviled, however, by some who condemn her as "an abortion advocate" (perhaps unfairly so: abortion was illegal during Sanger's lifetime and Planned Parenthood did not then support the procedure or lobby for its legalisation) or who disagree in principle with Eugenics.

Although Sanger's views on abortion (like many of her opinions) changed throughout the course of her life, she was acutely aware of the problem of abortion in her early years, typically self-induced or with the aid of a midwife. Her opposition to abortion stemmed primarily from a concern for the dangers to the mother, and less so from legal concerns or the welfare of the unborn child. She wrote in a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, "no one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable," though she framed this in the context of her birth control advocacy, adding that "abortions will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. (Care is) the only cure for abortions." Sanger consistently regarded birth control and abortion as the responsibility and burden first and foremost of women, and as matters of law, medicine and public policy second.1


"Thus we see that the second and third children have a very good chance to live through the first year. Children arriving later have less and less chance, until the twelfth has hardly any chance at all to live twelve months. [npg] This does not complete the case, however, for those who care to go farther into the subject will find that many of those who live for a year die before they reach the age of five. [npg] Many, perhaps, will think it idle to go farther in demonstrating the immorality of large families, but since there is still an abundance of proof at hand, it may be offered for the sake of those who find difficulty in adjusting old-fashioned ideas to the facts. The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it. The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members."
Woman and the New Race, Chapter 5, "The Wickedness of Creating Large Families." New York: Brentanos Publishers, 1922.
"Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race."
Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922. Page 12.
"We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don't want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population. and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."
Margaret Sanger's December 19, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, 255 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts. Original source: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts. Also described in Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.
"Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.
"The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5.
"As an advocate of birth control I wish ... to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the 'unfit' and the 'fit,' admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation.... On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective."
"The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5.
"The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics."
"The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5.
"Our 'overhead' expense in segregating the delinquent, the defective and the dependent, in prisons, asylums and permanent homes, our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying ... demonstrate our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism. No industrial corporation could maintain its existence upon such a foundation. Yet hardheaded 'captains of industry,' financiers who pride themselves upon their cool-headed and keen-sighted business ability are dropping millions into rosewater philanthropies and charities that are silly at best and vicious at worst. In our dealings with such elements there is a bland maladministration and misuse of huge sums that should in all righteousness be used for the development and education of the healthy elements of the community."
The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Chapter 12, "Woman and the Future"
"[Charity] conceals a stupid cruelty, because it is not courageous enough to face unpleasant facts. Aside from the question of the unfitness of many women to become mothers, aside from the very definite deterioration in the human stock that such programs would inevitably hasten, we may question its value even to the normal though unfortunate mother. For it is never the intention of such philanthropy to give the poor over-burdened and often undernourished mother of the slum the opportunity to make the choice herself, to decide whether she wishes time after to time to bring children into the world. It merely says 'Increase and multiply: We are prepared to help you do this.' Whereas the great majority of mothers realize the grave responsibility they face in keeping alive and rearing the children they have already brought into the world, the maternity center would teach them how to have more. The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth.
"Such philanthropy, as Dean Inge has so unanswerably pointed out, is kind only to be cruel, and unwittingly promotes precisely the results most deprecated. It encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant."
The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Chapter 5, "The Cruelty of Charity"
"Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all—that the wealth of individuals and of states is being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization."
The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Chapter 8, "Dangers of Cradle Competition"
"The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind."
Margaret Sanger, quoted in Charles Valenza. "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" Family Planning Perspectives, January-February 1985, page 44.
"The third group [of society] are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped."
Margaret Sanger. Speech quoted in Birth Control: What It Is, How It Works, What It Will Do. The Proceedings of the First American Birth Control Conference. Held at the Hotel Plaza, New York City, November 11-12, 1921. Published by the Birth Control Review, Gothic Press, pages 172 and 174.
"Give dysgenic groups [people with 'bad genes'] in our population their choice of segregation or [compulsory] sterilization."
Margaret Sanger, Birth Control Review, April 1932


  • The Pivot of Civilization
  • What Every Girl Should Know
  • "The Case for Birth Control" (first published in the Woman Citizen, February 23, 1924)
  • Correspondence between Sanger and Katharine McCormick
  • Works by Margaret Sanger at Project Gutenberg

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Margaret Sanger