Remembering Margaret Sanger’s Legacy, One Hundred Years Later

a photograph of Gordon Sanger sitting in a chair

 Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Linda Gordon

One hundred years ago, in 1914, Margaret Sanger published the first issue of The Woman Rebel, a small feminist newspaper that advocated birth control. It published only seven issues until the U.S. Post Office shut it down. The reason is one we should all have in our minds: An 1873 federal law labeled any material relating to birth control—not just advocacy, not just advice about what it was and how to get it, but even philosophical discussion about whether it was a good idea—as obscene, and banned it from interstate commerce. Despite its short life, Sanger’s failed newspaper is nevertheless worth commemorating as a foundational moment of one of the most important gains the twentieth century brought. It is also worth commemorating as a sign of the dangers we face today. Sanger’s career encompassed socialist feminism and bohemianism in the World War I era, coalition building with physicians and eugenists in the 1920s, organizational and money raising entrepreneurship thereafter, and international missionary work for birth control starting in the 1930s. Like many single-minded reformers she took support wherever she could get it; she was neither pure nor self-effacing. But she remains a hero worth celebrating, for her energy, her commitment, and her willingness to face down those who clung to Victorian sexual prudery.

Born to Catholic but Free-Thinking parents in 1879, Sanger moved as a young married woman into a bohemian, arty, iconoclastic subculture in New York City shortly before World War I. Working as a visiting nurse on the lower east side, she tended to mothers exhausted and often ill from continual pregnancies, their poverty deepened by the cost of many children. Sanger saw extensive malnutrition and children neglected because their mothers spent long hours doing industrial garment sewing to make ends meet. She saw adolescents forced out of school to earn for their families. Women asked her for abortions, then the most common form of birth control, and if she knew of any “preventatives.” Later, when she traveled with her family to Europe, Sanger learned about birth control from fellow radicals. She gathered contraceptives such as pessaries (small, early versions of vaginal diaphragms), available in Europe from druggists, midwives, and doctors, often in connection with socialist or labor-union-run clinics.

In a series of articles for the socialist party newspaper The Call (Sanger was herself a party member and, besides, no other newspaper would discuss sexual issues), she wrote about general health subjects, and then moved on to a series of articles that offered accurate information about sex and reproduction and even argued the healthfulness of sexual activity. In December 1913 she founded The Woman Rebel, a radical socialist-feminist monthly—parts of which are now available on line. After issue number 7, she was arrested and charged with having distributed “obscene, lewd, filthy, lascivious and indecent” material and with using the mail to “incite murder and assassination.” (I can’t account for the latter charge.) Instead of submitting to trial, she fled to Europe, where she completed her education in reproductive and sexual health measures. Her most important teacher was Havelock Ellis, a renowned British physician and psychologist and a pioneering defender of homosexuality and women’s sexual rights.

Meanwhile, a social movement for birth control movement had taken off, sparked by outrage over Sanger’s arrest. When she returned to the United States in October 1915, the excitement was contagious. Birth-control leagues were forming all over the country; a host of women and men were giving pro-birth-control speeches. A class-based double standard was becoming apparent: prosperous people with access to private doctors were increasingly able to get contraception while the poor, lacking medical care, continued to rely on abortion. So birth-control advocates began opening clinics that dispensed birth control. Opposition remained strong, however. It was not until the 1960s and the fear of “population explosion” that politicians of either party openly endorsed birth control.

Meanwhile, the U.S. district attorney decided to not pursue the charges against Sanger, and she was free. In April 1916 she embarked on a nationwide speaking tour and by the time she returned to New York City, she was a national celebrity. One result of Sanger’s fame is a gift to historians: women flooded her with letters begging for birth-control advice. Letters came from elite and working-class women, from women in small towns and in big cities, from women who loved and women who hated their husbands: “To all of my pleadings my husband turns a deaf ear. He beats me, curses me and deserts us for weeks when I refuse intercourse.” “I have four children. . . . I am a little over twenty-four years and already skinny, yellow and so funny looking and I want to hold my husband’s love. . . . He tried to help me but somehow I got caught anyway. . . . When you was in Chicago I wanted to go to see you but I had no nice clothes.”

The historical perspective reveals another development, this one of cyclical nature. When Sanger began her advocacy, she was motivated both by concern for the poor and for women’s right to a sexual life. In the approximately fifty years between 1920 and 1970, that orientation was replaced by the practicalities of family welfare—and indeed, the name of the cause changed from birth control to family planning, signaling a move away from a feminist perspective. In the 1970s, a revived women’s movement again emphasized women’s rights to equality in sexual activity, thereby returning to one of Sanger’s early orientations. This in turn produced another backlash.  It began with an attack on newly legalized abortion but soon parts of the Christian Right began to reject contraception itself. That campaign today repeats the arguments used a century ago against Margaret Sanger: that birth control leads to sexual immorality, that birth control destroys women’s femininity, that birth control weakens family stability, and that proponents of birth control are promiscuous (“sluts” in recent parlance). Margaret Sanger stood down those accusations, and, until her death in 1966—just one year after the final legal victory for birth control—she patiently, determinedly, demonstrated their inaccuracy.

In Sanger’s day, however, religious opposition to birth control was limited to Catholics, and that remained the case until the 1970s. In the United States it was not until Republican party leaders sought to harness that opposition in the early 1970s that Protestant evangelicals joined that campaign. Thus today, the opposition crosses religious lines. Opponents of birth control recently fused their campaign with that against public medical insurance, another of Sanger’s causes: visiting the poor made her an ardent supporter of medical insurance.

I have been personally hounded by one of Sanger’s consequential and ill-advised decisions: an alliance with eugenists who sought to use birth control to reduce the population of those of “inferior stock” (a.k.a. people of color and immigrants).  This alliance created lasting suspicion of birth control among some people of color (though African American progressive leaders were and are supporters of birth control). Because I was the historian who first wrote about this alliance, in my history of birth-control politics I was denounced, first, in the 1980s, by some Planned Parenthood advocates, who found it unwise to criticize Margaret Sanger. A few decades later, the Christian Right began to cite my writings to prove that birth control is a “racist plot.”  This hypocrisy—because its exponents are more racist by far than birth-control advocates—is spread in many poor neighborhoods through billboards showing images of babies or tots, with the accompanying text, “The most dangerous place for an African American baby is in the womb.” In Latino neighborhoods the signs read, “El lugar mas peligroso para un latino es el vientre de su madre.”

Anniversaries are, of course, designed for the present. And they change their meanings as those constructing anniversary observances change their messages. Historians, I think, should use anniversaries to mark more complex evaluations of individuals and events. One of our responsibilities is to challenge the idolization of heroes, the establishment of binaries between historical actors who are perfectly good and those who are perfectly bad. Furthermore, historians must often use anniversaries to honor a cause as well as an individual hero. Sanger’s most important contribution was drawing hundreds of thousands of others into such movements for social change.

Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. She is the author of The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999) and Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (2009), both of which won the Bancroft Prize. She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.