Margaret Sanger's Early Activism

March 1914 edition of The Woman Rebel.

Cover of the eighteenth edition of Family Limitation.

Margaret Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York. She was one of eleven children, her mother Anne having been pregnant at least 18 times in her life before her death at age 49. Sanger blamed her mother’s frequent pregnancies for her ill health and her early death. She wanted to become a doctor, but was unable to afford the cost of school. Instead, she went to nursing school, where she met her first husband, William Sanger. For nearly a decade, the Sangers lived a quiet life. Margaret gave birth to three children. [1]

In 1911, the Sangers moved to Manhattan where they immediately became involved in politics, with both joining the Socialist Party. Margaret would also begin to use her nursing training to help working-class, mainly immigrant obstetrical patients living in tenements in the Lower East Side. The experiences she would have there would affect the rest of her life. [2] She encountered women dying from miscarriages and self-induced abortions and women who were relived to have a stillbirth because they could not afford to have any more children. [3] However, according to Sanger, her experiences could best be exemplified in the case of Sadie Sachs. In 1912, Sanger received an urgent call to care for Sadie Sachs, an immigrant mother of three who was near death due to septicemia (blood poisoning) from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks, Sadie was no longer near death, but the doctor warned her that she would likely not survive another pregnancy. Sadie asked the doctor how to prevent getting pregnant again, and the doctor dismissively replied that the only way to do it was abstinence. Three months later, Sadie was dead from another self-induced abortion. [4] Sanger retold the story of Sadie Sachs many times in her life; according to Sanger, this incident changed her. She vowed to dedicate her life to giving women the knowledge they need to control their pregnancies. [5] Though it had been questioned if Sadie Sachs was a real person or simply an amalgamation of many poor women Sanger met during her work, high levels of maternal mortality and the need for information on birth control among impoverished women was very real. [6]

Sanger began lecturing on sexual health in front of socialist and women’s groups. However, first began receiving attention for her activism after publishing sex education articles in the socialist daily newspaper the New York Call, the first being “What Every Mother Should Know,” which aimed to inform parents about how to teach their children about sex and reproduction in an honest and age appropriate way. This was also the first time Sanger received public backlash for her work; a later article in the New York Call was censored by Comstock. Public backlash on the grounds of free speech violations allowed Sanger to later republish the article in book form uncensored. [7]

As part of her efforts to meet the needs of the poor women she met during her nursing work, Sanger sought out a birth control method that was cheap, easily accessible, effective, easy to use, and did not require the cooperation of the male partner. This information was not easy to find. Even in medical circles, information on contraceptives was frequently unreliable and incomplete. Sanger briefly traveled to Europe, where she was able to find more information on birth control methods. [8] When she returned to the United States in 1914, she began publishing a monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel, fully aware that she would again be attracting the attention of Comstock censors. The Woman Rebel contained articles discussing a variety of woman’s issues, including birth control and abortion. It was a popular publication, ultimately garnering more than 2,000 monthly subscribers. [9] Five of the seven issues were ultimately censored by the postal authorities. [10]

The July 1914 issue was ultimately enough to get Sanger indicted, despite the fact that she had never published specific information on birth control methods, which would have been a direct violation of the Comstock laws. Not wanting to face prison time, especially for an incidental issue, disseminating information about birth control methods, she fled to Europe using a fake passport. [11] However, before she left she arranged for 100,000 copies of a new pamphlet to be printed and distributed: Family Limitation, a 16 page informational guide to various contraceptive methods Sanger had acquired over her years of research. Family Limitation discussed birth control methods such as the use of chemical contraceptives, diaphragms and menstrual cycle tracking. [12]

The first edition of Family Limitation was a radical document defending a woman’s right to control her own body with strong socialist and feminist themes. Sanger warned that while birth control was considered a “sordid” thing, it was far more sordid to be “burdened down with half a dozen unwanted children, helpless, starved, shoddily clothed, dragging at your skirt, yourself a dragged out shadow of the woman you once were.” [13] Sanger also wrote that one of the reasons to promote birth control was that “[the] working class can use direct action by refusing to supply the market with children to be exploited...” [14] This directly connected the struggle for access to birth control with a socialist class struggle. Left-wing organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped to distribute copies of the pamphlet. [15] Due to the changing political climate, later editions of Family Limitation, while also containing updated birth control information, were also significantly less radical. By the tenth edition, published in 1919, most references to class and to all references to abortion had been removed by Sanger. [16] In 1915, while she was in Europe, Sanger’s husband William was arrested and tried for providing an undercover agent with a copy of Family Limitation and ultimately spent 30 days in jail, providing more public attention to the issue of birth control. Sanger returned to the United States soon afterwards with new plans for her activism. [17]

[1] Wardell, Dorothy. “Margaret Sanger: Birth Control’s Successful Revolutionary.” American Journal of Public Health 70, no. 7 (July 1980): 737.

[2] Engelman, Peter. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 28.

[3] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” The History Teacher 51, no. 1 (2017): 124.

[4] Wardell, 738.

[5] Engelman, 29.

[6] Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 63.

[7] Engelman, 31-32.

[8] Engelman, 38.

[9] Mundt, 125.

[10] Engelman, 42.

[11] Engelman, 43-44.

[12] Chesler, 102-104.

[13] Sanger, Margaret. Family Limitation. (1914), 1.

[14] Sanger, 2.

[15] Jensen, Joan M. “The Evolution of Margaret Sanger’s ‘Family Limitation’ Pamphlet, 1914-1921.” Signs 6, no. 3 (1981): 549.

[16] Jensen, 554-555.

[17] Engelman, 55-56.

Prev Next