Paul Russell looks at the life of birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
In 1916 the USA’s first birth control clinic was opened in Brooklyn by Margaret Sanger. This was some four years before women were allowed to vote in the US, and at a time when giving information about birth control was illegal in the country.
Critics have called her a racist and a eugenist whilst others accuse her of selfish individualism. The daughter of a man who was a ‘non-conformist through and through’, it is no surprise that Sanger had (in her own words) ‘advanced ideas’ for her time. Sanger was a self-styled rebel of her times, but was her path to leadership quite as clear cut as it seems?
Sanger grew up in a large family as one of 11 children, and speaks in her 1938 autobiography of their self-sufficiency but also of her father’s care and concern for others telling how their home became known as the place where a tramp would never be refused food, despite the family being poor themselves.
The children of the household were encouraged to have a voice. Sanger said: “In those days young people, unless invited to speak, were seen and not heard. But as soon as father considered us old enough to have ideas or opinions, we were given full scope to express them.”
Sanger was a self-styled rebel of her times, but was her path to leadership quite as clear cut as it seems?
His advice enabled Sanger to: “Question what I had previously taken for granted and to reason for myself. It was not pleasant, but father had taught me to think.”
The young Sanger actually wanted to be an actress but was deterred by the need to provide leg measurements and instead “turned to other fields where something besides legs was to count.” After three years at Claverack School paid for by her sisters, Sanger tried teaching before determining to become a doctor whilst nursing her own mother.
But the first steps into nursing came in a pragmatic way: “I could not at the moment see how the gap in education from Claverack to medical school was to be bridged. Nevertheless, I could at least make a start with nursing.” The death of Sanger’s mother caused a huge change in her father and his liberal views were no longer applied to Sanger’s behaviour.
Her own large family and those around her undoubtedly formed Sanger’s views regarding birth control, writing: “Large families were associated with poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, fighting, jails; the small ones with cleanliness, leisure, freedom, light, space, sunshine.”
Yet, it was in the final months of nurse training that she met her husband to be Bill Sanger, an architect and ‘pure artist by temperament’. Three children followed soon after and Sanger resumed nursing when the couple moved to New York.
Margaret and Bill’s was a modern marriage and they were part of socialist groups. Bill would pave the way for Margaret to be heard saying: “Margaret has something to say on that. Have you heard Margaret?” It was at this time that Sanger met Anita Block, a Barnard graduate and editor of the women’s page of the Call.
When Anita asked Sanger to step in for a speaker, she was less than eager recalling: “I was frightened – thoroughly so. I could not eat my supper. Shaking and quaking I faced the little handful of women.” It was this engagement that led to Sanger’s ‘what every woman should know’ and ‘what every girl should know’ articles.
But the real turning point for Sanger came when she nursed Sadie Sachs, a 28-year-old woman suffering from the effects of self-induced abortion. After being refused birth control advice from the doctor, Sadie begged Sanger for this information which she was unable to give.
Sanger recalls in her autobiography: “What was I to do? I was helpless to avert such monstrous atrocities.” Three months later and Sachs was dead after another pregnancy. Sanger said: “I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost… I was resolved to seek out the root of the evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky.”
After some time in France with her husband and children amidst the more liberal views surrounding birth control Sanger had reached ‘exploding point’, saying: “I wanted to get on with what I had to do in the world.”
Her newspaper, The Woman Rebel, designed for the working woman followed soon after, urging that women should be mistresses of their own body and opposing the Comstock Act that determined contraceptive literature and devices as obscene. Sanger was indicted in nine counts with a potential prison sentence of 45 years.
When Sanger’s own family learnt that she might be ‘getting in deep water’ a ‘verdict of mental breakdown was openly decreed’ yet it was the prospect of a trial that finally gave Sanger the approbation that she really wanted- that of her father.
Whilst awaiting trial, Sanger went further producing a pamphlet called Family Limitation containing information that was, at that time, illegal before sailing to England to prepare her case which was later dropped. Sanger went on to open her first birth control clinic in 1916.
Sanger served time in prison as a result of her actions before being able to open the first legal birth control clinic in the US in 1923 and in 1938 dedicated her autobiography ‘to all the pioneers of new and better worlds to come’.
It is easy to label a leader as a rebel or a pioneer in retrospect, because they have made those difficult decisions and in the aftermath all we see is the outcome, not the decision making process that got them there in the first place. Yet even apparently rebellious leaders have, as Sanger did, times of trepidation or worry.
Very few leaders sit down and decide that they are going to be rebellious. For many, the more circuitous path that life offers is more commonplace, and they will be presented with dilemmas and options that could take them towards leadership or away from it.
Sanger had deep seated views of what is right born of her upbringing. They were so strong in fact, that even without the support of her family, she proceeded regardless. Sanger had grown up seeing the effects of lack of birth control first hand, and even more closely when she worked as a nurse in New York.
Her belief that her opinions were her own to form were what enabled her to move beyond the confines of accepted thinking and law of the time, and to pursue a course of action that changed the lives of many.