Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Roman Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births) before dying of tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Sanger's father, Michael Hennessy Higgins, earned his living "chiseling angels and saints out of huge blocks of white marble or gray granite for tombstones," and was also an activist for women's suffrage, free public education, and socialism. Sanger was the sixth of eleven children and spent much of her youth assisting in household chores and care of her younger siblings. Sanger attended Claverack College, a boarding school in Hudson for two years. Her sisters paid her tuition, and when they were unable to continue to provide this assistance, Sanger returned home in 1899. Her mother died the same year, after which Sanger enrolled in a nursing program at a hospital in White Plains, an affluent New York suburb. In 1902, Margaret Higgins married architect William Sanger and the couple settled in New York City. Sanger had developed tuberculosis as a result of the care of her ill mother and her own overwork, and the Sangers moved to Saranac, New York in the Adirondacks, for health reasons. In 1903, she gave birth to her first child, Stuart.
In 1912, after a fire destroyed the home that her husband had designed, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the 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 women, Sanger repeatedly caused scandal and risked imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.
Margaret separated from her husband William Sanger in 1913. In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight page monthly newsletter promoting contraception, with the slogan "No Gods and No Masters" (and coining the term "birth control) and that each woman be "the absolute mistress of her own body." She was indicted for violating U.S. postal obscenity laws in August 1914, but jumped bail and fled to England under the alias "Bertha Watson". Sanger returned to the U.S. in October 1915 and her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, died November 6.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided nine days later by the police. She served 30 days in prison. An initial appeal was rejected but a state appellate court in 1918 allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.
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 provided information about such topics as menstruation and sexuality in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every Mother Should Know. She also launched the monthly periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News and contributed articles on health to the Socialist Party paper, The Call.
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 married her second husband, the 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 1940). It received crucial grants from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1924 onwards, which were made anonymously to avoid public exposure of the Rockefeller name to her agenda. The family also consistently supported her ongoing efforts in regard to population control.
Also in 1923, she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president 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.
Between 1921 and 1926, Sanger received over a million letters from mothers requesting information on birth control. From 1916 on, she lectured "in many places—halls, churches, women's clubs, homes, theaters" to "many types of audiences—cotton workers, churchmen, liberals, Socialists, scientists, clubmen, and fashionable, philanthropically minded women.
In 1926, in what she called "one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing," Sanger even gave a lecture on birth control to the women's auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey, a group she found so ignorant she had to use only "the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand." Sanger's talk was well-received by the group and as a result "a dozen invitations to similar groups were proffered." In September 1930, she received at home the Nazi anthropologist Eugen Fischer.
Additionally, Sanger also had offending words for Catholics when she stated that she believed that they were “black moles…invading our buildings of democracy.”
In 1928, Sanger resigned as the president of the ABCL. Two years later, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In January 1932, she addressed the New History Society, an organization founded by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and Julie Chanler; this address would later become the basis for an article entitled A Plan for Peace. 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 (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, eight days shy of her 87th birthday and only a few months after the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the U.S., the apex of her 50-year agenda.
Sanger's books include Woman and the New Race (1920), The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Happiness in Marriage (1926), My Fight For Birth Control (1931), and an autobiography (1938).
Sanger was also an avowed socialist, blaming the evils of contemporary capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of the young white working-class women. Her very personal views on this issue are evident in the last pages of What Every Girl Should Know.
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, like most of the population of her time, 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.
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.
Her first pamphlet read:
It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.
Sanger promoted the idea of "race hygiene" through "negative eugenics," an attempt to reduce the fertility of "dysgenic" groups. Sanger considered the unchecked multiplication of the "unfit" to be "the greatest present menace to civilization. She suggested Congress set up a special department to study population problems and appoint a "Parliament of Population." One of the main objectives of the "Population Congress" would be "to raise the level and increase the general intelligence of population.
Sanger saw birth control as a means to prevent "dysgenic" children from being born into a disadvantaged life, and dismissed "positive eugenics" (which promoted greater fertility for the "fitter" upper classes) as impractical. Though many leaders in the eugenics movement were calling for active euthanasia of the "unfit," Sanger spoke out against such methods. Edwin Black writes:
In [William] Robinson's book, Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control (Practical Eugenics), he advocated gassing the children of the unfit. In plain words, Robinson insisted: 'The best thing would be to gently chloroform these children or give them a dose of potassium cyanide.' Margaret Sanger was well aware that her fellow birth control advocates were promoting lethal chambers, but she herself rejected the idea completely. 'Nor do we believe,' wrote Sanger in Pivot of Civilization, 'that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.'
When Nazi Germany adopted the principles of eugenics to create a Germanic "master race," Sanger did not publicly denounce the racist and anti-Semitic program of the Nazis. However, in a letter she wrote:
"All the news from Germany is sad & horrible, and to me more dangerous than any other war going on any where because it has so many good people who applaud the atrocities & claim its right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews & the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here & is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria.."
About placing the responsibility for eugenic control in the hands of individual parents rather than the state, she wrote:
"The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.... We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come 'from within.' That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive, and not imposed from without.
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... Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.She nevertheless advocated certain instances of coercion, in cases where she considered the parents unfit to decide whether they should bear children:
"The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.
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.
Although Sanger's views on abortion changed throughout the course of her life, in her early years she was acutely aware of the problem of abortion, 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.
In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger notes that her 1916 opposition to abortion was based on the taking of life: "To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun."
Mike Wallace interviews Margaret Sanger about over-population, the Catholic Church, morality, and, most importantly, why she became an advocate for birth control, Sept. 21, 1957. Hosted at the Harry Ransom Center.