Margaret Sanger: Biography of this birth control activist

Margaret Sanger was a crucial American nurse in the fight for birth control. During his life, he founded several associations promoting the use of contraception and family planning.

While his activism has been truly beneficial in terms of women’s reproductive health, Sanger is a figure with his chiaroscuro, tied to racist and eugenic positions.

Then we will talk about the life of this pioneer of family planning and also her philosophy, through this biography of Margaret Sanger.

    Brief biography of Margaret Sanger

    The figure of Margaret Sanger is that of a strong advocate of contraceptive methods, both as a birth control measure and to prevent thousands of women from having to have an abortion clandestinely in the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

    Despite the legal persecution, Sanger continued his struggle, gain wide recognition and found associations such as the American League for Birth ControlIn addition to overturning laws considered pornographic, to talk about family planning. Here we will know his life trajectory from his early years.

    Childhood and youth

    Margaret sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York. She was the sixth of eleven siblings, her parents being Michael Hennessey Higgins, a freethinker Irish mason, and Anne Purcell Higgins, a Catholic worker of Irish descent.

    Although his father studied medicine and phrenology, he eventually chose to become a stonemason by cutting angels, saints, and stone tombstones. Over time, the devout Catholic shifted to a more radical and activist atheism in favor of women’s suffrage and free public education, which influenced young Margaret. The mother, Anne, was 18 times pregnant, having 11 live births in the 22 years before her death.

    Considering the size of the family, Margaret spent most of her youth helping her younger siblings. With the support of his two older sisters, he was able to attend Claverack College and the Hudson River Institute. In 1900 she enrolled at White Plains Hospital as a nursing official, a job she quit two years later when she married architect William Sanger, becoming Margaret Sanger.

    William was an anarchist and atheist more averse to organized religion than Margaret’s father. Despite a few bouts of tuberculosis, young Margaret gave birth to three children, enjoying a quiet life with her family in Westchester County, New York.

    Activism and exile

    But his professional and intellectual life was not really calm. He participated in many debates in radical circles and came into contact with the birth control movement, In addition to knowing the movement for free love from the hand of Emma Goldman.

    At the end of 1912, he saw an event that made him think: witness the death of a woman who had attempted a clandestine abortion. It was then that he began to engage in the spread of birth control and advocated that sex should not be simply an action for reproductive purposes.

    Around this time began the publication in New York of The Woman Rebel, in which Sanger cried out against the evils of capitalism and religion. In it, he apologized for contraceptive methods and population control under the motto “Without Gods or Teachers”. This magazine would be truly a pioneer in its field and would be the one who coined the term “birth control”.

    By publishing it, Sanger she began to be prosecuted, accused of violating the Comstock law, A law that prohibited what was considered pornography, including any promotion of sexual health methods.

    Fearing for his freedom, Sanger went into exile in Britain, while publishing a pamphlet called Family Limitation, in which he charged with the same law. This pamphlet would become a sort of gospel among American birth control proponents.

    During her exile in Europe, Margaret Sanger met leaders of the Neo-Malthusian League and Havelock Hellis, A eugenic psychologist and sexologist. In Britain he would have the opportunity to study birth control theories and techniques with Aletto Jacobs and Dr Johan Rutgers.

    At this time, he founded the National Birth Control League, which in 1942 adopted its present name: Planned Parenthood Federation of America, PPFA, in its acronym in English).

      Return to the United States

      In 1915 he returned to the United States thanks to the fact that the accusations against their person were brought. So, taking advantage of this, he embarks on a conference tour across the country, promoting birth control and attacking anti-porn laws, which have often attacked people’s sexual freedom.

      To put pressure on tries to get the support of American suffragettesBut the feminist movement made her fear for a long time that if there was support for a movement as radical as Sanger’s, the vote for women would not be approved. After realizing that feminism did not give her clear support, she decided to take refuge in the neo-Malthusian and eugenic movement.

      In 1916 he established the first family planning clinic in Brooklyn, Which would be shut down by the NYPD and all of their materials would end up being confiscated. Over time, he would shift from a pro-sexual position of liberation to promoting contraceptive methods as a purely medical method, in order to avoid unwanted children and dead women in underground abortion clinics.

      That’s why she, along with her assistant Ethel Byrne, distributed contraceptive methods, so they ended up being convicted. It was at this point that the publication of the “Birth Control Review” began, which appeared briefly and then resurfaced with little continuity between the years 1920 and 1928.

      In 1927, she was the main promoter of the first World Population Congress, Being already considered as the main representative of the neomalthusiano movement in the United States. From this congress, over time, the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) will emerge.

      It was also his initiative to create the Population Association of America in 1931, which received strong financial support from major patrons, including the magnate F. Gamble, philanthropist and eugenicist. With his activism, Sanger had succeeded in getting American society, totally opposed to any measure in favor of contraception, to invest large sums of money in favor of the development of new contraceptive methods.

      The last decades and death

      He has spent his last decades promoting the passage of laws to increase birth control, as well as helping to legalize abortion and contraceptive distribution in third world countries. Margaret sanger died of congestive heart failure on September 6, 1966 in Tucson, Arizona, Be 86 years old.

      His thinking as an activist

      At her origins, Sanger was influenced by the socialist and feminist theses of her father Michael Hennessey Higgins.. His mother’s death caused him to rebel against the society he lived in, especially for his extremely female-centric view as a being who must reproduce by yes or no. Sanger was a declared socialist, a staunch enemy of capitalism and the evils it attributed to it. This was reflected in his stance on the main issues he addressed in his activism.

      Sexuality and abortion

      Although it was quite radical, his way of seeing sexuality was similar to that of the 19th century. Sanger conceived of sexuality as a weakness rather than a pleasure, guilty of unwanted pregnancies due to slipping. With birth control and from a health perspective rather than a feminist one, she intended to prevent hundreds of women they found themselves in the situation of having to undergo an illegal abortion, dying in the process.

      If his activism helped legalize abortion in the United States, it must be said that at the beginning he was opposed to it. It is said that he was no more in favor of abortion for fear that in the process the woman would die rather than for moral reasons, although he is credited with the defense of life anyway. For her, contraceptive methods would be what would prevent this problem, which has come to be regarded as a “tragedy of civilization”.


      One of the most controversial aspects of Margaren Sanger’s figure is his vision of human development laden with racism. He is credited with saying that as one “moves down” the ladder of human development, there is less sexual self-control. Apparently, he went so far as to say that the Australian Aborigines were “the lowest species” of the “human family,” just a cut above the chimpanzees.

      That is why she was in favor of what has been called negative eugenics. It is the political view that holds that the human species can improve itself through social intervention. His proposals included a more restrictive immigration policy, free access to contraceptive methods, racial segregation and the sterilization of intellectual disabilities.

      In his 1917 article “Population Control and Women’s Health,” he explains that natural selection ruled without interference in the origins of mankind. The less able individuals died young and the more able survived and eventually reproduced. However, as civilization progressed, the “weaker” were supported by society, being able to reach adulthood and reproduce, having children with the same problems and perpetuating maladaptive traits. .

      Society, whether with religious or humanistic motivation, brought compassion, sorrow, tenderness, and other lofty feelings that protected the most vulnerable. For that, she was so hostile to organized religions and institutions of charity and charity, Blaming them for creating a “degenerate race”. In 1932, in his article “A Plan for Peace”, he proposed the creation of laws which would prevent the entry of certain foreigners with traits prejudicial to the race.

      But despite all of these views, it seems Sanger rejected active direct euthanasia – that is, purging those considered inferior. She was opposed to the Nazi regime and considered its measures of mass extermination to be atrocities. He considered that this was not the way to control the birth rate, but that this control should come from the families themselves. He believed that if parents felt that their mentally weak children should not reproduce, and it was not for the state to compel them.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Hodgson, D., Watkins, SC (1997), “Feminists and Neomalthusians: Past and Current Alliances”, Population and Development Review 23 (3)
      • Sanger, M. (1927): Proceedings of the World Population Conference, Geneva.
      • Miller, JA (1996), “Bet on Lives. Clarence Gamble and the Pathfinder International ”, published in the Population Research Institute Review,
      • Williams, D. and Williams, G. (1978), “Every Child a Wanted Child: Clarence James Gamble, MD and His Work in the Birth Control Movement”, published in Historical Publication, (4): distributed by Harvard University Press.
      • Sanger, M. (1919), “Birth Control and Racial Improvement”, published in Birth Control Review, 3 (2): 11-12
      • Valenza, C. (1985), “Was Margaret Sanger Racist?” published in Family Planning Perspectives, 17 (1): 44-46
      • Jane Carey (2012) The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, United States and Australia in the Interwar Years, Women History Review 21 (5): 733-752.

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