On Her Birthday, Remembering Margaret Sanger

Happy Birthday, Margaret!

Woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man's attitude may be, that problem is hers – and before it can be his, it is hers alone.

September 14 is the birthday of Margaret Sanger, founder of the U.S. birth control movement. She was born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York, in 1879, though ever vain, she would later alter the family Bible to appear three years younger. The sixth child of eleven living siblings, her earliest childhood memories were of crying beside her mother's bed as after she almost died following a difficult childbirth.

Sanger's mother, Anne Higgins, did die, worn out from those too frequent pregnancies and births, at age 50. These experiences formed the sensibilities that propelled Margaret Sanger to advocate for birth control. She dedicated her first book on the fundamental rights of women to control their fertility to her mother. The quotation above and those that follow reveal her clear worldview about women and a laser-like focus on the work she believed to be the most essential to women's health, wellbeing, and rightful place in the world:

She goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it.

War, famine, poverty and oppression of the workers will continue while woman makes life cheap. They will cease only when she limits her reproductivity and human life is no longer a thing to be wasted.

Perhaps the best-known and most quoted of Sanger's statements is this one that cuts to the core of why reproductive self determination is simple justice for woman, and that without the freedom to make her own childbearing decisions, no other freedoms have meaning:

No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

But her belief in the value of birth control went beyond feminism and women's freedom. Too often, the right to sexual pleasure is pushed aside in the debates over birth control access today. Margaret took this subject on in the same frank way she took on other issues, and even included guidance about achieving orgasm in some of her writings. She spent much of her life raising money and supporting the research that led to the birth control pill, believing that a reliable method that could separate intercourse from the mechanics of birth control could not only dramatically reduce unintended pregnancies but also increase a couple's sexual pleasure.

A mutual and satisfied sexual act is of great benefit to the average woman, the magnetism of it is health giving. When it is not desired on the part of the woman and she gives no response, it should not take place.

When she started her quest at the dawn of the twentieth century, birth control was illegal and such methods as existed were rudimentary at best. Indeed, the term "birth control" hadn't even been created. "Family limitation" was the term of art at the time, and "reproductive health" wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye. Sanger had neither funds nor powerful supporters nor the force of public opinion behind her when she took her first bold steps. But she had passion for her mission, a vision of how she would bring birth control to women through a network of clinics that ultimately became Planned Parenthood. She had a sharp sense of how to use controversy and the media to stir up support for her cause.

Woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that woman in her which struggles for expression.

Sanger's words which have most influenced my approach to life and my work for women's reproductive rights, health, and justice are simply these:

Life has taught me: we must put our convictions into action.

I suspect that were she still alive, it would please her greatly to know that so many people continue to put our convictions into action for the cause she began. But she would be appalled to see the many challenges that still exist to keep women from having universal and affordable access to birth control. Ellen Chesler's biography of Sanger ends with her granddaughter and namesake, Margaret Sanger Marston, asking her grandmother how she wanted to be remembered. Margaret Sanger's response was that "she hoped she would be remembered for helping women, because women are the strength of the future. They take care of culture and tradition and preserve what is good."

And that's how we should remember her today. Thanks to Sanger, so many women can now joyously celebrate their freely chosen "birth days."

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  • invalid-0

    Hi Gloria Feldt, I’m sorry I upset the status quo cart, here. Deleting the posts from sincere readers who ask tough questions is not a road to enlightenment. -sigh-

  • scott-swenson

    Dear “sigh” Anonymous:

    First, as a sincere reader we invite you to sign up and comment with a screen name rather than anonymously.

    More importantly, please accept our apology. Your original comment asking about Ms. Sanger’s views on race was up all weekend, as were more than a dozen spam posts on this piece. Today, more spam, and unfortunately a deletion of your original comment in our anti-spam efforts, by mistake.

    We invite you to restate your question, and we will encourage a reply because it is an issue that comes up and should get a response.

    Unlike many social conservative websites and online publications that do not allow commenting, or strictly control it, we’ve been able to maintain an open door policy, welcoming respectful comments from all parts of the political spectrum. Your question was sincere and it was not deleted to short circuit dialog, but rather accidentally in an anti-spam effort, and alas, is not retrievable. Please re-state the question.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Dear Scott Swenson, thank you for your reply.

    Dear Gloria Feldt, please accept my apology. I noticed my post disappeared without being addressed and assumed malicious intent.

    The question was in relation to one of a myriad of quotes scattered across the internet which are attributed to Ms. Sanger’s racial views. I do not have handy them at the moment, but it is not a challenge to find comments which, on the surface, appear to be quite disturbing.

    Is it best to present them here, as comments to this post, or in another forum? Or, is this site not interested in hosting such a discussion? (And that’s OK!)

    Thank you!

  • andrea-schwartz

    Margaret Sanger has been an inspiration to many, and constantly reminds us of our own power to make change for women. In addition Ms. Feldt, your work with PPFA has constantly reminded me to work hard for reproductive rights in my own career. I hope you know that your work echos Margaret's and that you both inspire young women at the beginning of our career's to continue the fight.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Questioner,

    Sorry for the technological issues that caused you to think I was reluctant to address your questions. The questions you have posed are readily answered by several sources. I think the best is Ellen Chesler's biography of Margaret Sanger that I cited in my post. She thoroughly looks at Sanger's entire history and utterances as well as the cultural and lingustic context of the times. It is necessary to understand the context to understand the meaning of those comments properly attributed to Sanger. In a nutshell, when she referred to race, she was talking about the human race. Far from being a racist, she was one of the first to advocate for healthcare access for all, back in the days when Arrican Americans were often relegated to hospital basements if they were treated at all.

    Many quotes going around the web are actually falsely attributed to Sanger. This article goes through quite few of them in detail with references you can check for yourself: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/PPFA/fact-margaret-sanger.pdf

    Sanger did align herself with the eugenists for a time as a way to garner legitimacy for her fledgling birth control movement. During the 1920's and 30's, the eugenics movement consisted of the most high stature and powerful people in America, including presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt. Sanger was one of the first to disassociate herself from the eugenists when she realized they didn't necessarily support freedom of childbearing choices for women–that was always her core belief and passion and nothing ever deterred her from advancing reproductive freedom regardless of race, income, or any other factor. What convinced me that Sanger was undoubtedly on the side of the angels is that Hitler burned her books because they contradicted his notion of Aryan superiority.



    Gloria Feldt

  • invalid-0

    As a woman of 49 now I do remember the 70’s and I thank Planned Parenthood for being available to teens and having the teen clinic weekly at a neighborhood center in Chicago. Without the informative education, and listening on my part I never had an unwanted pregnancy. I also proceeded to refer friends to the clinic, some albeit after the fact but they knew at my school I was the resource person to go to. Thank you for all these years of being there~

  • invalid-0

    Hi Gloria Feldt,

    Thanks much for your reply!

    It seems logical that quotes I find most disturbing must have come while she was aligned with the eugenists. Do you know if her change in philosophy came abruptly, or was it a gradual process? The Pivot of Civilization contains ideas very opposed to choice. (Available at amazon.com for $20, and even better, a free download http://www.gutenberg.org.) Doo you know if she ever recant these early statements?