Margaret Sanger and the Pre-History of Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood and Women's Activist Margaret Sanger | Courtesy of Live Action

Women have proven to be influential when it comes to social reform. During the 1920’s, women began to bob their hair, shorten their skirts, and voice their disdain for various restrictions on women. One of those restrictions involved women’s reproductive health. Margaret Sanger was a pioneer in women’s rights for birth control. Sanger wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in, even if that meant speaking up when the subject was taboo. She was able to help twentieth-century women to gain the right to decide when and if they were to have children. Sanger sought to influence societal norms and cultural beliefs, which have ultimately changed the lives of millions of women to this day.

The 1920s was an eventful decade for women. Not only did women receive the vote, but they also broke longstanding traditions, epitomized by the image of the “flapper.” F. Scott Fitzgerald described the “flappers” of the day as “lovely, expensive, and about nineteen.”1 The flapper attitude was characterized by blunt truth, fast living, and sex. They were seen as reckless and lived in the moment. Most of this, if not all of the behavior was due to World War I. During this time period, men joined the war effort, and women joined the workforce, receiving a paycheck and having disposable wealth, which women used to express their independence. After the war ended, both genders found it difficult to return to society’s previous structure.

Flappers doing the Charleston in a stage review during the Roaring Twenties | Courtesy of The Canary News

“They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to still be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them.”2 Before the society’s social structure underwent a transformation, women didn’t necessarily date; they were supposed to wait for a proper suitor to pay them interest, as long as their intentions were good. What once had been “proper” social values were going through changes. One flapper in particular that exemplified these changing values was Margaret Sanger.

On September 14, 1879, Michael Hennessy Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins gave birth to not only their sixth child (of eleven), but one of the most influential birth-control activists this country has ever known. Aside from the influence growing up with ten siblings, Sanger was also exposed to most of her parents’ Roman Catholic beliefs. After her mother’s death at age fifty, her father relinquished his own Roman Catholic beliefs, and became an atheist. In becoming an atheist, Michael Higgins not only changed his personal views but the views of his children, all the while becoming an activist for women’s suffrage. The views of those who raised her (mainly her father), as well as her personal experiences, helped mold her personal views on sex issues, feminism, and ultimately birth control.3

Shortly after that, during her earlier career, Sanger practiced nursing in the destitute areas of the East Side of New York City. In her nursing career, Sanger was exposed to a high level of poverty that included exposure to poor families, and to women that had frequent childbirths, miscarriages, and abortions. During this time working, she started writing educational columns for women, including “What Every Mother Should Know,” and she helped many women who wished to terminate their pregnancies.4 In her experience with the often hidden aspects of child-bearing, Sanger determined the principal focus of her activism: birth control. Because of the things she witnessed, Sanger decided to take the next step in her activism. In March 1914, Sanger published The Woman Rebel, a newspaper that was devoted to educating and raising the consciousness of working women. “This journal was used to assert that every woman has the right to be an ‘absolute mistress of her own body’ including the right to practice birth control.”5

In April 1914, Sanger was notified by the postal authorities that she had violated obscenity laws due to her newspaper. The following May, she declared to the public that The Woman Rebel was “not going to be suppressed by the post office until it has accomplished the work which it has undertaken.”6 Three months later Sanger was formally indicted for violating the Federal Comstock Law. To avoid the risk of spending twenty years in jail, Sanger got on a train to Canada, acquired a false passport, and sailed to England under the name “Bertha Watson.”7 By 1915, after her actions caught the attention of many, Sanger returned to New York to stand trial. Within a few months, her five year old daughter Peggy died of pneumonia. Due to her loss, many expressions of sympathy poured in, and many friends and supporters sent letters and petitions to President Wilson, affirming their support for Sanger.8 With the newly intensified coverage that The Woman Rebel case and the birth control movement had received, to avoid further publicity, the government decided not to press charges.9

Sanger’s Arrest, October 24, 1916
Brownsville, New York | Courtesy of Margaret Sanger Papers Project

With this newfound publicity due to The Woman Rebel scandal, Sanger was able to found the first birth control clinic in the United States, on October 15, 1916 in Brownsville, New York. There were some supporters, but others raised their voices against her. Nine days after the grand opening, there was a police raid, and all of the clinic staff (including Margaret Sanger herself) were arrested and prosecuted. In managing these arrests and prosecutions, New York City’s police department may have done more bad than good. Due to the amount of news coverage the arrests made, there were multiple benefactors willing to bail Sanger out, as well as fund the organization. With the newfound publicity, during the month of February 1917, Sanger was able to publish the first issue of her journal, The Birth Control Review.[10. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 130.]  She was its editor until 1929, and used her editorials to promote birth control and negative eugenics. “Eugenists emphasize the mating of healthy couples for the conscious purpose of producing healthy children, the sterilization of the unfit to prevent their populating the world with their kind and they may, perhaps, agree with us that contraception is a necessary measure among the masses of the workers, where wages do not keep pace with the growth of the family and its necessities in the way of food, clothing, housing, medical attention, education and the like.”10

Sanger was known for her controversial views. She once proposed allowing Congress to solve “population problems” by appointing a “Parliament of Population.” “Directors representing the various branches of science [in the Parliament would] … direct and control the population through birth rates and immigration, and direct its distribution over the country according to national needs consistent with taste, fitness and interest of the individuals.”11 One interesting view in particular Sanger had, was the way she differentiated “Eugenists” and “Birth Control Advocates.”

We who advocate Birth Control, on the other hand, lay all our emphasis upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health. The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We hold that the world is already over-populated. Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her duty to the state.12

By this point in time, Sanger had made many of the accomplishments toward reaching her initial goals. On November 10, 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in New York City. She established ABCL to offer an ambitious program of education, legislative reform, and research. Her goal was to build a truly national organization with representation in every region of the country.13

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America | Courtesy of Planned Parenthood

In 1942, The American Birth Control League became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.14 Even after the name change, the organization continued to strive. It seems as though Sanger knew just which stepping stones it took to reach her goals all the while never straying away from her views on eliminating the unfit.

Throughout her lifetime, Sanger was able to influence many. Not all of the impact during her time as an advocate for women’s issues was positive, considering her highly controversial views. Compared to the way society was when her activism began in the 1920’s, the country’s relationship with birth control has altered substantially. Sanger’s goal was to build a national organization with representation in every region of the country. Today, “Planned Parenthood is one of the nation’s leading providers of high quality health care…and the nations largest provider of sex education…Planned Parenthood has 56 undefended local affiliates that operate nearly 650 health centers throughout the United States.”15 The views of Margaret Sanger inspired the availability of reproductive health care for women across the nation. Sanger started a process in which her actions ignited a series of changes in societal norms. On September 14, 1879 Michael Hennessy Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins gave birth to not only a revolutionist, but to the creator of the legacy that continues to be Planned Parenthood.16

  1.  St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2000, s.v. “Flappers,” by Jackie Hatton.
  2. Frederick Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931), 94-95.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Margaret Sanger,” by Lesley Croft.
  4. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Margaret Sanger,” by Lesley Croft.
  5. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 128.
  6. Margaret Sanger, “The Woman Rebel,” The Ban, (May 1914.): 1
  7.  Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 128-129.
  8. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 129-130.
  9. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 129-130.
  10. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” The Birth Control Review (April 1919): 11-12.
  11. Margaret Sanger, “A Plan for Peace,” The Birth Control Review (April 1, 1932): 107-108.
  12. Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” The Birth Control Review (April 1919): 11-12.
  13. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 131.
  14.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Margaret Sanger,” by Lesley Croft.
  15. Planned Parenthood, “Planned Parenthood at a Glance,” Planned Parenthood, (March 2017): https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/who-we-are/planned-parenthood-at-a-glance/
  16. Caroline Katzive, “Margaret Sanger: Demonstrating Leadership and Legacy Through Her Crusade For Women’s Reproductive Rights,” History Teacher 49, no. 1 (November 2015): 132.
Margaret Sanger and the Pre-History of Planned Parenthood
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Margaret Sanger and the Pre-History of Planned Parenthood

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  • I hadn’t heard of Planned parenthood and obviously had neither heard of who had started it. This was a great article that really showed the power of one woman that changed the minds of others and changed the course of history with her sheer passion and handwork. Its amazing that people back then couldn’t decide when to have a baby back then, but because of her actions, they can now.

  • This was a very informative article. The topic of birth control, and even women’s rights, have always been controversial. Without the few women who have been willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in, a woman’s life in todays society would be very different. One part of the article that stood out to me was that Sanger and the clinic staff were arrested AND prosecuted. Its honestly amazing how far men will go out of their way to feel like they’re still in control. Overall great article.

  • I love reading articles about women that have helped change the norm. I find them so inspiring to read how they stood up for a whole population of people and have made such a difference, she started Planned Parenthood! She is the reason why women today can exercise the right to decide when they want to have children. This article depicted her movement very well with much detail.

  • By far one of my favorite articles. I loved that it highlights that the more education one receives on the subject, the more birth control is supported. I find it so fascinating that in every time era there is a group of people who want to “keep tradition.” But as time passes, one must expect change, and that is what these women promoted. There is no need for any woman to follow what one tells her to be. She is permitted to dress, speak , and live as she pleases. This is why I love Margaret Sanger, and she is a hero because she openly spoke up and said that a woman’s body is her own, and in no way anyone else’s to dictate. I am so grateful for influential women such as these because they opened the door to acceptance and education. Birth control today is used for a variety of other reasons, such as regulating periods. So I find it extremely frustrating that there are people still today that find birth control to be irrelevant and just resort to telling women to “stop having sex.” This poses a double standard, as women are being pointed at being the sole reason for pregnancy, when it takes sperm to impregnate a woman. Imagine the outrage if people told men, “stop having sex,” when women are being told wild things like this on a daily basis. Thank you for this article.

  • I absolutely love it when things do not go the way that the government wish they’d go. Especially when the government is composed of men who obviously don’t have a uterus, so they shouldn’t have an opinion as to what a woman should do with her body. I wasn’t aware of the origin of Planned Parenthood but I have always been extremely grateful for the organization and all that it does. I’m glad that I now know how this amazing organization came to be.

  • I wonder if there had not been people like Margaret Sanger how different our lives would be today. We never really relied how different relationships were about a hundred years ago. Young people have this concepts that it has always been this way. This article brings up points that make us wonder how the past has truly affected how we live to day.

  • What a wonderful article, it was so informative and well written. It is amazing how one woman can be so influential to the country. Personally I did not know that much about the start of Planned Parenthood, and it is amazing that Sanger was able to create this type of organization that would go on to benefit men and women even to this day.

  • I liked this article and I learned some new information by reading it. I had not known of this woman before and did not know of her accomplishments. I find it cool that she had founded the planned parenthood federation of America. She proved to be one of the most influential woman of all time in my opinion because of everything she contributed to woman all over America.

  • I like the way that the article points out the fast changing gender roles post World War I. It is great that this event put a face to women’s empowerment because they were allowed more control of their lives while the men were at war. This article stressed the accomplishments of Sanger though her views were unpopular. Her characterization as a teacher and activist made me root for her despite not always agreeing with her. Her work as a nurse helping working class women gave her an important perspective that women are not only children bearing vehicles. I’m glad her legacy remains today through Planned Parenthood.

  • Everyone has the right to believe and argue for their own morals and ethics. Having a disagreement or proposing a claim comes with the burden of proof. As the Values and morality of America evolved, it would seem that the ability to find proof in a woman’s choice to reproduce having a negative societal impact dwindled. The realization that one’s subjective view on what is an acceptable way to live your life in terms of reproduction is not grounds for the rejection of birth control. Constitutional reasoning seems to have triumphed over individual ethics.

  • What a great story on such an influential women in United States history! I believe that during the 1920’s was women’s time to thrive. Margaret Sanger did many great things to benefit this country and the women who live in it. It’s empowering to see how much this woman went through just to benefit the other women around her. She is a true inspiration for women and their right’s in the United States.

  • It is very impressive all that Sanger had to go through to accomplish her goals; and its fascination how not many really cared for what she was on to. And now it’s such a needed thing in our society. This kind of reminds me of certain artists like Van Goh, how in life they never get to see the full success of their work.

  • The 1920’s were times where women’s rights began to strive, and I think that her efforts to bring women the right to control their body was meant to have started then. This woman was at the very least, very brave. She not only advocated for women’s sexual healthcare, but for the fixing of unfair social expectations. Her mission still stands today( planned parenthood) and has proved to help millions of women take control of their lives.

  • Thanks to Margaret, women had a voice. They no longer were forced to be submissive. I like that in this time women had a choice of whether they wanted a child or not, despite what their partners thought or wanted. I love that the flappers encouraged women to be comfortable in their skin, and to embrace their sexuality, and women were given jobs, one of the first steps to independence. For once, they did not have to rely on their partners for money.

  • I was really able to appreciate that the first paragraph provided groundwork for the rest of the article by summarizing the article. in addition, opening by providing information to the events that would lead up to the main idea I thought really allowed one to fully understand and capture what the 1900’s was all about. the quotes provided describing the opinion of how the people felt about this time period was also a major contributor to being more factual; also allowing us to get a feel of the emotions brought about during that time.

  • Learning about women in history is still one of my favorite things. Their struggles and leadership encourage me today to take a stand for what I believe in and change the world in my own, small way. Margaret Sanger is one of these courageous women who supported and fought for her beliefs even while having to move out of the country and getting arrested. Through this article I got to see the great risks and lengths Sanger took to eventually build up one of the nation’s greatest health care providers.

  • Margaret Sanger stood up for a plethora of women in the U.S.who just wanted more options regarding their bodies and reproductive health overall. I think that Sander, being in the rough environment she was in as she practiced nursing, was lucky enough to see that these areas (more so. the women in these areas), yearned for a leader who could speak out on their behalf. As Sanger’s focus was primarily on birth control, there were rights that she was fighting for that women never knew had bad they would need it one day.

  • What’s most interesting is how her eugenicist like mind set is exactly an ideal we fought against in WWII with the Nazi regime, yet she is praised and such ideals are overlooked because of the good she has done. It’s important to take note that no matter the moral compass, violations of humankind normally do not go unnoticed, but for some reason she is one of the only real eugenicist that is overlooked. I still believe what she did for woman’s rights was just, and I can honestly say I don’t disagree with much of her ideology. I’m actually thankful woman have such right’s now, but is it at the expense of our humanity and morals? Really a question for oneself I suppose in the end.

  • I like how this article brings to light the injustice done to women back in the day where birth control was seen as taboo. Our rights were nonexistent and our bodies were merely a breeding factory. The sole purpose of a woman was to raise a family and to care for the husband. I believe that birth control was a major factor in helping women gain a sense of confidence and independence for themselves. Honestly I never knew the history of Planned Parenthood, but I’m glad to learn that this foundation still plays a role in educating individuals about sex and health care. I’m also glad that a woman like Margaret Sanger was able and willing to stand against society’s expectations to achieve women’s rights to their bodies.

  • It is quite crazy to think about how women were once viewed as just child bearers. I am grateful for women such as Sanger who gave me the ability to decide my own future. I am amazed at how even 100 years later the fight against Planned Parenthood is still present when it has accomplished so many great things. Sanger gave women the chance to get educated, work and the option to choose whether or not becoming a mother was the right choice for them. This article was very informative and inspiring.

  • Absolutely amazing article! it was very intriguing and informative of how birth control came to be and how it has developed as the years have passed. Though it is still a very controversial issue from a religious or very conservative person point of view i do believe that because of Sanger’s bravery, young women, or women in general, can now obtain birth control fairly easy. Her actions led her to opening one of the most resourceful clinics in the country for women. Her bravery and work does not go unappreciated and this article giving me more insight of everything that she went through, makes me appreciate it event more. Again absolutely amazing and intriguing, look forward to reading more of your articles!

  • Being a young women during the year 2017 I am aware that in the past women had to fight to get the rights they deserved. In recent cases women are standing up once again for what they believe. After reading this article I learned the women who started the revolution of birth control, which was Margaret Sanger. She went through a lot of obstacles to get where women are now and we are still continuing to fight. With this article I was able to learn about the brave women who shaped the world we are living in now.

  • Your article gives great insight into Margret Sanger and the struggles she faced while fighting for Women to have autonomy over their own bodies. I feel that her story draws so many parallels to what is happening in society today. Women are continuing the fight for reproductive rights while the government claims that they should be in control of Women’s bodies. I liked the way you focused on how she not only gave them the option of birth control but she educated them. She wrote letters and articles for women who had little to no knowledge of anything relating to sex or pregnancy. She helped show women that they alone were in control of their bodies and their future.

  • What an interesting article, I had never known how much controversy surrounded the Birth Control movement in the twenties and how much it still affects us today. I also find it helpful that you wrote about Margaret Sanger early life and just how she grew up, it makes total sense that her fathers change of belief would have influenced her so heavily to “go against the grain” of the society she lived in.

  • Hello Alyssa, I really like stories about such pioneering figures that stood up against oppression and the status quo that was not right for all. Margaret Sanger sounds like a guiding light for the rights of women in a time when fertility for women was seen as a responsibility for them and their worth was attached to this. I do wish however that the influence of women like sanger will one day spread out to the whole world because in places like my own native land the Middle East things that Sanger was fighting back in the 1920’s are still very much alive and bearing a lot of children it is seen as a sign of being a good woman. Women expressing their thoughts through voting and dressing are also something I wish to see in my time in the part of the world I come from. I believe that practices such as birth control have helped people and countries to flourish and this should become universal rights and choices afforded to all women. Also I feel that your article will help people, especially women in the West appreciate where those that came before them have brought women rights. Great article Alyssa.

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