Sanger, Margaret

Though some regard her savior, others a devil, Margaret Sanger's legacy has given women all over the world control in determining their fertility. Sanger was a public health nurse in the ghettos of New York City in the early twentieth century. Through her personal leadership and the founding of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Sanger initiated the modern birth-control movement.

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. —Margaret Sanger

Biographical Highlights

Though some regard her a savior, others a devil, Margaret Sanger's legacy has given women all over the world control in determining their fertility. Sanger was a public health nurse in the ghettos of New York City in the early twentieth century. Through her personal leadership and the founding of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Sanger initiated the modern birth-control movement.

Historic Roots

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins in Corning, New York in 1879. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devoutly Catholic Irish-American woman. Her father, Michael Higgins, was an Irish-born stonemason and freethinker. Sanger's parents were a powerful influence in her life and work. Her mother was pregnant eighteen times and gave birth to eleven children before her death at the age of fifty. Sanger remembered her mother as constantly exhausted and held a strong belief that the frequent pregnancies were the reasons for her mother's early death. The iconoclastic opinions of her father gave her a nonconformist perspective on life.

With a need to escape the trappings of her childhood, Sanger enrolled in Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896. In 1900, she began the nursing program at White Plains Hospital, and just before graduation, she met and married William Sanger, an architect and draftsman. The couple had three children and settled in the suburb of Hastings in Westchester County.

After a number of years in the suburbs, William decided to give up drafting to become a painter. In 1910, the family moved to New York City and Margaret went back to work as a nurse to support the family. While living in the city, the Sangers discovered the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village. Margaret spent hours with intellectuals, radicals, activists and socialists. She became a member of the Liberal Club and a labor activist in the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party.

While nursing in the poverty-stricken areas of New York City, Sanger's interest turned to the issue of reproductive health. Day after day, she saw women sick and left destitute by recurring pregnancies. She saw families trapped in poverty as a result of wages too low to adequately support large numbers of children. By the time most of these women and children came to her, it was too late to help them. She began to feel the only solution was to attack the root of the problem - to make a lasting difference, families needed information on sexuality and birth control.

In 1912, the New York Call hired her to write a column on sex education called "What Every Girl Should Know." Deemed obscene by censors, this was her first of many battles with the law - in addition to social taboos, information on sexuality and birth control was considered obscene and distribution of it was illegal under the Comstock Laws of 1873. Still, two years later, Sanger began publishing The Woman Rebel, a feminist newspaper advocating women's rights, including the right to practice birth control. This endeavor produced another negative reaction and she was indicted for violating obscenity laws.

In 1916, Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the clinic nurse. In the first few weeks of the clinic's existence, 464 women lined up—often with children in tow—to receive sex education and contraceptive information (Powderly 1995). A few weeks later, the vice squad raided the clinic and Sanger and her sister were arrested and jailed.

In the years that followed, Sanger traveled the world to learn more about contraception and the politics of contraception. Her advocacy for reproductive rights eventually led to the founding of the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.

The public policy effects of her lifetime commitment to changing the lives of women came in a wave. She lived to see the U. S. Food and Drug Administration approve the Birth Control Pill as a contraceptive in 1960. Just one year before her death, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold vs. Connecticut that contraceptives were a constitutional right for married couples (this was extended to unmarried couples in 1972). In 1973, the right to privacy was extended to include a woman's right to choose an abortion thus making abortion a safe, legal option unlike the "$5 illegal butcheries" of Sanger's day (Steinem 1998).

These policy changes have resulted in a drastic decline of mortality of women related to pregnancy and child birthing. Although, many people of the Victorian era practiced

some form of birth control, a woman's menstrual cycle and fertility were not well understood. Unintended pregnancies were common and often resulted in self-induced abortions. It is estimated that by the 1850s, one out of every five or six pregnancies in America ended in abortion. By 1888, deaths from abortion were estimated to be fifteen times greater than maternal mortality (Powderly 1995). In 1900, six to nine of every 1000 women died in childbirth compared with 0.1 in 1997 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1999).


1916 Sanger opened America's first birth control clinic paving the way for extensive dissemination of sexuality and family planning information. This clinic was the earliest forerunner of modern family planning clinics such as state health departments and Planned Parenthood.

1921 Sanger initiated the American Birth Control League (ABCL), which, in 1942, became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The ABCL disseminated birth control information to health care providers and social workers and lobbied for family planning reforms.

1936 Federal courts reinterpreted the Comstock Laws to permit doctors to prescribe birth control. The downside was that this took power away from nurses who were often the primary health care providers for poor women.

1950 Margaret Sanger convinces the heiress, Katherine Dexter McCormick, to finance research on The Pill (oral contraceptives).

1960 The Food and Drug Administration approved the Birth Control Pill. The Pill is the most frequently used form of birth control in the world and is more than 99% effective in the prevention of pregnancy.

1965 The Supreme Court's decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut declared contraception a constitutional right for married couples (later, it was extended to unmarried women). This case helped define a constitutional right to privacy.

1970 Title X provides federal funding for family planning services.

1971 The Comstock laws were repealed.

1973 Roe vs. Wade determined that right to privacy extends to abortion, thus making it legal for the first time since 1830.

2000 The Food and Drug Administration approved RU-486, or mifepristone, as a non-surgical means of abortion thus expanding a woman's options and access to abortion.

The modern birth-control movement spearheaded by Sanger gave women the tools and choices they needed to manage their fertility and enjoy their sexuality. Her work was an impetus that led to an evolution on how we view women's roles, pregnancy and the, then often shunned, specialty of obstetrics and prenatal care. A look at the impact of her advocacy:

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In order to effect change, Sanger partnered with numerous philanthropic figures and community leaders of her day. An early influence was Emma Goldman, a Russian-born radical and anarchist, who fought for women's rights, birth control and labor reform. W. E. B. Dubois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), acted as an advisor on her "Negro project" in 1939, which was described as an "unique experiment in race-building and humanitarian service to a race subjected to discrimination, hardship, and segregation." Eleanor Roosevelt supported the Negro Project as did Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Of Sanger, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

  • There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts… Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. (Planned Parenthood Federation of America 2002)


Key Related Ideas


Beyond birth control, the efforts of Sanger and many other advocates raised debates that rage on even today. Issues regarding gender roles, feminism, sex education in schools, the constitutional right to privacy, infant and maternal health, the government's role in family planning, and men's roles—and rights—in family planning are central topics related to Sanger's work.

Important People Related to the Topic

Although Sanger is often credited with being the leader of the modern birth-control movement, there are many people who were instrumental in affecting change for women both in her day and today. The following are just a few of those leaders.

  • Edith How-Martyn: British feminist who, along with Sanger, started the Birth Control International Information Centre in 1930.
  • Florence Rose Papers: Birth control reformer.
  • Mabel Dodge: Socialite who brought together New York's bohemians, radicals, anarchists, feminists, and artists.
  • Havelock Ellis: English psychologist, physician, author, and supporter of sexual liberation.
  • Gloria Steinem: Feminist, activist and author.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: First-Lady and women's rights leader.
  • Gloria Feldt: Current president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Sanger's first family planning clinic, in Brooklyn in 1916, evolved into what is known today as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). According to the PPFA Web site, there are 875 clinics in nearly every state serving more than 2.6 million people every year (Planned Parenthood Federation of America 2002). The organization maintains it is the world's oldest, largest, and most trusted volunteer, not-for-profit reproductive health care organization. The following is the PPFA mission statement:

  • Planned Parenthood believes in the fundamental right of each individual, throughout the world, to manage his or her fertility, regardless of the individual's income, marital status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, or residence. We believe that respect and value for diversity in all aspects of our organization are essential to our well-being. We believe that reproductive self-determination must be voluntary and preserve the individual's right to privacy. We further believe that such self-determination will contribute to an enhancement of the quality of life, strong family relationships, and population stability.

Related Web Sites

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America Web site has a comprehensive history of Margaret Sanger in addition to information on the organization, current issues on reproduction, and practical information on birth control (see

Another comprehensive source for information on Margaret Sanger, sponsored by New York University's History Department, is The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Family Planning," The Journal of the American Medical Association 283 (2000): 3, 326-331.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 48 (1999, October 1): 38, 849-858. [updated 2 May 2001; cited 8 September 2002]. Available from

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. About Us: Margaret Sanger. [updated October 2000; cited 8 September 2002]. Available from

Powderly, K. E. "Contraceptive Policy and Ethics: Illustrations from American History," The Hastings Center Report 25 (1995): 1, S9(3).

Steinem, Gloria. "Margaret Sanger," Time 151 (1998): 14, 93-94.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.