Margaret Sanger—Risk Taker, Law Breaker, and Promoter of Change

9, 10, 11, 12

To enable students to describe the social and economic consequences of overpopulation as well as philosophical issues that affect government policies and decision-making about economic issues.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne Fifty-Minute Class Period

The learner will:

  • identify the major problems associated with overpopulation and the philosophical influences on the birth control issues that affected the rights of women in the early '20s and '30s.
  • identify the major events that helped shape Margaret Sanger's desire to take action in the 1920s.

Margaret Sanger handout (see Handout One)

  • Margaret Sanger article (Handout One) originally from Link no longer active.
  • International Planned Parenthood Federation:


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Today you are going to read about a woman who made a tremendous difference in the lives of most Americans during the '20s and '30s. Before we begin, look at the sentence on the board. This quotation is what Margaret Sanger's father told her over and over while she was growing up. What do you think it means? "You have no right to material comforts without giving back to society the benefits of your honest experience."As you read about the life of Margaret Sanger, keep this quote in mind and be ready to tell if you agree or disagree with it.

  2. Give each student a copy of the Internet article describing the life of Margaret Sanger (see Handout One). After reading, divide the class into five or six groups and assign five or six questions below for each group to answer. Have each group share their answers with the class.

    • How does the background of Margaret compare with that of Andrew Carnegie?
    • Why would a free thinker be considered to be "the devil"?
    • Why would ideas of labor reform and social equality be thought of as evil?
    • What was the leg incident and how did it affect Margaret's future?
    • How did Margaret's father influence her choice of a husband?
    • Why do you think that teaching birth control was against the law at that time?
    • What impact did the law have on the economic and social conditions in New York's slums?
    • What were the three parts of Sanger's approach to promote birth control in the United States?
    • Why was the name of Sanger's magazine so reflective of her?
    • For what two reasons was Margaret criticized?
    • What was the Comstock law? Why was The Rebel considered obscene?
    • What were the ideas of Malthus and Mill that Sanger adopted?
    • Why was Sanger's clinic shut down?
    • What offer was Sanger made by the judge and why did she turn it down?
    • Why did Sanger produce the book Mothers In Bondage? What influence did it have on the country?
    • What personal obstacles did Sanger deal with in her life?
    • What finally ended enforcement of the Comstock Law?
    • What can we learn from Grant Sanger's quote about his mother: "One thing about my mother that to me was most impressive was her utmost concentration on the problem. From the time she started this business until she finished, she never deviated."
    • What impact did Sanger have beyond the birth control issue? What did her efforts prove?
  3. After the class has read the article and answered the questions, go back to the original quote. Did Margaret live up to her father's expectations? Was she a success in the order of Andrew Carnegie or Theodore Roosevelt? Why or why not?

  4. Margaret Sanger did not have the necessary knowledge she needed when she first began her work with women. What actions did she take to prepare herself for her life's work? Why was she so motivated to help others at great peril to herself?

  5. Visit the International Planned Parenthood Federation Web-site at: Using the various links on the site, note the countries that have organizations concerned with family planning, population and reproductive health issues. Using a world outline map, map these countries. Use the links listed to determine the role of volunteers in the organization in various countries. How are youth (students) working to improve conditions in their countries? Using any of the links listed on the site, make a comparison between how these services are provided/available in a country with a strong market economy, like the United States, vs. a country where some of its citizens are existing in a non-market or weak market system. Are the available or offered services different in various locations?

  6. Visit the Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Web site at Read its mission statement and determine whether or not it fits the work that Margaret Sanger was attempting to do. This is an example of a nonprofit corporation producing services without the profit incentive. Why would they do this? How are nonprofit corporations able to continue their work when they offer their services for free or for a reduced rate? What other nonprofit corporations provide a service without the incentive for profit?


Ask the class to write a paragraph comparing the contributions of Sanger to society and those of Roosevelt or Carnegie. What three lessons can we learn from the activities of each?

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
    2. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark HS.7 Identify and give examples of the important roles women and minorities have played in the civil society sector in history.
    3. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Describe why a civil society sector corporation may produce goods and services without the profit incentive.
      2. Benchmark HS.8 Compare actions for the common good in a variety of economic systems.
    4. Standard PCS 04. Philanthropy and Geography
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify international civil society sector organizations and map their locations.
      2. Benchmark HS.3 Identify and describe civil society sector organizations whose purpose is associated with issues relating to "human characteristics of place" nationally and internationally.
    5. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss a public policy issue affecting the common good and demonstrate respect and courtesy for differing opinions.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.5 Compare and contrast opportunities for students to improve the common good to the opportunities available to students in other countries.
      2. Benchmark HS.9 Describe the concept of volunteerism in different world cultures.
    2. Standard PI 02. Careers In The Nonprofit Sector
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Explore requirements and motivations for a career in the civil society sector.