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Margaret Sanger: Radical Heroine

Margaret Sanger founded a movement in this country that would institute such a change in the course of our biological history that it is still debated today. Described by some as a “radiant rebel”, Sanger pioneered the birth control movement in the United States at a time when Victorian hypocrisy and oppression through moral standards were at their highest.

Working her way up from a nurse in New York’s poor Lower East Side to the head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret Sanger was unwavering in her dedication to the movement that would eventually result in lower infant mortality rates and better living conditions for the impoverished. But, because of the way that her political strategy changed and evolved, Margaret Sanger is seen by some as a hypocrite; a rags to riches story that involves a complete withdrawal from her commitment to the poorer classes.

My research indicates that this is not the case; in fact, by all accounts Margaret Sanger was a brave crusader who recognized freedom and choice in a woman’s reproductive life as vital to the issue of the liberation of women as a gender. Moreover, after years of being blocked by opposition, Sanger also recognized the need to shift political strategies in order to keep the movement alive. Unfortunately, misjudgments made by her in this area have left Margaret Sanger’s legacy open to criticism.

In this paper, I would like to explore Margaret Sanger’s life and career as well as become aware of some of the missteps that she made and how they reflect on both. Margaret Sanger was not born a crusader, she became one. A great deal of her early life contributed to the shaping of her views in regards to birth, death, and women. Born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York to Michael and Anne Higgins, she was the sixth of eleven children. Anne Higgins was a devout Catholic while Michael Higgins was a stonemason with iconoclastic ideas and a flair for rebellion.

It was her father that fascinated Margaret. Corning, being a strictly Catholic town, disapproved of Michael Higgins and, consequently, the stone cutting commissions that kept the family fed were often lacking. The children did not fair much better than their father in terms of public ridicule. The Higgins children would arrive to school to chants of “Children of the Devil”. One day, her teacher saw to it that Margaret was made the brunt of the torment in class, at which point she simply picked up her things and left the schoolhouse vowing never to return.

Margaret was exceptionally bright in school and her father pleaded with her to go back. Margaret refused. Margaret’s two older sisters, Mary and Nan, offered to pay for the cost of a private school out of their paychecks if Margaret agreed to wait tables for her room and board. So, in 1896 Margaret ended up at Claverack, one of the first coeducational schools in the East. It was there that her natural leadership skills blossomed in the form popularity and pranks (Miller 199-203). After graduation, Margaret taught first grade in a public school in New Jersey; she loved it.

Unfortunately, Margaret had to leave her job that same year to care for her mother who had become critically ill. Anne Higgins had suffered from tuberculosis since before Margaret was born, but Margaret still tried her hardest to nurse her mother back to health. All of her attempts failed and, in March of 1896, Anne Higgins died. Margaret always believed that it was her mother’s frequent pregnancies (18 total) that led to her ill health and premature death. Realizing that it was her turn to pitch in and help the family, Margaret stayed at home and took over most of her mother’s duties.

Margaret did not mind the housework much, but it was the change in her father that she could not handle; he had turned in to a bitter tyrant that rant the girls ragged. Margaret reconciled with her father, but left soon after to pursue nursing as a career (Miller 204). In 1900, Margaret enrolled in the nursing program at White Plains Hospital with maternity work as her focus. The work was grueling and the tuberculosis that she had caught from her mother flared up twice, causing Margaret to need operations both times.

Still, Margaret excelled at her work and eventually realized the extent of the problem that she had before only associated with her mother; childbearing was slowly killing most of the women that she saw as patients. Moreover, the patients themselves would beg Margaret for the “secret” to preventing any more babies. Margaret had no advice to give them, but eventually made up her mind to ask the doctor what she could tell these women. The doctor simply looked at her aghast and commented on what a horrible thing that was to have asked a nice girl (Miller 204).

During her time at White Plains, Margaret met, was courted by, and married William Sanger. In the time that followed her marriage to Bill, Margaret moved with him to the suburbs of New York and bore him three children: Stuart, Grant, and Peggy. Margaret’s tuberculosis was so terrible with each pregnancy that after Peggy the doctors forbid her to have any more. Time went by, and in 1910, after the three children were in school; Margaret realized that she could no longer bear the life of a suburban housewife. Margaret talked to William about it and shortly thereafter they moved back into the city.

Bill’s mother moved in with them to take care of the children and, at 31 years old, Margaret returned to nursing (Miller 206-207). In 1910, most women still had their children at home and so Margaret felt that she was most needed in her old field of maternity nursing. She worked night and day tending to the women in the families that crowded the Lower East Side of New York where 3,000 people lived miserably crowded together (Clark 74). The conditions in the tenements were atrocious; they were sweltering in the summer and frozen in the winter, some never even saw any sunlight or fresh air.

Margaret soon realized that pregnancy was a permanent condition for most of these women. An estimated 204 infants was dying for every 1,000 born (Clark 74). Time and time again women would plead with Margaret to help them, to tell them the “secret” to avoiding a pregnancy. Their pleas were so desperate that Margaret could not keep herself from thinking about their plight. To her it made no sense that the poor should always have such large families, did the poverty breed the large families or did the large families breed poverty? The difference between the world where she worked and the world where she lived astounded Margaret.

At home, Bill would host dinner parties for prominent socialists and radicals; in this he was much like her father. Margaret once pointed out to them, “Poverty and large families seem to go and in hand. If unions are fighting for better wages and hours, they should be equally concerned with the size of the workingman’s family”(Miller, p. 209). It was then that she realized that neither the suffragettes who demanded votes for women, nor the radical socialists who wanted to strike for better labor conditions recognized that the real issue for women was childbearing and that until women could control that, they would not be free (Miller 209).

One night, in the summer of 1912, the troubling connections between pregnancy and illness, poverty and large families became all too evident for Margaret to muse over any longer. That night she was called to the tenement home of Sophie Sachs, a woman in her 20’s who had tried to abort herself. The scene was awful; Jake, Sophie’s husband, sat crying nearby and Sophie herself could barely sit up. Sophie was informed that another child would kill her. Upon crying out to the doctor for advice on what to do to prevent that outcome, the doctor replied that the only thing to do was to have Jake sleep on the roof.

After the doctor had left, Sophie pleaded with Margaret for the secret, as one woman to another. Unfortunately, Margaret had no advice for Sophie and the next time she was called to the Sachs’ apartment, just a few moths later, it was already too late; Sophie was dead from the effects of another self-induced abortion. Margaret simply could not keep still any longer; she resolved to do whatever she could to help the countless women who were left to the mercy of husbands and doctors (Sanger 88-92) On Sunday, November 12, 1912 the column “What Every Girl Should Know” appeared in the socialist newspaper The Call.

The article was the first of what was intended to be a series of articles for adolescent girls that focused on educating and shifting their attitudes on sex. The column did not run for very long. This was to be Margaret Sanger’s first run-in with the Comstock laws. Anthony Comstock was the founder and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In 1873, Comstock persuaded Congress to pass a very powerful and encompassing censorship law, the Comstock Act. Moreover, he was then made a special agent of the post office with the authority to open letters, packages, books, anything at all that drew his suspicion.

There was no rhyme or reason, no guidelines or rules about it; it was simply his judgment. Comstock personally decided what was too lewd or vulgar for the American population to send or receive via the mail (Miller 210). Though the impact of this may be lost on us today, it is important to remember that every major magazine, circular, and journal was sent though the mail and that these were the primary sources of information for most people at the time. So, while health authorities were praising Margaret’s work, Comstock informed The Call that he would cancel their mailing permit if they ran the next article in Margaret’s series (Miller 210).

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