The Contribution of Margaret Sanger as Feminist

Margaret Sanger was an early feminist, born on September 14, 1879 in New York. She was born into a big family where she had 10 siblings. However, her mother had an untimely death which devastated her and her siblings. Sanger was the one that took care of her mother in her final days, caring for her as her nurse while also helping to care for her siblings. She decided to pursue a career in nursing, believing that she could make a difference in the lives of poor women that are subject to the roles of motherhood and excessive childbearing. After she herself got married and had children, she was subject to this same role. Her husband, Bill Sanger, worked all day and brought home the money, while she stayed home and took care of the kids cooked, and cleaned. If we know anything about Second Wave Feminism, this role was not acceptable for them anymore.

This is an example of where it gets complicated separating influential feminists into “waves.” Although Sanger was born and lived through the First Wave, and died on September 6, 1966, just after the start of the Second Wave, her ideas and opinions matched more so with the Second Wave. For the sake of my research, I am going to include her into the Second Wave more so than the first, because she was the leading activists for women’s reproductive rights in terms of birth control. Sanger, after receiving her nursing degree, would help women in New York City that were affected by unwanted pregnancies, and in extreme cases, women that would attempt to do their own abortions. Many times, these women would be near death and there was not much that Sanger could do. One particular case devastated her; Sadie Sachs. Sanger went to Sachs’ home after an abortion attempt where she was near death. After recovery, Sachs begged for the physician to help her prevent future conception out of fear that another pregnancy would kill her, where the physician laughed and was no help. Sanger desperately wanted to help, so she promised to come back later with more information, to which she never did.

“Three months later she was again summoned to the Sachs apartment. Sachs was in critical condition from another abortion attempt, and this time she died minutes after Sanger arrived. Sanger was burdened with guilt over her death and resolved that she would find out how to prevent conception so that other women would be spared the pain, suffering, and heartache of unwanted pregnancies.”

This is where Sanger’s research really took off. She wanted to inspire other women to fight for their rights to “birth control” a term in which she created. There was more she wanted to say to women across the country, but many of her publications were censored mostly by the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock. Comstock was the creator of a “chastity bill” which was later turned into law, after much of his persistence, called the Comstock Act of 1873.

“Comstock sought to protect the young by distancing them from information on venereal disease, while Sanger thought that the protection of the young could be best achieved by exposing them to and education them about the realities, dangers, and treatment of venereal disease.”

This can be tied to present day issues as well. Should we inform young people about safe sex or do we continue to teach abstinence only sex education, ignoring the fact that a portion of the population will not wait until marriage to have sexual relations, and hope they figure it out for themselves? Numerous studies have been done to determine whether or not schools should do comprehensive sex education, including safe sex procedures and prevention of Sexually Transmitted Infections and Diseases. This is a direct link to what Sanger tried to discuss in her publications that were censored by Comstock.

A study that has been reviewed is titled “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.” by Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall and David W. Hall. During their study, they separated each type of sexual education into 4 distinct levels based on the laws of each state in terms of Sex Education. Level 0 was where they would not mention abstinence at all in their sex education, Level 1 covers abstinence as a part of the comprehensive education which includes medical information on STD protection and contraception, Level 2 promotes abstinence, but it is not explicitly prohibited to discuss contraception, and Level 3 was where schools strictly taught abstinence until marriage. After doing the study, the researchers found that the averages of teen pregnancy per 1,000 teens were: Level 0 had an average rate 58.78 teen pregnancies, Level 1 had an average rate of 56.36 teen pregnancies, Level 2 had an average of 61.86 teen pregnancies, and Level 3 states had about 73.24 teen pregnancies. What I gathered from this study was that informing young people of abstinence as the most effect form of birth control is important, but we must also educate them on safe sex and contraception.

“If teens don’t learn about human reproduction, including safe sexual health practices to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs, and how to plan their reproductive adult life in school, then when should they learn it, and from whom?”

This is what Margaret Sanger wanted to happen; she wanted to publish information so that women of all ages would be informed.

And Sanger did just that. Family Limitation was a pamphlet that she published in order to get information out to women of all classes, education levels, and social status on how to prevent pregnancy. She added easy to read diagrams and descriptions to help women understand that having a marriage or life full of sexual fulfillment is not impossible. This idea was difficult to understand for people of this time. After searching endlessly, around 20 refusals, someone agreed to print her publication. However, due to the Comstock Act of 1873 which, in summary, made

“it illegal to send ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘indecent’ publications through the mail. The law also made it a misdemeanor for anyone to sell, give away, or possess an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement. The breadth of the legislation included writings or instruments pertaining to contraception and abortion, even if written by a physician.”

Because of this law, almost immediately after the pamphlet was published, the author, Margaret Sanger, was arrested. However, before her trial she left the country and through this expedition she learned more about birth control from the countries she visited. She learned that the United States was very behind in the birth control movements, with some other countries having clinics open for almost 30 years at the time of her travels. This only fueled her fire more, so she decided to come back to the United States and face trial in order to make a change for women’s reproductive rights. It ended up working out in her favor, because Cornstock had died, therefore the charges against her were dismissed, and Sanger held even more support than she did before the arrest.

Part of her inspiration took force when she opened the first birth control clinic in the middle of Brooklyn, New York’s poor, immigrant community. Sanger and her colleagues were only able to give advice about sex education and information on birth control to the women that came to the clinic by their own choice for nine days before the authorities shut it down on the grounds of “obscenity.” The strange thing about it was that it was not violating the Comstock Act because Sanger and her colleagues were extremely careful to only give this information verbally. There was no written pamphlet being distributed. As we could have guessed by the previous actions taken against Sanger, she was then arrested. Then, she took this opportunity to educate inmates about safe sex and birth control. She was a force that could not be stopped, even when she was arrested, a total of eight times in her life. She took these adversities and made them her strengths. She fought the Comstock Law and many others because of the tragedy she saw within her career of nursing poor women, and also tending to women that fell victim of unwanted pregnancy. “Mothers unwilling to face another pregnancy or unable to support another child, resorted to back alley abortions, relied on charlatans, or used ineffective and often dangerous home remedies. The consequences could be, and often were, tragic.”

However, Sanger did not give up there. Something called the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau opened and Manhattan with the purpose of educating women about safe sex and to collect statistics about the safety of birth control. Another organization by Sanger came into play when the American Birth Control League merged to create what is now known as Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood eventually funded biologists Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and M.C. Chang to research for what Sanger would call the “Holy Grail,” a contraceptive pill that women could use every day.

Contraceptives were a huge goal of Margaret Sanger and her organization Planned Parenthood was a big stepping stone to make that possible. Today, Planned Parenthood stands strong in holding Sanger’s values, allowing women to have control over their own bodies. Tying these struggles for the organizations that Sanger started to promote reproductive rights for women, Professor Jean H. Baker, who has studied and written about Sanger, had this to say about today’s society in light of Sanger’s work:

“The connection is government intrusion. That’s what the Comstock Act was. And that’s what these folks in Congress are trying to do,” she said. “It speaks compellingly to the problem women have today: to establish birth control and abortion and abortion as, simply, women’s rights.”

After this background about possibly the most important feminist for the birth control movement, we can now move on to one of her most infamous speeches. This speech was delivered on November 18, 1921 titled “The Morality of Birth Control,” and was delivered at the Park Theatre in New York City, 5 days after one of her eight arrests. Throughout this speech, Sanger explains with illuminating passion about how birth control should not be the center of moral controversy. She explains that this is because letters were sent to those in the medical profession, educators, and many other intelligent and educated people. Sanger even sent the letters filled with birth control related questions to those known to oppose the easy access to birth control. “I believed that the discussion of the moral issue was one which did not solely belong to theologians and to scientists, but belonged to the people.”

This is significant because Sanger vowed to get the opinions of both sides, and in certain cases where it was possible, to dismiss the claims of those on the opposing side. No one can say that Sanger was uneducated on the opinions of those that did not want birth control, she desired to learn more about their reasoning to help put the public’s mind at ease and help to promote the positive side of allowing equal access to birth control.