Margaret Sanger

Sophia Smith Collection, Smith Library Sophia Smith Collection, Smith Library

On this date in 1879, Margaret Sanger (née Higgins), was born. Watching her mother die at age 48 of tuberculosis after bearing 11 children changed not only the course of Margaret's life, but world history. As a young child, Margaret was introduced to the power of the Catholic Church when the local priest locked the doors of the town hall to prevent agnostic Robert Ingersoll from speaking in Corning, N.Y. Margaret wrote in her autobiography of the spellbinding experience of hearing Ingersoll speak in the woods instead. She herself would later personally repeatedly experience being locked out of public halls, even countries, under Catholic pressure. Her experience doing obstetrical nursing of the poor in New York City as a young mother herself galvanized her conviction that women had the right to control fertility. Sanger's turning point was witnessing the death of patient Sadie Sachs from a second illegal abortion. When the 28-year-old mother had pleaded with her doctor for birth control, he had responded: "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sanger researched contraception (coining the term birth control), while editing a monthly newspaper, The Woman Rebel (1914). Its purpose: to challenge the 1873 Comstock Act classifying contraception as "indecent articles" and preventing dissemination of contraceptive information. Facing 45 years in prison when indicted under the Act, Sanger fled the country, leaving behind a book, "Family Limitation." It sold 10 million copies while Sanger continued research in England and the Netherlands. When she returned to the United States, she was rearrested. Then her young daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia in November 1915. Devastated, Sanger went on a headline-making speaking tour to challenge the charges, which were dropped in 1916. She opened the first birth control clinic that year, which was raided, and spent the next two decades educating physicians about birth control and overseeing the creation of birth control clinics around America. In 1934, she brought the lawsuit that finally overturned much of the repressive Comstock Act. Over her lifetime, she was jailed eight times, brought diaphragms to the United States and distributed them, helped develop contraceptive jelly, founded Planned Parenthood, and commissioned the creation of the birth control pill. Doing more to free women than any other individual, she was hailed as the "heroine" of history by H.G. Wells and named "Woman of the Century" by a U.S. magazine the year of her death. D. 1966.

“No Gods—No Masters”

—-Motto of Margaret Sanger's newspaper, The Woman Rebel. For more about Sanger and her views on religion, see Women Without Superstition

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; Sophia Smith Collection, Smith Library

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