In 1912, it was against the law to publish a book that contained descriptions of birth control methods. It was against the law to even expound the theoretical benefits of birth control as a general notion. It was against the law to put a contraceptive diaphragm into the hands of a desperate mother of twelve in an attempt to save her life from serial pregnancy. It was against the law to give a woman a pamphlet that described how her own reproductive organs worked. And while the majority of reform-minded women of the era turned to the suffrage movement as their primary outlet of activity, one looked at the sea of poor mothers, drowning in unwanted pregnancy, bodies broken but without recourse, and decided to make the relieving of their suffering her life’s work. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), more than any other single individual in human history, is responsible for placing mankind’s reproductive destiny back in the hands of those who bear its burdens.
She knew of what she spoke. She was born into a poor gravestone engraver’s family to a mother who had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage, seven of them miscarriages. And her family was in no way unique in Corning, a town that sustained itself on serving the local glass works factory, the rambling immigrant houses teeming with children sent off to work at age nine to earn just enough to not starve. Maggie Higgins was born in 1879, six years after the passage of a set of laws that had as their express purpose the perpetuation of this system of hopeless overpopulation.
In 1873, Anthony Comstock, self-appointed leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, made it his sanctimonious business to stamp out obscenity in the United States, and to that end crafted a series of laws, approved by Congress, to make it a crime to mail objectionable literature, or to distribute it. And by his definition, anything that mentioned birth control was an obscene affront to nature. Through his unflagging efforts, the Post Office was turned into a massive machine of censorship, refusing to deliver any periodicals that even abstractly hypothesized about the societal benefits of birth control, and anybody who distributed pamphlets privately on the topic was bound for as much as five years in jail. Women were to be kept fully ignorant of their own biologies, and entirely powerless to control their reproductive destiny. Thanks to the Comstock Laws, it was now legal for a doctor to carry out an abortion, but illegal for him to distribute an informational pamphlet that might have avoided the pregnancy in the first place.
Higgins saw the results first-hand as she trained to become a nurse in the late nineteenth century, treating the women wasting away from repeated unwanted pregnancy, and their malnourished children. Herself the daughter of an agnostic socialist, Higgins was disgusted with the role that religion played in smugly perpetuating this misery for its own gains, and her radical tendencies only increased with her marriage to socialist sympathizer William Sanger in 1902. The marriage forced her to end her nurse’s training, and the accusation of being an under-educated amateur in the health field would stalk her the rest of her days. Living in the heady world of New York socialist circles during America’s last great flirtation with a worker-centered alternative to the two party system, her association with radical authors, artists, and devil-may-care libertines opened her eyes to a new mode of living.
She agitated for workers’ causes, focusing at first on the economic woes of the industrial classes before coming to the realization that many of the miseries of the modern day world were ascribable to humanity’s lack of control over its own fecundity. Wars, famine, urban crowding, and capitalist exploitation all had their roots in our inability to limit voluntarily the number of offspring we produce. And religions, hungry for new followers, and companies, eager for cheap labor, and nations, desperate for cannon fodder, had all made it their concerted business to label the merest whisper of giving women control of their bodies as obscene and grotesque. In 1912, Sanger began her writing career in earnest with a series of articles, What Every Girl Should Know, for a socialist periodical. It advertised the desirability of promoting in a general way the cause of voluntary reproduction, without mentioning specifics as to methods, and even this vague mentioning of birth control was deemed too radical in the eyes of a government run mad on Comstockery.
Margaret Sanger, more than any other single individual in human history, is responsible for placing mankind’s reproductive destiny back in the hands of those who bear its burdens.
One of the astounding things about Sanger, however, was her sheer resilience. No matter how many copies of her magazines were confiscated, how many of her clinics shut down, how many of her talks cancelled by weary Catholic-nudged local officials, and how many times she was dragged to stand trial for offering reproductive counsel to distraught married women, she only used the adversity to further what she believed was humanity’s greatest cause. Often times utterly alone, forced to fill out her Birth Control Review with self-penned articles written under various pseudonyms, the object of derision not only of the conservative establishment, but of other feminists who viewed her tactics as too radical and non-conciliatory, she gave every moment and every resource to organizing and re-organizing her movement, becoming a figure of only passing familiarity to her own children in the process.
For three long decades of slogging, all of her efforts amounted to a tragic pittance in the face of the titan she had sworn to combat. The Catholic Church used every weapon at its disposal to thwart any progress she managed by pure personal resolution to tear from the inertia of American prudery. Its close links with the police force allowed the Church to shut down her meetings and infiltrate her clinics with undercover police spies. Its lobbying might caused presidents to turn against their own inclinations to embrace birth control in order to appease this important voting bloc. Everywhere she appeared, priests railed from pulpits against her affronting of God’s plan, vehemently choosing airy doctrinal purity over actual human suffering.
Meanwhile, the medical community would officially have nothing to do with her or her cause. When she finally won the right to open advisory clinics if they were staffed by doctors rather than nurses and volunteers, she struggled to find somebody willing to ruin their career by associating with birth control. And as to her pet cause, the one for which she is most known, of developing an oral contraceptive, the medical establishment couldn’t be bothered. The money was in thwarting infertility, not inducing it. So, it was up to Sanger, and her financial benefactor Katharine McCormick, to find scientists doing promising research and personally support their efforts against the indifference of the larger research community. Sanger’s research into the problem revealed to her that the most likely approach would be a hormonal one, and that the most promising work was being done by Dr. Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock, the former of whom was teetering on the closure of his lab before McCormick and Sanger descended to rescue his work.
Pouring money and support into his research on progesterone as an interrupter of the ovulation cycle, and benefiting from the much more lax drug testing policies of the era, Sanger was able to unveil the world’s first birth control pill, Enovid, in 1957. Within two years, a million women would be using the product, and within a decade, the Supreme Court would strike down at last the Comstock Law that made birth control still illegal in states like heavily Catholic Massachusetts and Connecticut. Having spent four decades educating a reluctant and often ungrateful public as to their own biological interests, she lived to see a birth control revolution developed under her auspices achieve profound, if not general, acclaim.
In the history of birth control, Sanger is often considered as much an embarrassment as a leader. Her flair for publicity and organization, the uncompromising way she approached the power of Church and nation, and her need for absolute control all set on edge the rank and file who wanted to professionalize the birth control movement, to make it something less aggressive and more media friendly. Sanger saw her Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau folded in with the American Birth Control League (one of the umpteen organizations she had previously created and left) to form Planned Parenthood, a name she abhorred as reeking of rosy committee-born wrong-headedness. Many of her cherished beliefs became hindrances to the later movement, including her early advocacy of eugenics, a set of ideas embraced by most Americans at the turn of the century, and developed to such a degree that an admiring Hitler took over many of our more extreme (but shockingly far more common than we generally allow) practices for his own state. Whether she embraced it out of pure belief or out of a tactical need for allies in the struggling early days of birth control advocacy is an open question, but it remains a sore spot nevertheless, and the sense of “Sanger? We’d rather not talk about her” is still palpable among those branches of reproductive history that would prefer a less idiosyncratic past.
But without Sanger, and the countless symposia she organized, the tens of thousands of people she helped face to face at her clinics, the reams of pages she wrote tirelessly expounding the principle of female reproductive self-determination, and her commitment to an inexpensive alternative to the irritating, cumbersome, and ineffective diaphragms that had changed little since the days of the Egyptians, where would we be? She carried the torch when nobody else was willing, kept its basic principles alive through the unpromising days of war, and the heedless callousness of the Cold War’s incessant post-bellum breeding. The pill would have perhaps come without her concentrated guidance, but decades later, in other hands, and the push to allow open discussion of reproduction that led to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Comstock might have come deep into the Eighties, exposing another generation to the serial misery of wizened Victorianism wed to blind Catholicism. We can be who we are thanks to Margaret Sanger, who died in a retirement home, senile and in constant pain, just half a century ago.
Lead image via Library of Congress Harris & Ewing photograph collection; public domain
FURTHER READING: Sanger wrote a couple of autobiographies, both of which had an eye towards propaganda and which routinely altered events (erasing the Jewish ancestry of her husband, completely ignoring her strings of lovers) to make the movement more credible. A better first book is undoubtedly Jean H. Baker’s marvelous Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011). Sanger’s quirky self-mythology is investigated rigorously but sympathetically, keeping in mind the demands of sustaining a movement nobody believed in against incredible odds over an entire lifetime. Sanger comes out an inspiring heroine, but one who paid a heavy price, and enacted a heavy toll on those around her, for her eventual success.