Margaret Sanger (1879 - 1966)
“No woman can call herself free who cannot own and control her body.”
One of 11 children in a working class family, Margaret Sanger grew up in the time of the Comstock Act, a federal law that defined contraceptives as obscene and criminalized their use and dissemination. While working as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City and caring for women who suffered from botched illegal abortions, Sanger decided to fight for legal access to contraceptives for women so they could decide if and when to have children in order to lead healthier, more empowered lives. “Birth control,” she called it.
In 1916, with her sister, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. It was open for 10 days and provided 488 women with contraceptive information and some with diaphragms before the two mavericks were arrested and the clinic shut down. Convicted by a judge for violating the Comstock Law, the two sisters spent 30 days in a workhouse. Later, on appeal, a judge refused to overturn the verdict, but ruled that doctors would be allowed to prescribe contraception to their female patients for medical reasons. Now known as “the birth control sisters,” the two women received national attention and support for their cause.
Sanger regrouped and decided to open birth control clinics staffed with doctors. Her first such clinic opened in New York City in 1923. This clinic served as a model for over 300 birth control clinics that opened nationwide by 1938. In 1938, Sanger achieved another of her long-term goals – the reversal of the Comstock Act’s classification of birth control as obscenity. This effort allowed the American Medical Association to recognize contraception as a medical service that could be taught in medical schools.
More than 50 years after watching her own mother die a young death for what Sanger believed was exhaustion from having more children than she could handle, Sanger played a key role in the founding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as its first president. She was also instrumental in working through the years to ensure the development of a female-controlled contraceptive and lived to see the results – the birth control pill – approved by the FDA in 1960.