Margaret Sanger: Biography, Accomplishments & Quotes

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

In this lesson, we will explore the ambitions, accomplishments, and controversies of the fascinating life of birth control advocate and Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger.

Introduction

Bring up the issue of birth control, abortion, or eugenics to a friend or family member and you're bound to hear a variety of opinions! These ideas have caused quite the controversy over the years because they are linked to concepts of health, rights, and women's role in society. One of the most prominent historic voices in these debates was Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Sanger was an American feminist who advocated for women to have more control over their reproductive health; she is even thought to have coined the term 'birth control.' She founded an organization that would become Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides reproductive education and health services to women. In this lesson, we will examine the biography, accomplishments, and controversies that surround Margaret Sanger.

Picture of Margaret Sanger
Picture of Margaret Sanger

Biography

Sanger was born to Michael and Anne Higgins in New York on September 14, 1879. She would work as a nurse, write for socialist and feminist magazines, and start her own women's health organizations. In 1902, Margaret married William Sanger. They had three children, but they divorced in 1921. Sanger then married her second husband, Noah Slee, in 1922. Her mission took precedence over all the other aspects of her life until she passed away in 1966.

Margaret Sanger's childhood laid the foundation for her beliefs about women's rights, reproductive health, and birth control. Sanger's mother died at a young age from health complications that were probably linked to the fact that she had been pregnant 18 times! Anne Higgins's young death likely left an indelible imprint on the young Margaret about the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

Later, Sanger's professional career solidified her passion for women's reproductive health. Sanger began her career as a nurse in predominantly low-income neighborhoods in New York. There, she witnessed many women get pregnant several times, just as her own mother had. Often, these pregnancies took a toll on these women's health and finances. Many of these women either had miscarriages or resorted to dangerous abortions in order to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. From this experience, Sanger became frustrated at the lack of education and resources when it came to women's reproductive health. Instead of merely treating women's illnesses as a nurse, Sanger wanted to prevent the complications associated with childbirth. So, Sanger turned her attention to directly advocating for women's health.

Accomplishments

In the first few decades of the 20th century, women lacked many freedoms, like the right to vote. In addition, birth control was illegal. So, Sanger dispersed information about birth control, wrote several books, and opened her own women's health organizations and clinics. She was threatened with censorship and jail time, but she was wholeheartedly devoted to her cause, at times breaking laws in order to get her message out.

Photo of Sanger after one of her court trials
Photo of Sanger after one of her court trials

In 1916, Sanger and her sister opened a birth control clinic, which had never existed previously in the United States. It was quickly closed by the government and led to Sanger's arrest. Sanger continued to open and operate a few clinics, journals, and organizations over the next several years. In 1921, Sanger began the American Birth Control League, which lobbied for the legalization of birth control. This organization operated on the belief that women had a right to choose what happened to their bodies, especially when it came to pregnancy. Then, in 1923, Sanger opened the first legal birth control clinic, called the Clinical Research Bureau, which researched different methods of birth control. These two organizations would eventually merge and be renamed Planned Parenthood in 1942.

Sanger saw major changes in the technology and laws concerning birth control over her lifetime. Her organizations funded research for a birth control pill, which was eventually approved by the FDA in 1960 under the name Enovid. In 1965, one year before Sanger's death, birth control was legalized for married couples, partly due to the work of Sanger's organizations.

Woman and the New Race, book by Margaret Sanger
Woman and the New Race, book by Margaret Sanger

Controversy

Like most public figures, Margaret Sanger's ideas and activities have their fair share of controversy. Sanger was at times associated with rather radical groups who advocated birth control as a means of population control. Sanger was genuinely concerned over the health of women and children, to be sure, but she also wanted to see birth control used as a means to prevent the poor and mentally handicapped from reproducing and becoming a drain on society. She spoke favorably of eugenics, sterilization, and abortion as a means of keeping those she called the 'unfit' from reproducing. However, she thought birth control should be an individual choice and did not want to see the government force sterilization or abortion on anyone.

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