Sanger's early years were spent in New York City. In 1914, prompted by suffering she witnessed due to frequent pregnancies and self-induced abortions, she started a monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel. Sanger's activism was influenced by the conditions of her youth—her mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, and died at age 50 of tuberculosis and cervical cancer.
In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, which led to her arrest for distributing information on contraception. Her subsequent trial and appeal generated enormous support for her cause. Sanger felt that in order for women to have a more equal footing in society and to lead healthier lives, they needed to be able to determine when to bear children. She also wanted to prevent back-alley abortions, which were dangerous and usually illegal at that time.
In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In New York, Sanger organized the first birth control clinic staffed by all-female doctors, as well as a clinic in Harlem with an entirely African-American staff. In 1929, she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, which served as the focal point of her lobbying efforts to legalize contraception in the United States. From 1952 to 1959, Sanger served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Sanger died of congestive heart failure in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona, age 86, about a year after the event that marked the climax of her 50-year career: the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized birth control in the United States. Sanger is buried in Fishkill, New York next to her sister Nan Higgins and her second husband Noah Slee. She is widely regarded as a founder of the modern birth control movement.
While researching information on contraception Sanger read various treatises on sexuality in order to find information about birth control. She read The Psychology of Sex by the English psychologist Havelock Ellis and was heavily influenced by it. While traveling in Europe in 1914, Sanger met Ellis. Influenced by Ellis, Sanger adopted his view of sexuality as a powerful, liberating force. This view provided another argument in favor of birth control, as it would enable women to fully enjoy sexual relations without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. Sanger also believed that sexuality, along with birth control, should be discussed with more candor.
However, Sanger was opposed to excessive sexual indulgence. She stated "every normal man and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse. Men and women who have it in control and constantly use their brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sanger said that birth control would elevate women away from a position of being an object of lust and elevate sex away from purely being for satisfying lust, saying that birth control "denies that sex should be reduced to the position of sensual lust, or that woman should permit herself to be the instrument of its satisfaction." Sanger wrote that masturbation was dangerous. She stated "In my personal experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator.It would not be difficult to fill page upon page of heart-rending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently." Sher believed that women had the ability to control their sexual impulses, and should utilize that control to avoid sex outside of relationships marked by "confidence and respect." She believed that exercising such control would lead to the "strongest and most sacred passion." However, Sanger was not opposed to homosexuality and praised Ellis for clarifying "the question of homosexuals... making the thing a—not exactly a perverted thing, but a thing that a person is born with different kinds of eyes, different kinds of structures and so forth... that he didn't make all homosexuals perverts—and I thought he helped clarify that to the medical profession and to the scientists of the world as perhaps one of the first ones to do that." Sanger believed sex should be discussed with more candor, and praised Ellis for his efforts in this direction. She also blamed the suppression of discussion about it on Christianity.
Burial: Fishkill Rural Cemetery, Fishkill, Dutchess County, New York, USA.
Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion by Jean H. Baker
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (November 13, 2012)
Amazon: Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
Undoubtedly the most influential advocate for birth control even before the term existed, Margaret Sanger ignited a movement that has shaped our society to this day. Her views on reproductive rights have made her a frequent target of conservatives and so-called family values activists. Yet lately even progressives have shied away from her, citing socialist leanings and a purported belief in eugenics as a blight on her accomplishments. In this captivating new biography, the renowned feminist historian Jean H. Baker rescues Sanger from such critiques and restores her to the vaunted place in history she once held.
Trained as a nurse and midwife in the gritty tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger grew increasingly aware of the dangers of unplanned pregnancy—both physical and psychological. A botched abortion resulting in the death of a poor young mother catalyzed Sanger, and she quickly became one of the loudest voices in favor of sex education and contraception. The movement she started spread across the country, eventually becoming a vast international organization with her as its spokeswoman.
Sanger’s staunch advocacy for women’s privacy and freedom extended to her personal life as well. After becoming a wife and mother at a relatively early age, she abandoned the trappings of home and family for a globe-trotting life as a women’s rights activist. Notorious for the sheer number of her romantic entanglements, Sanger epitomized the type of “free love” that would become mainstream only at the very end of her life. That she lived long enough to see the creation of the birth control pill—which finally made planned pregnancy a reality—is only fitting.
Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America by Ellen Chesler
Paperback: 672 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 16, 2007)
Amazon: Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America
Ellen Chesler's 1992 biography of Margaret Sanger is acclaimed as definitive and is widely used and cited by scholars and activists alike in the fields of women's health and reproductive rights.
Chesler's substantive new Afterword considers how Sanger's life and work hold up in light of subsequent developments, such as U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging the constitutional doctrine of privacy and international definitions of reproductive health as an essential human right.
Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America by John D'Emilio & Estelle B. Freedman
Paperback: 466 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 2nd edition (February 28, 1998)
Amazon: Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America
The first full length study of the history of sexuality in America, Intimate Matters offers trenchant insights into the sexual behavior of Americans, from colonial times to today. D'Emilio and Freedman give us a deeper understanding of how sexuality has dramatically influenced politics and culture throughout our history.
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