In the beginning of the twentieth century, women hadn’t gained the right to vote, own land, or hold elected office. Though many were educated, it was not with the intent that they would have careers of their own; a woman’s place, it was thought, was in the home. At that time it was a cultural obligation, or assumption perhaps, that women’s sole role in society was to raise a family. There was no assertion, legally or otherwise, that women assumed any right of responsibility in having a say in regards to what happened to their own bodies. In fact, thanks to the Comstock Law of 1873, an anti-obsenity law, the distribution, sale or possession of anything related to reproductive health including contraception was federally banned in the United States, including information. Women, therefore, were unable to discuss with their doctors the prevention of pregnancy.
If you have ever looked up your family tree even by a generation or two, you would find it most common for women to spend the entirety of their childbearing years pregnant and / or nursing. It was not uncommon for a woman to have upwards of eight or more children. When counting pregnancies (versus live births), that number easily pushes into double digits, the discrepancy owed to miscarriages and still births. A lifetime of child bearing took devastatingly severe if not fatal repercussions on women’s physical and mental health.
Margaret Sanger’s own mother had 18 pregnancies and 11 live births. Passing away before she reached fifty, she left the children to care for one another. It was due to this experience that the young Margaret took to nursing before temporarily giving up the profession to marry and have children of her own. When at last she returned to nursing, in the poorer areas of New York City, it was in witnessing the reproductive struggles (high pregnancy rates, pregnancy and birth complications and self-terminated pregnancies) of immigrant women and the death of one of her clients (after a second self-terminated pregnancy) that forced her to take matters into her own hands.
Mrs. Sanger is credited with having introduced the concept of a “magic (birth control) pill”, and of working with scientists to develop it, but her road to success was long and hard fought. Wanting to force a legal challenge to the Comstock law, Margaret began her efforts by publishing a birth control publication, The Woman Rebel, which was a monthly newsletter mailed through the postal service. It had the desired effect, and after she was federally indicted, rather than stand trial, she fled to Europe. It was there that she discovered well-established birth control clinics and new forms of contraception (diaphragms) not available or even known of in the U.S.. Once back in New York, Margaret and her sister founded a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, but once they began seeing patients, the sisters were arrested, with Margaret serving a month in a workhouse.
A small victory came in 1918 when NY Court of Appeals Judge, (Crane) issued an unprecedented ruling therefore allowing doctors to prescribe contraceptives within the state. Two years later, Sanger would found the American Birth Control League, which would grow to become what we know today as Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (or more commonly, Planned Parenthood), serving as its president until 1928. Later in her career, Margaret moved her efforts into lobbying the federal government to follow Judge Crane’s suit, with the founding in 1929 of The National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control.
After having legally divorced from her first husband, Margaret married Noah Slee, (1922) an oil industry businessman who would provide part of the financial resources needed for Margaret to continue her lobbying efforts, the other half, as Sanger’s focus turned to the creation of a birth control pill in the 1950’s, was provided by Katherine McCormack, the International – Harvester heiress. Together with one of the leading scientists in the field of reproduction, Gregory Pincus, the three worked on the pill’s development and in 1960, the FDA approved the result of their efforts, Enovid, for commercial use. It is said that Sanger herself obtained a prescription, a year before her death, and purchased a packet of the pills, just because she could.
Margaret Sanger’s legacy is not without condemnation. Her support of eugenics (the selective breeding of people with desirable genetics) and the sterilization of mentally challenged peoples are morally detestable. However, her belief that “every child should be a wanted child” is still resonant today.
In less than one hundred years, women around the globe have worked tirelessly so that women of today have the right to vote, purchase land of their own, and hold elected office. That woman now also have the choice whether to become parents or not and to have control over their reproductive health is a freedom easily taken for granted but one that wasn’t easily gained and for that we can thank Margaret Sanger and those that helped her establish the road to reproductive freedom.