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Margaret Sanger

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American social activist

Margaret Sanger dedicated her life to making birth control available to all women in the world and thereby increased the quality and length of women's and children's lives.


Margaret Louise Higgins was born on September 11, 1879, in Corning, New York. The sixth of eleven children born to Anne Purcell and Michael Hennessey Higgins, Margaret grew up in a bustling household in the woods on the outskirts of town. While her mother took care of the large family, her father worked as a sculptor, chiseling headstones for local cemeteries. His work was unsteady, and with so many mouths to feed the family usually struggled to make ends meet.

Though poor themselves, the Higginses believed in helping others and taught Margaret to do the same. Her father often told her: "You have no right to material comforts without giving back to society the benefits of your honest experience" (Sanger, p. 23). Margaret greatly admired her father, who was known as somewhat of a rebel in town, and took his words to heart.

Rebel influence

A "freethinker" who was active in the cause of labor reform and social equality, Michael Higgins was no stranger to controversy. He often arranged for labor leaders and social reformers to speak in Corning and made his overcrowded house a center for political activity. His efforts were usually greeted with scorn from the townspeople, and as a result, Margaret and her siblings grew up being called "children of the devil" (Sanger, p. 21). But Margaret paid little attention to the name-calling. In fact, she rather liked being the daughter of a rebel and living amid controversy. The young girl developed a defiant spirit akin to her father's that would last a lifetime.


Margaret attended public school through the eighth grade and then boarding school at the Claverick College and Hudson River Institute. (Her expenses were paid by two of her sisters.) Away from home for the first time in her life, Margaret flourished and began developing her leadership abilities. She became active in theater groups and for a time had an ambition to become a professional actress. However, when she learned that in order to get an acting job she would have to write down her leg measurements, she defiantly refused and "turned to other fields where something besides legs was to count" (Sanger, p. 38).

Awareness of the women's issue

The leg episode proved to be an important experience for Margaret. It alerted her to the ongoing debate about women's rights and illustrated for her the discrimination women faced. She developed a strong interest in women's rights and began studying the great female leaders in history. While researching women such as Helen of Troy, Ruth, Poppaea, and Cleopatra VII, Margaret became greatly inspired and wrote an essay on women's equality, which she read aloud to her class. She was filled with youthful optimism and wanted not only to help women, but to make the world a better place. Exactly how she could achieve this, she did not yet know.

Nursing sparks medical interest

After graduating from the Institute, Margaret worked as a teacher for a year and then was called home to take care of her mother, who was dying from tuberculosis. Her mother had been severely weakened by having so many children, and within a few months of Margaret's return home, she died.

Though it had been a sad time in her life, Margaret gained new direction from the experience of nursing her mother. She had always wanted to help society and she realized that working as a nurse was a way to do that. Shortly after her mother's death, she entered the nursing program at White Plains Hospital. She completed the year-long program then finished her training at the Manhattan Eye and Ear clinic in New York City in 1900 at the age of twenty-one.


While working in New York, Margaret met a young architect, much like her father, named William Sanger. Sanger was politically active and had the same "artist's temperament" as Margaret's father. Her attraction to him led to their getting married shortly after Margaret's graduation from nursing school. They were soon expecting their first son, Stuart, who was followed by a second son, Grant, and a daughter, Peggy. Margaret quit nursing to be a full-time mother until after Peggy was born.

Sees connection between social ills and birth control

When Sanger returned to nursing, she worked as a visiting nurse in some of the worst slums in New York City. She most often was called upon to help deliver babies or nurse desperately weak mothers back to health. Some of these mothers suffered from bearing too many children. Others nearly bled to death because of unsafe abortions, operations that were performed on them to end their pregnancies. With each visit, the women, most of whom had more than ten children, desperately begged Sanger: "Tell me something to keep from having another baby. We cannot afford another yet" (Sanger, p. 87). But by law, Sanger was forbidden from teaching the knowledge they so eagerly sought.

Hearing the desperate cries for birth control on a daily basis, Sanger grew very depressed. Visions of weak and dying mothers -- women who could never pull themselves from the depths of poverty because of their fragile health and burdens of their ever-growing families -- haunted her sleep. "One by one worried, sad, pensive, and aging faces marshaled themselves before me in my dreams, sometimes appealingly, sometimes accusingly," Sanger said (Sanger, p. 89). She not only felt sad and angry about the condition of these masses of women but felt guilty because there was nothing she could do to help them. Finally, when a young mother who had begged Margaret months before for some means of birth control died from giving birth to yet another child, Sanger snapped. Convinced that the woman had only sought "the knowledge which was her right" and died from lack of that knowledge, Sanger vowed from that moment on "to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries [are] as vast as the sky" (Sanger, p. 92). Sanger had found her cause and was ready to take on the world to fight for it.

Population growth

Sanger became convinced that the overall improvement of women's lives and society



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