Margaret Sanger

Changemaker Spotlight: Margaret Sanger and her Birth Control Crusade

No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. -Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a famous American activist who devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally available for women. She grew up during the Comstock laws where it was federally prohibited for women to have access to contraceptives. Sanger believed the only way to overturn these laws was to break them.

Starting in 1910, Sanger relentlessly worked to bring birth control information and contraceptives to women to relieve them from the dangers of repeated pregnancies.

Sanger’s passion was bred from personal experience and tragedy. One of eleven kids, Sanger watched her mother’s health decline further and further after each pregnancy. Eventually at age nineteen, Sanger watched her mother succumb to tuberculosis. At the young age of fifty, she’d been too weakened from seven miscarriages and carrying eleven children. Sanger blamed her father and was seen arguing with him over her mother’s coffin, “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.”

A Shift in Purpose

Sanger became a nurse and found work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In this working class neighborhood, she saw her mother’s fate tenfold. Lacking contraceptives, many of these women turned to cheap unsafe abortions when faced with another unwanted pregnancy. Sanger was then called in to care for these women after these botched procedures. After experiencing enough of the traumatic effects of these abortions, Sanger decided to shift her efforts from nursing to preventative measures.

In 1914, Sanger coined the term “birth control.” She then began her crusade to arm women with information and access to contraceptives. She was arrested multiple times for sending diaphragms through the mail and for even opening the first birth control clinic in the country. She would not give up. 

In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation. She spent the next three decades fighting to provide mainstream access to the American public and was eventually successful. Her efforts contributed to several court decisions that eventually legalized access to birth control in America. 

Although her memory is controversial, no one can argue that Sanger’s efforts did not improve the lives of women. She will forever be remembered as the founder of the birth control movement.

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