March is Women’s History month which highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. As one of those women, Margaret Sanger was an exceptional advocate for women’s right to birth control.
Coming from a family of 11 brothers and sisters, she watched her own mother struggle with the complexity of being a mother to many children. Her mother also suffered through several miscarriages, which contributed to an early death at only 40 years old. Having seen her mother’s trials, she decided to make a better life for herself.
Sanger attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896. She went on to study nursing at White Plains Hospital four years later, married, and then had three children of her own. As she settled down in the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village, known for its radical politics, she became immersed in the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party and the Liberal Club. As a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World union, she participated in a number of strikes.
Sanger started her campaign to educate women about sex in 1912 by writing a newspaper column called "What Every Girl Should Know." She also worked as a nurse on the Lower East Side, at the time a predominantly poor immigrant neighborhood. Through her work, Sanger treated a number of women who had undergone back-alley abortions or tried to self-terminate their pregnancies.
Sanger began touring to promote birth control in 1915 and in 1916, she opened up the first birth control clinic in the United States. However, Sanger and her staff were arrested only 9 days after the opening and were charged with providing information on contraception including fitting women for diaphragms.
Later, after serving her jail sentence, Sanger established the American Birth Control League, a precursor to today's Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She served as its president until 1928. In 1923, while with the League, she opened the first legal birth control clinic in the United States. The clinic was named the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau.
In today’s sexual health education world, Sanger’s legacy lives on. Planned Parenthood clinics are available nationwide and her brother, Alexander Sanger serves as the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council. "She believed that women wanted their children to be free of poverty and disease, that women were natural eugenicists, and that birth control, which could limit the number of children and improve their quality of life, was the panacea to accomplish this."
Posted by Elizabeth Castillo, Health Connected intern. Elizabeth is currently a student at San Francisco State University studying Health Education. She hopes to continue on to grad school for Nursing once she completes her bachelor’s degree.
Margaret Sanger. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 10:48, Feb 23, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/margaret-sanger-9471186.