In honor of Feminist for Choice’s first LIVE Choice Chat
THIS Sunday, October 25th at 12:00 PST
Basic biographical info:
Full name: Margaret Higgins Sanger Slee
Born: September 14, 1879
Sanger was the name of her first husband, William Sanger, with whom she had three children.
The couple separated in 1914.
Slee was the name of her second husband, James Slee, whom she married in 1922. Slee, an oil tycoon, was the primary funder of the early birth control movement.
Died: Tucson, AZ on September 6th, 1966, just shy of her 87th birthday.
Born to devout Catholic family.
Margaret Sanger’s mother, Anne Higgins, went through 18 pregnancies, 11 children survived.
A heritage of progressive views: Sanger’s father, Michael Hennessy Higgins, was an activist for women’s suffrage, free public education, and socialism.
Margaret and William Sanger settled in New York City in 1910. They became heavily involved in the radical bohemian culture (a favorite topic of mine!) that was flourishing in Greenwich Village (the current home of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project). Some of their better-known friends were Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge, and Emma Goldman.
Margaret Sanger was among the most early sex columnists! In 1912 she began writing a regular sex-education column; “What every girl should know,” for The New York Call.
Problems with the law:
In August 1914 Sanger was indicted for “violating US postal obscenity laws,” but jumped bail and fled to England.
Alias used while hiding in Europe: “Bertha Watson.”
A savvy activist: en route to England, Sanger ordered friends to release 100,000 copies of her Family Limitation pamphlet. Family Limitation provided explicit instructions on the use of a variety of contraceptive methods, and was the type of material Sanger was arrested for distributing.
While she was hiding in Europe William Sanger distributed a copy of the publication to a postal worker who was working undercover. He was jailed for 30 days.
In 1916 Sanger spent 30 days in jail after being arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY.
In total, Sanger was jailed eight times.
Although Sanger was the technical founder of Planned Parenthood, the original name of the organization was American Birth Control League. In fact, Sanger thought Planned Parenthood was a poor name choice. In this case, she was wrong. Planned Parenthood is a highly successful brand.
Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in October 1916. The clinic was forced shut by the police a mere 9 days after it opened. Sanger and her staff were arrested. Sanger was convicted.
Sanger’s international work was significant. She traveled to Japan, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Africa, and Asia conducting research, organizing conferences, and of course, hiding from the U.S. legal system.
Sanger founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and served as its President from 1952 to 1959. At the time, it was the largest private international “family planning” organization.
There is a lack of research about Sanger’s international work. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project is currently in the process of raising money to fund research about her overseas work. To make a donation, click here.
Interesting points of view:
Sanger had some interesting points of view that would have certainly clashed with the popular ideologies of the current feminist movement:
Against masturbation: “It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act…Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.”
Contrary to popular belief, Sanger actually opposed abortion: “To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”
Hope to see you Sunday as Feminists for Choice discuss the fascinating birth control pioneer with Gloria Feldt!
Janice is a Virtual Assistant, aspiring doula, and long-time feminist activist with a passion for women's history, nonfiction, nature, and wearing flowers in her hair. She is the Founder of The Feminist's Guide, a women's history travel website, which can be found at www.thefeministguide.com.