Sanger, Margaret

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Sanger, Margaret (b. Higgins)

(1879–1966) birth control advocate; born in Corning, N.Y. The sixth of eleven children, she married architect William Sanger (1902) and had three children before leaving him in 1913. She moved to New York City (1912) where she became active in the women's labor movement and the Socialist Party. She concluded that control over childbearing was the key to female emancipation and was appalled by women's ignorance of contraception, which she experienced first-hand working as a practical nurse in New York City (1912). She wrote newspaper articles on feminine hygiene, put out a militant journal entitled Woman Rebel, and published a pamphlet, Family Limitation (1914), in which she coined the term "birth control" and called for legalization of contraception; indicted for violating postal laws, she fled to Canada and then England (1914), where she was influenced by sex reformer Havelock Ellis to tone down her radical tactics. After her return (1915), the government dropped its charges and she began lecturing widely, also founding the Birth Control Review (1916), which she edited until 1928. She and her sister served 30 days in prison for opening a birth control clinic in Brooklyn (1916), but an appeal judge's decision allowed for doctors to provide birth control information to married women. Her Birth Control Research Bureau (founded in New York in 1923 with the support of her wealthy new husband, J. Noah Slee) was the first doctor-staffed medical clinic in America and a model for the 300 others she helped establish. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League; accused of autocratic tactics, she resigned from its presidency in 1928, but it later merged with her Clinical Research Bureau into the organization that in 1942 became Planned Parenthood. She founded a lobbying group (1929) that successfully sued to allow the mailing of contraceptive materials in the U.S.A. She was less active from the 1940s on, but in the 1950s she induced philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick to help fund development of a birth control pill, and in 1952 she helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She was undeniably difficult to work with, and close examination of her writings shows that she endorsed birth control in part to maintain the position of the white race, but she was just as certainly a courageous pioneer.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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