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Margaret Sanger (1879–1966)

Signed portrait of Margaret Sanger by Taylor-Sargent, New York. Gelatin silver print, 1941. From the Alma Lutz Collection, 1775-1943. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Margaret Sanger, a birth-control activist, nurse, and lecturer, was born in 1879 in Corning, New York, the sixth of eleven children. She attended Claverack College, Hudson River Institute, and the White Plains Hospital nursing program in order to become a nurse. In 1902 she married architect William Sanger, and the couple had three children.

Margaret Sanger practiced nursing until 1912, when she left the profession in order to devote her life to educating women about birth control, which she was convinced would greatly improve their lives. She wrote a series of articles for The New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know," which was later published as a book and in 1914 dispensed information on contraceptives through pamphlets such as "Family Limitation" and in her radical feminist newspaper, The Woman Rebel.

Several states, including New York, banned The Woman Rebel for its controversial advocacy of birth control. In 1914, Sanger was arrested for violating postal obscenity laws under the 1873 Cornstock Act, which had made it illegal to send "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" printed material through the US mail. Once on bail, Sanger fled to England, where she met British feminists, radicals, and neo-Malthusians who influenced her theories of sexual politics, most notably Havelock Ellis.

Upon her return to the United States, Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York in 1916; it was shut down nine days later by New York police. Sanger was imprisoned, but publicity from the case helped her to raise funds for legislative advocacy. Sanger continued her advocacy for contraception and her violation of the Comstock law by starting the monthly publication Birth Control Review in 1917.

Margaret and William Sanger divorced in 1920, and Margaret was remarried to James Noah H. Slee in 1922, after founding the American Birth Control League in 1921 (renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942). In 1923, Sanger's efforts were partially validated when the New York State appellate court amended the Comstock law, allowing physicians to legally distribute contraceptive information.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she lectured in Asia and Europe, advocating birth control to improve women's and public health, women's rights, and eugenics. This last theory promoted contraceptives as a way to limit genetic transmission of birth defects, but Sanger did not extend it to race, ethnicity, or class. Her international circuit culminated in the 1930 organization of the Birth Control International Information Centre and the 1952 foundation of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

In 1965, the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut legalized contraception for married couples. Margaret Sanger died several months later in Tucson, Arizona at age 86.

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