Margaret Louise Higgins (married name was Margaret Sanger) was born on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York
to Michael Hennessey Higgins, an Irish-born stonemason and Anne Purcell Higgins, a devoutly Catholic Irish-American. When
Anne Higgins died from tuberculosis at the age of fifty, Margaret, the sixth of eleven children, blamed her mother's frequent
pregnancy as the true cause of her early death. Margaret Higgins sought to escape what she viewed as a grim class and family
heritage. With the help of her older sisters, she attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896 and then entered
the nursing program at White Plains Hospital in 1900.
In 1902, just months before completing the program, she met and married architect William Sanger. Margaret Sanger
and her husband had three children, and the family settled in Hastings, a Westchester County suburb of New York City. However,
Suburban life did not satisfy the Sangers. By 1910 the family moved into New York City. William Sanger wanted to give up his
work as a draftsman to pursue his dream of painting. Margaret Sanger returned to nursing to help support the family. She became
a member of the Liberal Club and a supporter of the anarchist-run Ferrer Center and Modern School. She also joined the Women's
Committee of the NY Socialist Party, and took part in labor actions led by the Industrial Workers of the World, including
the 1912 strike at Lawrence, MA and the 1913 strike at Paterson, NJ.
Margaret Sanger's work as a nurse let her focus on her interest in sex education and women's health. In 1912 she
began writing a column on sex education for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." This experience
led to her first battle with censors, who suppressed her column on venereal disease, deeming it obscene. The issue of family
limitation is what really attracted Sanger's attention, with poor women suffering the pain of frequent childbirth, miscarriage
and abortion. Influenced by the ideas of anarchist Emma Goldman, Sanger began to argue for the need for family limitation
as a tool by which working-class women would liberate themselves from the economic burden of unwanted pregnancy. Shocked by
the inability of most women to obtain accurate and effective birth control, which she believed was fundamental to securing
freedom and independence for working women, Sanger began challenging the 1873 federal Comstock law and the various "little
Comstock" state laws that banned the dissemination of contraceptive information. In March 1914, Sanger published the
first issue of The Woman Rebel, a radical feminist monthly that advocated militant feminism, including the right to practice
birth control. For advocating the use of contraception, three issues of The Woman Rebel were banned, and in August 1914 Sanger
was eventually indicted for violating postal obscenity laws. Unwilling to risk a lengthy imprisonment for breaking federal
laws, Sanger jumped bail in October and set sail for England. En route, she ordered friends to release 100,000 copies of Family
Limitation, a 16-page pamphlet which provided explicit instructions on the use of a variety of contraceptive methods.
Sanger separated from her husband, William, in 1914, and in keeping with her private views on sexual liberation,
she began a series of affairs with several men, including Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells. In 1922 she married oil magnate James
Noah H. Slee, but did so on her own terms, insuring her financial and sexual independence. Slee, who died in 1943, contributed
the most funds for the birth control movement.
|Margaret Sanger, seated, surrounded by staff members of the American Birth Control League, ca. 1921.