Margaret Higgins Sanger

(Psst! My novel, Cut From Strong Cloth, is out and selling well in both print and Kindle. Here is the Amazon link:

Margaret Higgins’s life goal was to become a successful nurse, and after several years into the practice she assured herself that she had chosen a worthy career. But then a patient died without Margaret being able to save the woman’s life. That episode led Margaret Higgins to change her goal; she decided instead to do everything possible to prevent other women from dying unnecessarily… from self-induced abortions.

Born in Corning, New York, in 1879, Margaret Higgins was the sixth of eleven children in a large Irish family and spent most of her childhood helping to care for her younger siblings. When Margaret’s mother died at the age of 49, Margaret noted that her mother had had 18 pregnancies within 22 years, and only 11 children survived.  Perhaps it was this family background that led Margaret into the field of women’s health.

By 1911 she had married William Sanger, given birth three times, and had begun to work as a visiting nurse in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. Her husband was an architect and painter and they counted among their acquaintances reformed-mined people like the novelist Upton Sinclair and art supporter Mabel Dodge.

Margaret wanted to help the poor women of the East Side prevent unwanted pregnancies, but she was vehemently opposed to abortion because she believed that life should not be terminated after conception. However, this was a time in America when women were prohibited from gaining access to information about contraceptives, on the grounds of obscenity written into the 1873 Comstock Law.

In 1912 Margaret launched a campaign to challenge the governmental censorship of contraceptive information because it violated freedom of speech.  She began an underground newsletter which she distributed throughout Greenwich Village in Manhattan calling for an action to challenge the federal anti-obscenity laws.

Threatened with arrest, none-the-less, Margaret persevered and began lecturing in women’s clubs, churches, homes and theaters about a woman’s right for access to information about contraception. Several countries in Western Europe were already dispensing both information and contraceptive devices to their female citizens, and Margaret wanted American women to have those same privileges.

In October 1916, Margaret opened a family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY; the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. Nine days later she was arrested for breaking a New York state law that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives. She would be arrested numerous times more.

Then in 1918 Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals issued a ruling which allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives, in the state of New York for a medical necessity.

Margaret took her campaign then to other states as well. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League which eventually became The Planned Parenthood Federation. Noting that doctors could only prescribe contraceptives for medical reasons, she founded the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923 to exploit the wording of ‘for medical reasons’. The CRB became the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. with one of the major financial contributors being John D. Rockefeller.

But Margaret didn’t stop there. On and on she campaigned for the right of every American woman to have access to legal contraceptives. And every woman, meant not just white women, but all women. Margaret collaborated with African-American community leaders to help establish a clinic in Harlem, New York City, which opened in 1930 and was staffed by black doctors.

Margaret was opposed to censorship in all forms, which often led to her arrests for expressing her views during a time when speaking in public about contraception was still illegal.  In one widely publicized event, city officials of Boston threatened to arrest her if she spoke to an audience. So she climbed up on stage, tied a gag over her mouth, and handed her speech to Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. to read aloud. He did.

One of Margaret’s crowning achievements in the 1950s was that she procured financial backing for biologist Gregory Pincus to continue his research. He eventually developed the birth control pill.

Finally, in 1965, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut allowed birth control to become legal in every state in America, 53 years after Margaret had started her campaign.

Margaret died a year later, knowing that her life goal had been met.

Just coincidently, the superhero character of Wonder Woman that debuted in 1941 was created by William Moulton Marston and inspired by the real life character of Margaret Higgins Sanger. But that is another story.

Thanks to Luigi Perini who alerted me to Margaret Higgins Sanger, another incredible strong woman.

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About lhsittig

I am a freelance writer who specializes in historical fiction that showcases strong female protagonists. In non-fiction I focus on literacy tips for parents and teachers to help children become life long readers.
This entry was posted in history, short biographies, strong women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Margaret Higgins Sanger

  1. Rich Fox says:

    one of your best, yet. loved it. rich

  2. dhallaj says:

    How fortunate she was to live long enough to see her goals accomplished! Another great woman I’d never known until you wrote about her. Thanks. (Maybe next time we can read about Wonder Woman). 🙂

  3. Gerri Hill says:


  4. clarbojahn says:

    As a registered nurse for 32 years myself I Love hearing about other nurses. Thanks for telling this nurse’s story. I would not have known about her otherwise. 🙂

  5. lhsittig says:

    So glad you like her information. Yes, one strong woman!

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