For thousands of years, a woman was expected to stay at home and birth a baby every year while the man went to work. Even American families that could barely afford one child would end up with ten children because certain religions and federal laws forbade the use of birth control. Then in the early 1900’s, a woman named Margaret Sanger began giving speeches about birth control. She talked about how a woman could decide how many children she wanted and could afford and how they could finally enjoy sex without worrying about becoming pregnant. Though the government tried to silence her for decades, Sanger continued spreading the word about the freedom for women achieved by using birth control.
Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York. Her parents were devout Catholics; her mother went through 18 pregnancies (11 live births) in 22 years before dying at the age of 50 from tuberculosis and cervical cancer. At the funeral, Sanger lashed at her father, “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.” Not wanting up end up like her mother, her older sisters helped her attend college and nursing school. She married William Sanger, had 3 children, and settled down in Hastings, New York. In 1910, her husband quit his job as a architect to try painting, forcing Sanger to work as a nurse to support the family; they would separate four years later. As a nurse, she was called in to tend for the poor women who had abortions because they could not afford to have another child. Seeing the women suffer through un-safe back-alley abortions, Sanger knew better contraceptives were needed to prevent more women from suffering.
In 1912, Sanger began writing a column on sex education for the New York Call. Censors suppressed her column on venereal disease. In 1914, she published Women Rebel, a radical feminists monthly that advocated the right to practice birth control, and sent diaphragms through the mail. These actions went against the 1873 Federal Comstock Law that banned dissemination of contraceptive information. She was arrested several times, but her arrests attracted wealthy supporters. In 1916, she opened the firth birth control clinic in Brooklyn; nine days later, it was raided and she and her staff were all arrested. New York state then decided that physicians could prescribe birth control for medical reasons, which allowed Sanger to open a legal, doctor-run birth control clinic in 1923. She also founded the American Birth Control League, which would later be known as the Planned Parenthood Federation. When a black social worker asked Sanger to open a clinic in Harlem to provide black women with birth control, Sanger did and staffed it a all-black staff – W.E.B. Du Bois served on the board of Sanger’s Harlem Clinic.
After traveling the world for decades talking about birth control, Sanger realized there needed to be better birth control options for women since the diaphragm was not popular. She wanted a magic pill that could provide women with cheap, safe, and effective female-controlled contraception. In 1951 she met Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction. Sanger also found a sponsor for the research, International Harvester heiress Katharine McCormick. McCormick had worked with Sanger since the 1920’s, smuggling diaphragms from Europe to New York. McCormick strongly believed in birth control because her husband had schizophrenia and she believed it to be genetic (she was right). Together, the three of them helped create Enovid, the first FDA approved oral contraceptive in 1960. The goal of Sanger to create a magic pill was achieved. In 1965, the Supreme Court Case Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right. Sanger passed away on September 6, 1966 after realizing her goal was accomplished. Pincus died on August 22, 1967 and McCormick died on December 28, 1967; they too were able to witness birth control becoming legal.
Though it has been over 40 years since birth control became legal in the United States, women still have trouble accessing it due to costs, state laws, and even pharmacists refusing to sell it. It is up to women to continue fighting for their right to have and to use birth control since it can be used for medical reasons (preventing ovarian cancer) and it gives a woman the right to choose to when she wants to have children. Thanks to Margaret Sanger, women have a choice when it comes to having a family.