- Founder of Planned Parenthood
- Opened America's first birth-control clinic in 1916
- Advocate of eugenics
Margaret Higgins Sanger was a radical feminist, eugenicist, Marxist, and the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Sanger was born Margaret Higgins in 1879 in Corning, New York. Her parents, Michael Hennessy Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins, were socialists and early activists in the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1902 Miss Higgins (i.e., Margaret Sanger) earned a degree as a registered nurse and married architect William Sanger; the following year she gave birth to her first child. Later acknowledging that she had neglected her children (one of whom died of pneumonia at age four), Sanger declared that she was not a “fit person for love or home or children or anything which needs attention or consideration.”
In 1912 Sanger and her family settled in New York City. She became a member of both the Women’s Committee and the Marxist Committee of the New York Socialist Party. “Our living-room,” she would write in her 1938 autobiography, “became a gathering place where liberals, anarchists, Socialists and I.W.W.’s [Industrial Workers of the World members] could meet.”
Also in 1912, Sanger began writing a women’s-rights column for the New York Call entitled, “What Every Girl Should Know.” In addition, she wrote and distributed a pamphlet titled Family Limitation, which provided details about contraception methods and devices. By publishing this pamphlet, Sanger ran afoul of the Comstock Law of 1873, which classified such material as obscene and barred its dissemination via the U.S. mail.
After separating from her husband in 1913, Sanger began writing an eight-page monthly feminist-socialist newsletter called The Woman Rebel, which often promoted contraceptive use and sex education. Using the slogan “No Gods and No Masters,” The Woman Rebel was distributed through the mail, and once again Sanger came under fire for violation of the Comstock Law. In 1914 she was indicted on criminal charges but promptly fled to England.
Sanger returned to the U.S. in October 1915, and the following year she opened a women’s "birth-control" (a phrase she coined) clinic in Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. The government deemed the clinic illegal, however, and shut it down nine days later; Sanger spent a month in jail for her transgression.
In 1917 Sanger founded the Birth Control Review, a publication favoring contraception as a means of limiting society's birth rate.
In 1921 she created the American Birth Control League, which eventually would evolve into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the United States.
Also in 1921, Sanger established both the Clinical Research Bureau (which was the first legal birth-control clinic in the U.S.) and the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control.
In 1930 Sanger was elected President of the Birth Control International Information Center; from 1939 to 1942 she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America; and from 1952 to 1959 she served as President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Sanger’s reasons for advocating birth control stemmed, in part, from her views on race and heredity. She was a devoted eugenicist who advocated forced sterilization -- of the poor and the mentally deficient, in particular, who she believed were likely to produce "subnormal" offspring -- for the purpose of improving society's overall gene pool. Examples of her ideas on selective breeding are found throughout her columns and newsletters. For instance, she wrote:
“It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.”
“The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind,” Sanger elaborated.
The eugenic theme figured prominently in Sanger's Birth Control Review, wherein she published such articles as "Some Moral Aspects of Eugenics" (June 1920); "The Eugenic Conscience" (February 1921); "The Purpose of Eugenics" (December 1924); "Birth Control and Positive Eugenics" (July 1925); "Birth Control: The True Eugenics" (August 1928); and many others.
At a March 1925 international birth-control event in New York City, Sanger advocated -- for the "salvation of American civilization" -- the sterilization of those "unfit" to procreate. In addition, she condemned the "irresponsible and reckless" rates of procreation among those "whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers." She was referring specifically to Catholics who rejected the use of contraception. "There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people," she added, "that the procreation of this group should be stopped."
In her quest to engineer a civilization devoid of “subnormal children,” Sanger often worked jointly with groups and individuals whose goals vis a vis eugenics overlapped with her own, even if their larger agendas differed from hers. In 1926, for instance, she presented a lecture on birth control to the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey. In September 1930 she invited Nazi anthropologist Eugen Fischer (whose ideas were cited by the Nazis to legitimize the extermination of Jews) to meet with her at her home.
Sanger's commitment to eugenic "sexual science" dovetailed seamlessly with her Marxist vision. While she had been heartened by the success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, she doubted that a revolution for a new communist order in the U.S. could be carried out by a proletariat class of limited intellectual capacity. Thus she sought to elevate the quality of the overall gene pool by means of eugenics. “In pointing out the limitations and fallacies of the orthodox Marxian opinion,” Sanger wrote in The Pivot of Civilization, “my purpose is not to depreciate the efforts of Socialists aiming to create a new society, but rather to emphasize what seems to me to be the greatest and most neglected truth of our day: unless sexual science is incorporated … and the pivotal importance of birth control is recognized in any program of reconstruction, all efforts to create a new world and a new civilization are foredoomed to failure.”
In January 1939 two of Sanger's organizations, the Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League (ABCL), merged to form the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA).
At this point, Sanger turned her attention specifically to the reproductive practices of black Americans. She selected former ABCL director Clarence J. Gamble (of the Procter and Gamble company) to become BCFA's southern regional director. That November, Gamble drew up a memorandum titled "Suggestion for Negro Project," whose ultimate aim was to decrease the black birth rate significantly. Anticipating that black leaders would be suspicious of anyone exhorting African Americans to have fewer children, Gamble suggested that BCFA place black leaders in high positions within the organization, so as to give the appearance that they were in charge of the group's agendas. BCFA presented birth control as a vehicle for the upward economic mobility of blacks.
Sanger authored several books during her lifetime, including: What Every Mother Should Know (1917); Woman and the New Race (1920); Happiness in Marriage (1926); Motherhood in Bondage (1928); My Fight For Birth Control (1931); and Autobiography (1938). Another book, The Pivot of Civilization, was published posthumously in 2006.
Sanger today is considered an icon of the feminist Left. Former Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt once said, “I stand by Margaret Sanger’s side,” leading “the organization that carries on Sanger’s legacy.” Planned Parenthood's first African American President, Faye Wattleton, stated that she too was “proud” to be “walking in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.”
Planned Parenthood actively celebrates Sanger’s legacy each year by presenting its “highest honor,” the “Margaret Sanger Award, to an individual who best promotes the organization's values and ideals. Past recipients of this award include: Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion; Hillary Clinton (who won the award in 2009); Robin Chandler Duke, former President of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (and President Bill Clinton‘s ambassador to Norway); and actress Kathleen Turner.
Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona of arteriosclerosis. According to her New York Times obituary, she sought to encourage birth control and/or abortion among “subnormal children.”