Margaret Sanger was a pioneering advocate for birth control in the United States, along with Asia and Europe, during the 20th century. In her autobiography, Margaret explains the many obstacles she had to overcome and what were her driving forces during her crusade for women’s rights throughout the early to mid 20th century. Margaret was born on September 14, 1879 in Corning, NY into a middle class family. She was sixth of the eleven children her mother gave birth to. Her father was an Irish-born stonemason who challenged the children to think.
Margaret’s father practiced Socialism because he believed it was the closest to the Christian philosophy. Margaret has also cited him as, “the spring from which she drank from”. Her mother, a Catholic Irish-American, stayed at home with the children, which was expected of mothers during this period. At fifty Margaret’s mother died from tuberculosis, although, Margaret believes it was the frequent birth that was the underlying cause to her death.
Her two older sisters helped Margaret attend college in 1896 and then continued in a nursing program in 1900.
During her work at the hospital as a nurse, she was always touched by the trust given to a nurse during the birth of a child. Soon after the birth, Margaret would be bombarded with questions, from various mothers, on what they could do to prevent having another child to soon. Besides her patients, even though her father disapproved of her being a nurse, the ideals, of generosity and equality, set by her father and the death of her mother along with their struggles financially in daily life were the underlying force that drove her.
Margaret believed that the right to decide and choose when to have children was the key to independence, along with economic stability, for women. In 1902, Margaret married and had three children. They moved to New York City by 1910, where she continued work as a visiting nurse, and joined a circle of intellectual activists. Liberals, Socialists, anarchists, and I. W. W. ‘s would meet in their living room to express their ideals for society. Margaret compares this time, pre-WWI, to the Renaissance where ideas flourished as everyone spoke about “new liberties”.
Margaret joined a Socialist Party in which someone had donated a sum of money towards the interest of women in Socialism. Margaret was chosen to help recruit new members among working women. A woman in the group asked Margaret to help her speak to a handful of women about labor. Margaret did not feel qualified enough to talk about labor but instead spoke to them about health. The women asked so many intimate questions about family life that Margaret told the woman, who asked her to go along with her to speak, about it.
Together they decided to create an article for women to answer some common questions about sex, What Ever Girl Should Know (1912), which would be published in a newsletter named the Call. The article ran for only three or four weeks due to the Comstock laws, which the Post Office was able to enforce. She soon began to write again but was unable to include such information as STDs. Margaret was later asked, during a labor strike, to help with the children. This was Margaret’s first encounter, in all her nursing in the slums, with children in such a ragged and “deplorable” a condition.
Although Margaret tried to help wherever she could, she kept thinking that their must be something more she could do for the poor families who needed some kind of assistance in order to bring them out of the slums. She saw strikes as the need of man to support his family in a healthy condition. Furthermore, Margaret was resenting the fact that women were not being included in this new world everyone was trying to create. She believed people were overlooking the issue of quality when anyone spoke about life.
Margaret began to see her patients as a woman in childbirth but as a person and began to examine their background along with their outlook. Again, Margaret would be bombarded with question on how to prevent pregnancies. Within her circle in the middle class, she had only known about two methods but both placed the responsibility solely on the male. Among this class, “pregnancy was a chronic condition”. As Margaret visited more often, she began to hear stories about miscarriages or deaths, which all, even with some kind of sorrow, was accompanied by relief.
Even of women who died from an abortion or a child who was institutionalized came to them, although sorrowful, as a relief. The turning point for Margaret to become more then just a nurse but try to help create something to prevent pregnancies for women came almost instantly after losing one of her patients who merely months before pleaded with her for the secret to not get pregnant again since it would kill her. Margaret searched for information but even when she found some she would hit a wall which would unable her from passing the information along, the federal Comstock law (1873).
The Comstock law prohibited any form of literature or practice of contraception, or abortion. In 1913, Margaret and her husband moved to Europe hoping to escape the poverty and despair she had seen. In England, Margaret found that the situation was more horrific then in America. Women were walking around with half a shawl around them and the other to cover their babies. Poor women were treated as the lowest of the low and had no help to change their condition.
In France Margaret noticed that peasant women had a limited family size and asked how they were able to do it, to which they replied that there were recipes that were handed down from generations. Frenchwomen regarded the use of such contraception, as their individual right. The peasant women knew no man would marry them unless, she knew how to limit the amount of children she would have, thus lessening any financial burden. The last day in December (1913), Margaret left her husband with her kids to return to America with the handful of recipes she had collected.
It was on this trip Margaret came up with the idea to publish a magazine, called The Woman Rebel, to help the poor women who had no voices. She decided to take on the smaller Comstock state laws and published The Woman Rebel, in 1914. This was published monthly, which advocated birth control. She had three attempts in which she attempted to circulate the magazine that ended up banned due to the Post Office. Margaret was soon served papers to appear in court for violating the Comstock laws and if convicted would face no less then 45 years.
Margaret compiled all her contraceptive information onto a pamphlet called, Family Limitation, as a different approach to getting the information out the low-middle class families in New York. It was printed once, during the night, but unfortunately due to lack of funds, only a hundred thousand copies were created. Margaret was unwilling to risk jail time once she was refused time to organize her case and skipped bail leaving her children. Margaret headed for England under the alias “Bertha Watson”. Once in England, she sought other people who held similar beliefs and supported her in order to build a case.
Margaret met Havelock Ellis, who she became very influenced by due to his beliefs on the importance in female sexuality. Margaret broadened her case by turning to the physiological aspect of birth control. In 1915, Margaret was jailed for thirty days for her distribution of Family Limitation. Shortly after Margaret returned to New York and faced the charges she had ran from. Unfortunately during this time Margaret’s daughter died, the government decided to drop the charges if she said she would never break the Comstock law again, to which she denied.
Margaret then turned to the argument of freedom of speech and not only became a leader in that but was approached to present the new idea about clinics. Margaret based clinics on those seen in Netherlands while she was there. There was no such law against birth control as in America and therefore had several clinics to help women and their family condition through contraception. In 1916, Margaret opened the doors not only to the first birth control clinic in New York, or the country, but also across the world, except for the Netherlands.
Before Margaret opened the door, there was a huge line that rounded the corner. Once inside, she simply explained what contraception was and that abortion was the wrong thing to do, because of not only the health risks but also you are still taking a life. Nine days later Margaret was arrested and the clinic was shut down. Margaret was convicted and spent thirty days in prison. Despite her conviction, the publicity surrounding the Brownsville Clinic caught the attention of many wealthy supporters. Together they started a movement to reform birth control.
New York State ruled that only doctors could run clinics in which contraceptive information could be given out; therefore, in 1923 Margaret opened a doctor-run clinic. The clinic, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, was born and had all female doctors along with social workers, thus becoming a model for all other clinics in America, (Plan Parenthood). In 1929, Margaret founded the National Committee on Federal Legislations for birth Control. Its purpose was to pass a bill so doctors could legally dispense contraceptives, which eventually failed due to the Catholic Church’s influence.
However, the courts did eventually, in 1936, rule that the Comstock laws did not apply to physicians. Through the many struggles during an era of turmoil, Margaret Sanger was a woman who stayed strong in her beliefs and went to great lengths to selflessly help mothers. Margaret Sanger helped in the production of most of the contraception used today, such as: spring-form diaphrams, spermicidal jellies, foam powders, hormonal contraceptives, and even the birth control pill. Compared to secondary sources Margaret Sanger’s autobiography is written in much depth about her life and the obstacles she had to overcome.
As a reader, you are able to intimately know Margaret, at least what she wants you to know. In the autobiography, especially when Margaret describes her home life, she states what the outward appearance is, or in other instances the situation, and then weaves together how she fits not only personally but also emotionally. The autobiography lets the reader view the actions as Margaret saw them. This approach, unlike the secondary source, gave me a greater respect toward her strength not only as an activist but also as a woman.
From a second hand source, you have a distance between the reader and Margaret, although it is mostly composed of facts with no emotion. Also, a secondary source such as Margaret Sanger: Biographical Sketch, did not show how Margaret managed to succeed at her goals yet merely spoke about them and how they influenced the culture today rather then the direct people at that time. In another secondary source, Margaret Sanger, the “mother” of birth control, the text is written much like Margaret’s autobiographies introduction in which there is no meat, input for Margaret, yet just facts.
Margaret’s autobiography opens a mysterious window into the past in which the reader feels her pain, her fears, and becomes part of society as we watch this woman unfold out of her cocoon and take flight. She was able to lightly capture many themes during that era. The only downfall to an autobiography is the reader is unable to see the perspective from the opposing view or the outside events other then from Margaret’s viewpoint. Margaret, not only in the secondary sources but also her autobiography, appeared not to have changed direction of her goal yet took different avenues to achieve it.
Margaret went from wanting free contraceptive devises for all as a Socialist, to clinics in which doctors dispenced contraceptive devices as an Idealist/Feminist. Margaret’s autobiography also extended beyond the movement in America, unlike the other sources, into Europe comparing/contrasting the government and personal ideals towards motherhood. As a reader, I feel compelled to question how Margaret supported her children once she began to travel and the effects it caused on her children, especially when she left her husband just to turn around to protest her charges in New York.
I have trouble seeing how the threat of jail would not affect her decision. Also, Margaret included many areas that I felt were weak, the dead space, who she was running around with after her and her husband separated; although, to historians this information may be useful. As a reader, I enjoyed the different stories about her experiences and interactions with people as a nurse and the court trials. I find it fascinating the society, along with our culture, has change so much.