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Margaret Sanger's "Deeds of Terrible Virtue"

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

"It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue." – The Woman Rebel

"I would strike out -- I would scream from the housetops. I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. I would be heard. No matter what it should cost. I would be heard," wrote Margaret Sanger after one of her patients died of a self-induced abortion in 1913. Sanger did make the world listen to her, as she fought for half a century to legalize birth control and improve conditions for women.

Margaret Sanger, a new ninety-minute historical documentary, recreates the world of Margaret Sanger. The story of her life touches on the main social and scientific currents that sparked a sexual revolution and electrified American society out of its waning Victorian Age. Co-produced by independent filmmakers Bruce Alfred and Karen Thomas, the film delves into the complexities of Sanger’s personal life and explores her many shifts in social and political alliances as she strove to legitimize contraception. "Margaret Sanger lived in a time that was propelling people to make change," says Alfred, who also directed the film. "She was one of those people who wanted to make her own change, and went about doing it in her own way." The documentary combines original footage, photographs, period music, on-camera interviews, and dramatic readings by Blair Brown, Derek Jacobi, Matthew Broderick, and others, to present a vivid portrait of this determined woman.

Sanger emerges as a complex, contradictory human being with enormous drive and vision, rather than merely the single- dimensional "saint" or "heretic" she has been labeled. "Margaret Sanger remains a lightning rod for controversy," says Alfred. "Some have made her the poster child for everything that’s wrong with birth control. This film, however, does not try to prove a point or a point of view. We’re looking at the woman as part of history, and the person she was in the times in which she lived -- she didn’t work in a vacuum."

Born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York, Sanger was the sixth of eleven children. Her mother, a devout Irish Catholic, was pregnant eighteen times in twenty- two years. Her health was always fragile because of tuberculosis compounded by many pregnancies.

"Always say what you mean. And always think for yourself," Sanger’s father, Michael Higgins, taught her. A political radical, Higgins gave Sanger books about strong women and told her stories of Helen of Troy, Ruth, Cleopatra, and Poppaea, supplying her with what she later called "ammunition about the historical background of the importance of women."

Sanger wished to become a doctor, but because medical school was too expensive, she enrolled in a rigorous nursing training program. Her studies were interrupted twice -- once temporarily, by the onset of tuberculosis, and the second time permanently, by her marriage in 1902 to William Sanger, a socialist and aspiring artist.

By 1910, the Sangers had three children and were living in New York City. Mrs. Sanger had fought against tuberculosis and twice survived doctors’ predictions of her imminent death.

"Deep in my soul, I couldn’t suppress my own dissatisfaction. After my long ordeal with disease it seemed to me this quiet withdrawal into tame domesticity was bordering on spiritual stagnation," Sanger wrote. To ease the family financial situation, she became a midwife/nurse and worked with immigrants on the Lower East Side. There she witnessed the conditions that workers, reformers, and intellectuals were fighting to change: low wages, extreme poverty, homeless or abandoned children, and inaccessible health care.

Because of the scarcity of birth control and the strain each additional child placed on already desperate families, women often attempted home abortions by using sharp objects or homemade remedies. Alexander Sanger, Sanger’s grandson and a birth control activist, explains: "The most popular methods were folk remedies such as laxatives and quinine, douches, and cocoa butter solutions. Many douching solutions, such as Lysol, contained caustic chemicals that caused irritation or burns."

"Pregnancy was a chronic condition among the women of this class," Margaret Sanger said. "Suggestions as to what to do for a girl who was ‘in trouble’ or a married woman who was ‘caught’ passed from mouth to mouth -- herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downstairs, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, shoe-hooks." She frequently nursed women whose cheap abortions caused severe bleeding or death. "The menace of another pregnancy hung like a sword over nearly every woman I met," she said.

Birth control was not an option for the women Sanger treated. The Comstock Law, mirrored by "little Comstock Laws" in many states, prohibited the mailing or advertisement of "any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception." Anthony Comstock, the law’s designer, was determined to outlaw "Satan’s Traps": contraception and other "obscene" materials.

Before she focused her energies on advocating birth control, Sanger got a taste of political agitation through the labor movement. In 1912, she joined the International Workers of the World, which was leading textile mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to strike for higher wages. The next spring, Sanger testified before Congress about the strike and made national headlines. She applied her experiences with the labor movement and the media to her own concerns about reaching women in need of health and contraception information. Sanger began writing a column in The Call, a socialist newspaper. "What Every Girl Should Know" dealt openly with all manner of sexual issues and was quickly banned under the Comstock laws for discussing venereal disease -- deemed obscene subject matter. Challenging Anthony Comstock attracted publicity and earned Sanger support from free speech advocates; eventually she was allowed to resume writing for The Call.

When one of her patients died of a self-induced abortion in 1913, Sanger left her nursing career. "It was like an illumination….There was only one thing to be done: call out, start the alarm, set the heather on fire! Awaken the womanhood of America to free the motherhood of the world!" Sanger wrote. "I resolved that women should have knowledge of contraception. They have every right to know about their own bodies."

Sanger decided that a socialist revolution was not the most effective way to improve conditions for women. Esther Katz, director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University, says in the film that Sanger was impressed by Emma Goldman’s theory that to "liberate women from repeated pregnancy was to liberate them from poverty. Women and children [carry] the heaviest burden of our ruthless economic system," wrote Emma Goldman in 1900, "It [is] a mockery to expect them to wait until the social revolution in order to right justice."

Inspired by Goldman’s Mother Earth, Sanger began her own newspaper, The Woman Rebel, in 1914. The Woman Rebel’s motto read, "NO GODS. NO MASTERS," and each issue proclaimed, "A Woman’s Duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention." Written for working-class women, the paper promised to delineate precisely how to avoid conception through "birth control," a term Sanger and Otto Bobsein coined to avoid the fashionable circumlocutions of "family limitation" and "voluntary motherhood."

After six monthly issues of The Woman Rebel, Sanger was indicted for obscenity.

Instead of facing trial and a potential thirty-year prison sentence, she fled the country. Without pausing to bid her children or her estranged husband goodbye, she took a train to Canada, assumed the alias of Bertha Watson, and obtained a visa for England, where she lived for a year.

In 1915, the attention of the American public refocused on Sanger and her cause. Within weeks of each other, Anthony Comstock died and Sanger’s husband was sentenced to a thirty-day prison sentence for handing out one of Margaret’s pamphlets. Realizing the opportunity for publicity, Margaret returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

As she prepared for her trial, Sanger was devastated by the death of her four-year-old daughter. When Sanger had a publicity photo taken of herself with her two sons, the demure portrait of a mother in mourning garnered public sympathy and provided an excuse for the government, which was already wary of bringing further publicity to sex theories and birth control, to drop its charges against Sanger.

Determined to continue disseminating birth control information, Sanger went on a speaking tour of the country. She shrewdly tailored her lectures to her audience: to working-class women she spoke about disparity in access to birth control; to middle- class women she argued for women’s rights; and to all she denounced the medical profession for holding back information about contraception and called for doctors to join her cause.

Wherever Sanger spoke, she provoked controversy and debate. "Anyone who talked about sex in public was breaking a taboo," explains historian Nancy Cott in the film. "While reliable birth control was welcomed by some, others saw it as throwing a tremendous wrench into the social structure."

Sanger opened the first American birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on October 16, 1916. The clinic was staffed by Sanger, her sister Ethyl Byrne, a registered nurse, and two other women; no doctors would involve themselves in her enterprise. The clinic was in direct violation of laws prohibiting the distribution of contraception by anyone outside the medical profession and for any purpose other than disease prevention.

In the clinic’s ten days of operation, several hundred women received counseling, information on how to prevent pregnancy, and condoms and pessaries (as diaphragms were called). Women came from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and stood in lines that wound around the block. On October 26, the vice squad raided the clinic, arresting Sanger and the women working with her. The women were tried and sentenced to thirty days in prison. Following the example of the British Suffragists, Byrne went on a hunger strike. Her brutal force-feeding made front-page headlines even during the escalating hostilities of World War I.

From 1916 onward, the Catholic Church made a concerted effort to thwart Sanger’s campaign. Catholic groups shut down Sanger’s speeches, got her detained for handing out copies of Family Limitation, and in 1919 American bishops wrote a joint pastoral letter explicitly prohibiting contraception. In Washington, D.C., the Catholic Church set up an office to organize church members and lobby politicians.

Some of the opposition backfired. Sanger planned a meeting in the New York City Town Hall in November 1921 to address the question "Birth Control: Is It Moral?" Before the meeting began, New York City policemen closed down the building and arrested Sanger. The shutdown had been orchestrated by Archbishop Patrick Hayes, which outraged free speech activists, the media, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The New Republic wrote that the incident was "socially insane. . . . The last resort of authoritarianism."

The commotion over the Town Hall meeting provided optimal advertising for Sanger. When the rescheduled meeting finally took place, three thousand people had to be turned away at the door because of limited space.

Sanger frequently reinvented her image, aligning herself with socialists, sex theorists, lobbyists, eugenicists, international birth control advocates, feminists, and suffragists, harnessing the momentum of these movements to drive her fight for contraception forward.

Although the women’s movement seemed a natural partner for Sanger’s cause, her approach differed radically from that of her feminist and suffragist contemporaries. The women’s movement maintained that sex needed to be subjugated and that equality was dependent upon the diminishing of the importance of sex, so that women could escape the role of "sex slave." Birth control was anathema even to conflicting factions within the movement: some thinkers denounced marriage and sex entirely, in favor of pursuing a career; others regarded motherhood as the highest vocation and concluded that birth control insulted their femininity.

Once women won the right to vote in August 1920, the movement lost its cohesion, and the legalization of birth control did not provide an appealing cause to rally around. Carrie Chapman Catt, a Suffragist leader, sounded a Victorian note when she told Sanger, "Your reform is too narrow to appeal to me and too sordid."

"The American woman, in my estimation, is sound asleep," Sanger wrote in a fury. "Suffrage was won too easily and too early in this country."

Unable to sway the women’s movement to her cause, Sanger turned to the most powerful advocacy group of her time: the eugenicists. The documentary deals with this shift in strategy objectively, neither justifying nor condemning it. "Sanger was always looking for a vehicle to propel her cause forward," Alfred says. "Sanger had what we call the ‘PR know-how’ to get her cause linked with bigger issues that would keep it in the public view."

Eugenic theory posited that the human race would be improved "by encouraging high reproductive rates in classes deemed socially desirable…and by discouraging reproduction amongst the undesirables." Racists exploited these quasi-scientific theories for several decades, culminating in the eugenic rationale of the German fascist movement in the early 1930s. But even as early as the 1920s, the United States had passed forced sterilization laws in twenty states, eugenics was taught in universities, and many leading reformers and thinkers were advocates of eugenics.

Margaret Sanger promoted access to birth control for all women, regardless of class, arguing that women should be able to restrict their family size voluntarily. Eager to make use of the popularity of eugenics, she wrote The Pivot of Civilization in 1922, in which she espoused decreasing the birth rate of "mentally and physically defective" people. Linking birth control to eugenics shifted Sanger’s movement from what David Kennedy, author of Birth Control in America, calls a "radical program of social disruption" to a "conservative program of social control."

After having lived apart for six years, Margaret and William Sanger finally divorced in 1921. In 1922, Sanger made an advantageous marriage to James Henry Noah Slee, the millionaire manufacturer of Three-in-One Oil. With his help, she smuggled diaphragms into the United States, and for a time Slee used one of his factories to produce spermicidal jelly.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, Sanger intensified her lobbying in Washington, convinced that she would succeed if she concentrated on integrating birth control into New Deal programs. She argued that birth control would reduce the relief rolls and alleviate the economic devastation of the Depression by allowing married women to work.

Sanger and her lobbyists worked for six legislative sessions without results. "Men are men and senators are cowards," Sanger declared.

Her lawyer, Morris Ernst, counseled Sanger to direct her efforts not toward changing the law, but rather toward reinterpreting the ban on the importation of contraception. In 1932, she began a test case. Four years later, Judge Augustus Hand ruled that doctors could prescribe birth control not only to prevent disease, but for the "general well-being" of their patients.

The test case succeeded primarily because Sanger managed to disassociate birth control from obscenity and ally it with science and medicine.

The two groups Sanger had created, the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, were fused into the Birth Control Federation of America in 1942, with Sanger as honorary chairman. Sanger was appalled when the organization chose to discard "birth control," the term she had popularized, and renamed itself Planned Parenthood, judging "birth control" too controversial.

Sanger saw birth control reform as an international movement. In her first trip to Japan in 1922, she had met birth control activist Shidzue Kato. The two remained lifelong friends and colleagues, and together they established the first birth control clinic outside the West. Sanger was hailed as a savior by Japan, a country ridden with poverty, unemployment, and overpopulation. She became the first foreign woman to address the Japanese national legislature in 1954.

Sanger traveled to India in 1935 and met with Mahatma Gandhi. Although Gandhi was not swayed by Sanger’s views and maintained that his followers must "transcend carnal lust," Sanger’s lecture tour inspired the opening of birth control clinics throughout India. When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared in 1959 that $10 million would go to family planning in India, Sanger was at his side.

Sanger was convinced that an oral contraceptive could be developed "that could be taken like aspirin." With money supplied by Suffragist leader and longtime friend Katharine McCormick, Sanger funded the research of Gregory Goodwin Pincus, a geneticist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. When Pincus unveiled the Pill in 1959, he called it the "product of [Sanger’s] pioneering resolution."

"Modern woman is at last free as a man is free," author and Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce proclaimed upon the release of the Pill, "to dispose of her own body, to earn her living, to pursue the improvement of her mind, to try a successful career."

Having survived several heart attacks by 1965, Sanger was in very weak health and dependent on painkillers, sleeping pills, and alcohol when she received the news that her lifelong mission was achieved: The Supreme Court had ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that "the use of contraception is a constitutional right." Friends propped Sanger up in her bed, and she celebrated by drinking champagne through a straw.

Margaret Sanger died on September 6, 1966, and was buried in Fishkill, NY, beside Noah Slee. Upon her death, H.G. Wells declared, "When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine."

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Funding Information

Cobblestone Films received $750,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce Margaret Sanger, which will air on PBS on October 12.