Sanger

On Friday I had committed to doing a talk at work about Margaret Sanger. I had chosen the month of October because that was the month, 100 years ago, that she and her sister Ethel Byrne opened the first Birth Control clinic in Brooklyn, New York.  On Thursday night the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts held a gathering in Brookline to do the same. The timing was perfect.

Although I had read many books, both her own and those of biographers, I had missed this one book, Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman. It turned out that the author was the speaker at the event. Everyone received a copy, signed if you wanted that.  I realized how much I knew about her life (compared to the others in the room), and the many contradictions that are not uncommon when you study Great Leaders. Terrible Virtue is historical fiction and a great read. It does a great job showing Margaret Sanger in all her complexity.

Although not the first in the world (1880 saw the first birth control clinic opened in Holland), it was the first time that poor American women (mostly immigrants) could go to a place and ask for advice on how to avoid repeat pregnancies.  Margaret’s mother herself had had 18 pregnancies in 25 years.

On the clinic’s opening day more than 150 women lined up, around the corner of Amboy Street, to learn about the secrets of controlling one’s fertility. As a visiting nurse Margaret Sanger had visited the crowded, smelly and cramped tenements of the lower East Side of New York City, and had seen the consequences of unbridled fertility, and the disastrous consequences of botched abortions. The women, haggard, stretched to their limits, trying to care for their many children, begged her for information. They knew little or nothing about their own bodies and the physiology of reproduction. Neither did their husbands.

Women of means knew how to limit their fertility. They could find and pay for doctors who were willing to perform abortions in secret, or provide modern contraceptives such as the pessary, sponges or condoms. Condoms were only available to men to avoid spreading disease. For low income families the cost of a condom was out of reach. Even if they could get condoms, the women laughed at the idea that they could get their men to use them.

The Comstock Laws of 1873 forbade anyone to talk or write about methods to prevent conception (and of course to abort). The punishment was jail or fines, a risk many in the medical establishment did not want to take.

Margaret Sanger challenged the outdated laws made by men to protect men. Over a lifetime (1876-1966) she changed the sexual and reproductive landscape, not just in the United States. The birth control movement was taking root around the world. Family planning associations were founded in many countries around the world in the immediate post World War II period. At the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood in Bombay in 1952, the participants created the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which remains the leading global advocate for family planning.

1 Response to “Sanger”


  1. 1 Isabella Bates November 9, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    This post seems particularly relevant on this day after our election. Birth control and the possibility of a legal abortion have been in the fore front of liberation for women in the USA and other places around to world where it is available. We must not go backwards on this. So we take a deep breath and get to work again.


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