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Sex, Marriage and Birth Control: The story of Margaret Sanger, American Reformer

Margaret Louse Higgins was the sixth of eleven children born in 1879 in Corning, New York, to a Roman Catholic mother and a father who espoused the atheistic views of Robert Ingersoll. Her mother died at the age of forty-nine…worn out, Margaret believed, by constant childbearing and childrearing on a poverty-level income. The father lived to be over eighty. Thus did the young girl begin to see the injustice that many women lived with and determined that she would someday do what she could to help these suffering wives and mothers.

Education

Margaret received her early education in Corning, New York, followed by three years at Claverack College in the mid-Hudson area. Margaret took a position as a first grade teacher to immigrant children in Little Falls, but felt that she was not “suited by temperament” for such a task. Her mother was, by this time, dying from tuberculosis and Margaret’s father expected her to come home and take care of the household, which she did with a certain amount of resentment. Eventually she was able to get away and entered a new nursing school at White Plains, New York, but her schooling was constantly being interrupted by operations for her tubercular glands.

Marriage to William Sanger

In 1902 Margaret had finished a two-year nursing course and had applied to a three-year degree program when she met a young architect named William Sanger whom she married with misgivings. She felt a sense of betrayal to her sisters, who had staked her to an education and also to her original ambition to “do something” about the conditions many women were forced to endure. She became pregnant almost immediately and delivered, with great difficulty, her son Stuart in 1903. Her doctor sent her to a sanitorium believing that her life was in immediate danger. But Margaret Sanger would not be kept down and left her sick bed to lead a normal life. She and William built a home in Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, New York, and proceeded to have two more children; Grant, born in 1908, and Peggy, in 1910. But Margaret was now beginning to chafe at the restrictions she felt as a mother and they moved to Manhattan where they took an apartment and she began to nurse on the Lower East Side of the city.

Political Activities

Sanger became a member and activist in the International Workers of the World, which was organizing textile workers in the northeast, and made notable achievements in the IWW strikes in 1912-13 in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She, along with activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), directed the evacuation of the children of strikers, thus bringing to the attention of the country the plight of the strikers. She was valuable to William (Big Bill) Haywood who led the IWW, because she did not fit the usual idea of a radical. She was feminine, tiny, the mother of three children and a trained nurse; women could relate to her and they did.

Feminist Activities

Margaret Sanger soon became involved in the radical feminist movement with Emma Goldman and fought for the rights of women to control their own bodies. Sanger soon established herself as an authority on sex education, birth control and venereal diseases. She would go on to become one of the most famous and effective women in the fight for equality of the sexes.

Margaret Sanger died of heart failure in Tucson, Arizona, in 1966.