Margaret Sanger’s parents came to the USA in the mid-19th Century. They were both of Irish descent. Her father joined the Civil War and her mother escaped the potato famine. Her mother had 18 pregnancies, 11 that were live. Margaret trained as a nurse. She married, had three children and settled down to normal family life. But a fire destroyed her home and she moved to New York City in 1911. She became involved in radical politics in the Bohemian Greenwich Village. She wrote frank articles on family planning and birth control, and polite society was outraged.
She saw the link between birth control and empowering working class women and published a magazine called “The Woman Rebel.” She also published a pamphlet called Family Limitation that detailed birth control methods in 1914. She was prosecuted under anti contraception laws and fled to England. She witnessed the horrors that women, many poor, would go through with too many pregnancies and the extreme dangers of back street abortions.
In 1915 Margaret promoted birth control through diaphragms. The USA was a lot less liberal than Europe and she was sentenced to time in the workhouse with her sister Ethel Byrne. Ethel went on hunger strike and was force fed. Margaret was told to promise not to break the law and refused. As a result, In 1918 Doctors were allowed to prescribe contraception and she had started a new movement.
Margaret promoted birth control across the country and travelled worldwide doing research. By the 1930’s, contraception was legalised in the USA. She was a big advocate of the rights of Black Americans, and wisely reasoned that they should be led by their ministers. She was never an advocate of abortion, as her enemies stated. But she wanted to avoid the horrors of back street abortions. She was also criticised for eugenics. She said that those that were too poor or unfit for child rearing should be prevented from doing so.
In the USA, in the 1950’s, there were scientists seeking to manipulate women’s hormones to produce contraception. This would eventually lead to the oral contraceptive. The male dominated pharmaceutical companies were not interested, but Margaret ensured the money as available and encouraged the movement to lobby for a change in the law to allow the new drugs. By 1961 the first drug, Enovid was on the market.
The potential change to a woman’s life was enormous. She could control her biology now. She could choose a career, instead of having to get married. She could have at least 50% control of her sex life. A new world of freedom was opening up.
In the 1960’s a new permissive society was fuelled by these new drugs. But the hopes and dreams of the mid-60’s turned to ashes by the early 1970’s as society started to self-destruct.
Perhaps, if we are to build on Margaret’s legacy we need to build a society that enables humanity to make the best use of the freedom’s she fought for.