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Margaret Higgins Sanger

Margaret Sanger
Born September 14, 1879(1879-09-14)
Corning, New York,
United States
Died September 6, 1966 (aged 86)
Tucson, Arizona
United States
Occupation Activist
Religion Atheist
Spouse(s) William Sanger (1902-1913)
James Noah H. Slee (1921-1966)

Margaret Higgins Sanger Slee (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist and the founder of the American Birth Control League.


Early life

Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Roman Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births)[1] before dying of tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Sanger's father, Michael Hennessy Higgins, earned his living "chiseling angels and saints out of huge blocks of white marble or gray granite for tombstones,"[2] and was also an activist for women's suffrage and free public education. Sanger was the sixth of eleven children[3] and spent much of her youth assisting in household chores and care of her younger siblings. Sanger attended Claverack College, a boarding school in Claverack for two years. Her sisters paid her tuition. Sanger returned home in 1896 following her father's request to come home to nurse her mother. Her mother died March 31, 1896. Toward the end of the century the mother of one of her Claverack friends arranged for her to enroll at a nursing program at a hospital in White Plains, an affluent New York suburb. In 1902, Margaret Higgins married architect William Sanger and the couple settled in New York City. Margaret Sanger had developed tuberculosis as a result of the care of her ill mother and her own overwork, and the Sangers moved to Saranac, New York in the Adirondacks, for health reasons. In 1903, she gave birth to her first child, Stuart.

In 1912, after a fire destroyed the home that her husband had designed, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she went to work in the East Side slums of Manhattan. That same year, she also started writing a column for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to women, Sanger repeatedly caused scandal and risked imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.

Sanger felt that in order for women to have more “equal footing” in society and to have physically and mentally healthy lives, they needed to be able to decide when a pregnancy would be most convenient for themselves.[4] In addition, access to birth control would also fulfill a critical psychological need by allowing women to be able to fully enjoy sexual relations, without being burdened by the fear of pregnancy.[5]

Sanger and her husband William moved to New York City in 1910. Now in the big city they became immersed in the radical bohemian culture that was then flourishing in Greenwich Village.[5] The Sangers became involved with local intellectuals, artists, and activists. Some of the better-known acquaintances they were affiliated with were John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge, and Emma Goldman.[5]

As Sanger worked in New York's Lower East Side with poor women who were repeatedly suffering due to frequent childbirth and self induced abortions, she began to speak out for the need of women to become knowledgeable about birth control. While she was working on duty as a nurse, Sanger met Sadie Sachs when she was called to her apartment to assist her after she had become extremely ill due to a self-induced abortion. Afterward, Sachs begged the attending doctor to tell her how she could prevent this from happening again, to which the doctor simply gave the advice to remain abstinent.[4] A few months later, Sanger was once again called back to Sach’s apartment, only this time, Sachs was found dead after yet another self-induced abortion.[4] This was a turning point in Sanger’s life. Sachs’ predicament was not at all uncommon during that time period. [6] Sanger came to believe then, more than ever, that she needed to do something to help desperate women before they were driven to pursue dangerous and illegal abortions.[4]

Margaret separated from her husband William in 1913. In 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight page monthly newsletter promoting contraception, with the slogan "No Gods and No Masters" (and coining the term birth control[7][8]) and that each woman be "the absolute mistress of her own body." She was indicted for violating US postal obscenity laws in August 1914, but jumped bail and fled to England under the alias "Bertha Watson". Sanger returned to the US in October 1915 and her five-year-old daughter, Peggy, died November 6.[9]

In 1915, William Sanger distributed a copy of his wife’s publication, Family Limitations, to a postal worker who was actually working undercover. Because he was found to have been distributing “obscene” material, he was jailed for 30 days while his wife was still in Europe.[5]

Family planning clinics

Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate, and her two sons.

In 1915 Sanger visited a Dutch birth control clinic at which she became convinced that a diaphragm was actually a more effective means of contraception than the suppositories and douches that she had been distributing back in the United States.[5] This realization began the slow introduction of the diaphragm to the United States with Sanger later illegally smuggling them into the country.[5]

In 1916, Sanger published What Every Girl Should Know, which was later widely distributed as one of the E. Haldeman-Julius "Little Blue Books." It provided information about such topics as menstruation and sexuality in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every Mother Should Know. She also launched the monthly periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News and contributed articles on health to the Socialist Party paper, The Call.

On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. It was raided 9 days later by the police. She served 30 days in prison. An initial appeal was rejected but in 1918 an opinion written by Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.

Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921. In 1922 she traveled to Japan to work with Japanese feminist Kato Shidzue promoting birth control; over the next several years, she would return another six times for this purpose. In this year she married her second husband, oil tycoon James Noah H. Slee.

In 1923 under the auspices of the ABCL, she established the Clinical Research Bureau (CRB). Sanger eventually found a loophole in the system when she had learned that physicians were exempt from the law that prohibited the distribution of contraceptive information to women when prescribed for medical reasons.[5] With the help of her wealthy supporters, Sanger was finally able to open the first legal birth control clinic that was staffed entirely by female doctors and social workers. It was the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. (renamed Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in 1940). It received crucial grants from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1924 onward. The grants were made anonymously to avoid public exposure of the Rockefeller name to her agenda. The family also consistently supported her ongoing efforts in regard to population control.[10]

Also in 1923 she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and served as its president until its dissolution in 1937 after birth control, under medical supervision, was legalized in many states. In 1927 Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

Between 1921 and 1926 Sanger received over a million letters from mothers requesting information on birth control.[citation needed] From 1916 on she lectured "in many places—halls, churches, women's clubs, homes, theaters" to "many types of audiences—cotton workers, churchmen, liberals, Socialists, scientists, clubmen, and fashionable, philanthropically minded women."[11]

In 1926 Sanger gave a lecture on birth control to the women's auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey.[12] She described it as "one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing," and added that she had to use only "the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand."[12] Sanger's talk was well-received by the group and as a result "a dozen invitations to similar groups were proffered."[12]

In 1928 Sanger resigned as the president of the ABCL, severing all legal ties, and took full control of the CRB, renaming it the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau.[13] Two years later, she became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. In January 1932 she addressed the New History Society, an organization founded by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and Julie Chanler; this address would later become the basis for an article entitled A Plan for Peace.

In 1937 Sanger became chairperson of the Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications, The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News. From 1939 to 1942 she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America, which included a supervisory role with the Negro Project, alongside Mary Lasker and Clarence Gamble.[14][15] From 1952 to 1959 she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time it was the largest private international "family planning" organization.

In the early 1960s Sanger promoted the use of the newly-available birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa and Asia lecturing and helping to establish clinics.

Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona, 8 days shy of her 87th birthday and only a few months after the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control for married couples in the U.S., the apex of her 50-year agenda.

Sanger's books include Woman and the New Race (1920), The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Happiness in Marriage (1926), My Fight For Birth Control (1931) and an autobiography (1938).

The book, Motherhood in Bondage, is a large compilation of actual letters that were written to Margaret Sanger in desperation by thousands of women who were begging to be given information on how they could prevent unwanted pregnancies for a vast number of different reasons.[16]


Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning her own and society's understanding of women's health and childbirth. She also criticized the censorship of her message about sexuality and contraceptives by the civil and religious authorities as an effort by men to keep women in submission. An atheist, Sanger attacked Christian leaders opposed to her message, accusing them of Obscurantism and insensitivity to women's concerns. Sanger was particularly critical of the lack of awareness of the dangers of and the scarcity of treatment opportunities for venereal disease among women. She claimed that these social ills were the result of the male establishment's intentionally keeping women in ignorance. Sanger also deplored the contemporary absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration of those with infectious diseases such as measles).

Sanger was also an avowed socialist, blaming what she saw as the evils of contemporary capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of young white working-class women. Her very personal views on this issue are evident in the last pages of What Every Girl Should Know.

Psychology of sexuality

While Sanger's understanding of and practical approach to human physiology were progressive for her times, her thoughts on the psychology of human sexuality place her squarely in the pre-Freudian 19th century. Birth control, it would appear, was for her more a means to limit the undesirable side effects of sex than a way of liberating men and women to enjoy it. In What Every Girl Should Know, she wrote: "Every normal man and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse. Men and woman who have it in control and constantly use their brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sexuality, for her, was a kind of weakness, and surmounting it indicated strength.

Sanger was also influenced by psychologist Havelock Ellis, especially in regards to his theories on female sexuality and its importance.[5] His views inspired Sanger to broaden her arguments for birth control claiming that in addition to an already large number of reasons, it would also fulfill a critical psychological need by enabling women to fully enjoy sexual relations, free from the fear of an unwanted pregnancy.[5] After Sanger and her husband divorced later on, Sanger had an affair with Ellis and also reportedly had an intimate relationship with H.G. Wells.[5]

Though sex cells are placed in a part of the anatomy for the essential purpose of easily expelling them into the female for the purpose of reproduction, there are other elements in the sexual fluid which are the essence of blood, nerve, brain, and muscle. When redirected in to the building and strengthening of these, we find men or women of the greatest endurance greatest magnetic power. A girl can waste her creative powers by brooding over a love affair to the extent of exhausting her system, with the results not unlike the effects of masturbation and debauchery.[17]

Early in her writings, Sanger, like many Americans in the early 20th Century, sometimes entertained thoughts on human development that could be considered archaic:

It is said that a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.[18]

Sanger, at that time, wrote that masturbation was unwise or even dangerous:

In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.[19]

For her, masturbation was not just a physical act, it was a mental state:

In the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous forms of masturbation, i.e., mental masturbation, which consists of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain, for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to free the thoughts from lustful pictures.[20]

Eugenics and euthanasia

Sanger was a proponent of negative eugenics, a social philosophy which claims that human hereditary traits can be improved through social intervention. Sanger's eugenic policies ran to an exclusionary immigration policy, free access to birth control methods and full family-planning autonomy for the able-minded, and segregation or sterilization for the profoundly retarded. She expressly denounced euthanasia as a eugenics tool.

In A Plan for Peace (1932), for example, Sanger proposed a congressional department to:

Keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.[21]

And, following:

Apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.[21]

Sanger saw birth control as a means to prevent "dysgenic" children from being born into a disadvantaged life, and dismissed "positive eugenics" (which promoted greater fertility for the "fitter" upper classes) as impractical. Though many leaders in the negative eugenics movement were calling for active euthanasia of the "unfit," Sanger spoke out against such methods. She believed that women with the power and knowledge of birth control were in the best position to produce "fit" children. She rejected any type of eugenics that would take control out of the hands of those actually giving birth.

Taking sharp issue in plain words with certain other[22] eugenicists, however, Margaret Sanger completely rejected the idea of gassing the unfit. 'Nor do we believe,' wrote Sanger in Pivot of Civilization, 'that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.'[23]

Sanger's views thus broke sharply from those proposing Nazi eugenics—an aggressive, and lethal, program. She wrote in a 1933 letter:

"All the news from Germany is sad & horrible, and to me more dangerous than any other war going on any where because it has so many good people who applaud the atrocities & claim its right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews & the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here & is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria.."[24]

Sanger believed the responsibility for birth control should remain in the hands of able-minded individual parents rather than the state, and that self-determining motherhood was the only unshakable foundation for racial betterment; she wrote:

"The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.... We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come 'from within.' That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive, and not imposed from without."[25]

We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother... Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.[26]

She advocated coercion only to prevent the "undeniably feeble-minded" from procreating;

"The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind."[27]

Her first pamphlet read:

It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.[28]

Freedom of speech

Sanger was an avid defender of free speech who was arrested at least eight times for expressing her views in a time when speaking publicly in favor of birth control was illegal. She stated in interviews that she had been influenced by the agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll, who spoke in her hometown when she was 12 years old.[29]

Abortion and related issues

In a chapter from Woman and the New Race (1920) entitled "Contraceptives or Abortion?," Sanger wrote, "While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization."[30]

Roger Streitmatter has claimed that Sanger's opposition to abortion stemmed primarily from a concern for the dangers to the mother rather than moral issues.[31] Nonetheless, in her 1938 autobiography, Sanger notes that her 1916 opposition to abortion was based on the taking of life: "To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun."[32]

In a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, Sanger advised women douche with boric acid and to take quinine to prevent implantation. She wrote further, "No one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable but they will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. This is the only cure for abortions."[33]


Sanger remains a controversial figure. While she is widely credited as a leader of the modern birth control movement, and remains an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements, pro-life groups condemn Sanger's views, attributing her efforts to promote birth control to a desire to "purify" the human race through eugenics, and even to eliminate minority races by placing birth control clinics in minority neighborhoods.[34] Despite allegations of racism,[35] Sanger's work with minorities earned the respect of some civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. [36] In their biographical article about Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood notes:

In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city's health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community's elder statesman, W. E. B. Du Bois.[37]

In 1957, the American Humanist Association named her Humanist of the Year.

A residential building is named after her on the Stony Brook University campus.

Sanger's story has been the subject of numerous movies, including Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story starring Dana Delany and Henry Czerny,[38] Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance (1992)[39]


  1. ^ Steinem, Gloria (1998-04-13). "Time's 100 Most Important People of the Century: Margaret Sanger". Time.,9171,988152,00.html. 
  2. ^ Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 13. ASIN B000HF5P58. 
  3. ^ Cooper, James L.; Cooper, Sheila M. (1973). The Roots of American Feminist Thought. Alvin and Bacon. p. 219. ASIN B002VY8L0O. 
  4. ^ a b c d Viney, Wayne; King, D. A. (2003). A history of psychology: ideas and context. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-33582-9. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chesler, Ellen (1992). Woman of valor: Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement in America. New York: Simon Schuster. ISBN 0-671-60088-5. 
  6. ^ Lader, Lawrence (1975-01-14) [1955]. The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight For Birth Control. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780837170763. 
  7. ^ Galvin, Rachel. Margaret Sanger's "Deeds of Terrible Virtue" Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, September/October 1998, Volume 19/Number 5
  8. ^ "Margaret Sanger Clinic, Statement of Significance". National Historic Landmarks Program. National Park Service. 1993-09-14. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  9. ^ Kennedy, David M. (1970). "3". Birth Control in America. Yale University Press. p. 77. ISBN 0300014953. 
  10. ^ Harr, John Ensor; Johnson, Peter J. (1988). The Rockefeller Century: Three Generations of America's Greatest Family. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 191, 461–62.  — crucial, anonymous Rockefeller grants to the Clinical Research Bureau and support for population control
  11. ^ Sanger, Margaret (2004). The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Courier Dover Publications. p. 366. ISBN 0486434923. 
  12. ^ a b c Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 361, 366–7. 
  13. ^ "MSPP > About > Birth Control Organizations > Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau". 2005-10-18. Retrieved 2009-10-07. 
  14. ^ Birth Control Federation of America, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project
  15. ^ "Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project". Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter (Margaret Sanger Papers Project) (28). 2002-11-14. Retrieved 2009-01-25. 
  16. ^ Sanger, Margaret (2000). Motherhood in bondage. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press. ISBN 0-8142-0837-1. 
  17. ^ Sanger 1920, p. 46
  18. ^ Sanger 1920, p. 47
  19. ^ Sanger 1920, pp. 39–40
  20. ^ Sanger 1920, pp. 39
  21. ^ a b Sanger, "A Plan For Peace", Birth Control Review, April 1932, p. 106
  22. ^ In William Robinson's book, Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control (Practical Eugenics), Robinson wrote, 'The best thing would be to gently chloroform these [unfit] children or give them a dose of potassium cyanide.'"
  23. ^ Black (The War Against the Weak), 251.
  24. ^ "The Sanger-Hitler Equation", Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, #32, Winter 2002/3. New York University Department of History
  25. ^ Margaret Sanger. "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda." Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5
  26. ^ Sanger, "Birth Control and Racial Betterment." The Birth Control Review, 3(2), 11-12
  27. ^ Sanger, quoted in Charles Valenza: "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" Family Planning Perspectives, January-February 1985, page 44.
  28. ^ Sanger, What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, 1915, p. 140
  29. ^ "The Child Who Was Mother to a Woman" from The New Yorker, April 11, 1925, page 11.
  30. ^ Margaret Sanger (1920). "Contraceptives or Abortion?". Woman and the New Race. 
  31. ^ Streitmatter, Rodger (2001). Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-231-12249-7. 
  32. ^ Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 217. 
  33. ^ Sanger, Margaret (1917). Family Limitations. p. 16. 
  34. ^ Marshall, Robert G.; Donovan, Chuck (October 1991). Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood. Fort Collins, CO: Ignatius Press. ISBN 0898703530; ISBN 978-0898703535. 
  35. ^ "Minority Anti-Abortion Movement Gains Steam". NPR. September 24, 2007. Retrieved 2009-01-17. 
  36. ^ Planned Parenthood Federation of America (2004). "The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Upon Accepting the Planned Parenthood Sanger Award". 
  37. ^ "The Truth about Margaret Sanger". Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 
  38. ^ "'Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story (1995)'". IMDb (The Internet Movie Database). 1995-03-08. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  39. ^ "Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance (1992)". The New York Times. 1992. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 

See also



  • Black, Edwin (2003) [2003]. The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York City, NY: Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-258-7. 
  • Chesler, Ellen (1992). Woman of valor: Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement in America. New York: Simon Schuster. ISBN 0-671-60088-5. 
  • Cox, Vicki (2004). Margaret Sanger: Rebel For Women's Rights. Chelsea House Publications. p. 136. ISBN 0791080307. 
  • Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body,Woman's Right:A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976. 
  • Gray, Madeline (1979). Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control. New York City, NY: Richard Marek Publishers. p. 280. ISBN 0-399-90019-5. 
  • Kennedy, David (2008). Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. ACLS Humanities. p. 340. ISBN 1597404276. 
  • Sanger, Margaret (1920) (PDF). What Every Girl Should Know. Springfield, Illinois: United Sales Co.. 
  • Sanger, Margaret (1938). An Autobiography. New York, NY: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1015-8. 
  • Sanger, Margaret (2000). Motherhood in bondage. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press. ISBN 0-8142-0837-1. 
  • Viney, Wayne; King, D. A. (2003). A history of psychology: ideas and context. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-33582-9. 



Further reading

Works by Sanger

Mike Wallace video interview

Mike Wallace interviews Margaret Sanger about over-population, the Catholic Church, morality, and, most importantly, why she became an advocate for birth control, Sept. 21, 1957. Hosted at the Harry Ransom Center. [3]

Works by other authors


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist.



Woman and the New Race

New York: Brentanos Publishers, 1922.
  • Usually this desire [for family limitation] has been laid to economic pressure... It has asserted itself among the rich and among the poor, among the intelligent and the unintelligent. It has been manifested in such horrors as infanticide, child abandonment and abortion.
    • Chapter 2, "Women's Struggle for Freedom"
  • It is apparent that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide.
    • Chapter 2, "Women's Struggle for Freedom"
  • Thus we see that the second and third children have a very good chance to live through the first year. Children arriving later have less and less chance, until the twelfth has hardly any chance at all to live twelve months. [npg] This does not complete the case, however, for those who care to go farther into the subject will find that many of those who live for a year die before they reach the age of five. [npg] Many, perhaps, will think it idle to go farther in demonstrating the immorality of large families, but since there is still an abundance of proof at hand, it may be offered for the sake of those who find difficulty in adjusting old-fashioned ideas to the facts. The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it. The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members.
    • Chapter 5, "The Wickedness of Creating Large Families."
  • The basic freedom of the world is woman's freedom. A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of that bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.
    • Chapter 8, "Birth Control; A Parents' Problem or Woman's?"
  • Woman must have her freedom; the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she shall be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man's attitude may be, that problem is hers; and before it can be his, it is hers alone. [npg] She goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it. That right to decide imposes upon her the duty of clearing the way to knowledge by which she may make and carry out the decision. [npg] Birth control is woman's problem. The quicker she accepts it as hers and hers alone, the quicker will society respect motherhood. The quicker, too, will the world be made a fit place for her children to live.
    • Chapter 8, "Birth Control; A Parents' Problem or Woman's?"
  • While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.
    • Chapter 10, "Contraceptives or Abortion?"

The Pivot of Civilization

  • [Charity] conceals a stupid cruelty, because it is not courageous enough to face unpleasant facts. Aside from the question of the unfitness of many women to become mothers, aside from the very definite deterioration in the human stock that such programs would inevitably hasten, we may question its value even to the normal though unfortunate mother. For it is never the intention of such philanthropy to give the poor over-burdened and often undernourished mother of the slum the opportunity to make the choice herself, to decide whether she wishes time after time to bring children into the world. It merely says 'Increase and multiply: We are prepared to help you do this.' Whereas the great majority of mothers realize the grave responsibility they face in keeping alive and rearing the children they have already brought into the world, the maternity center would teach them how to have more. The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth. ...Such philanthropy, as Dean Inge has so unanswerably pointed out, is kind only to be cruel, and unwittingly promotes precisely the results most deprecated. It encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.
    • Chapter 5, "The Cruelty of Charity"
  • In passing, we should here recognize the difficulties presented by the idea of 'fit' and 'unfit.' Who is to decide this question? The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind. But among the writings of the representative Eugenists one cannot ignore the distinct middle-class bias that prevails.
    • Chapter 8, "Dangers of Cradle Competition" (also quoted in Charles Valenza, "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" Family Planning Perspectives, January-February 1985, page 44.)
  • Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all—that the wealth of individuals and of states is being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization.
    • Chapter 8, "Dangers of Cradle Competition"
  • Our 'overhead' expense in segregating the delinquent, the defective and the dependent, in prisons, asylums and permanent homes, our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying ... demonstrate our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism. No industrial corporation could maintain its existence upon such a foundation. Yet hardheaded 'captains of industry,' financiers who pride themselves upon their cool-headed and keen-sighted business ability are dropping millions into rosewater philanthropies and charities that are silly at best and vicious at worst. In our dealings with such elements there is a bland maladministration and misuse of huge sums that should in all righteousness be used for the development and education of the healthy elements of the community.
    • Chapter 12, "Woman and the Future"

Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography

  • ...we explained simply what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way — no matter how early it was performed it was taking a life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way — it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.
  • Eugenics, which had started long before my time, had once been defined as including free love and prevention of conception... Recently it had cropped up again in the form of selective breeding.
    • Chapter 30, "Now Is the Time for Converse", p. 374.
  • I accepted one branch of this philosophy, but eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house built upon sands. It could not stand against the furious winds of economic pressure which had buffeted into partial or total helplessness a tremendous proportion of the human race. The eugenists wanted to shift the birth control emphasis from less children for the poor to more children for the rich. We went back of that and sought first to stop the multiplication of the unfit. This appeared the most important and greatest step towards race betterment.
    • Chapter 30, "Now Is the Time for Converse", pp. 374-375.
  • Always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing. . . Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand. [npg] In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered. The conversation went on and on, and when we were finally through it was too late to return to New York.
    • Chapter 29, "While the Doctors Consult", p. 366.

Birth Control Review

  • As an advocate of birth control I wish ... to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the 'unfit' and the 'fit,' admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation.... On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.
    • "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", October 1921, page 5.
  • Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • ...thousands of little children occupy sleeping quarters with parents and boarders whose every act is visible to all. Morality indeed! Society is much like the ostrich with its head in the sand. It will not look at facts and face the responsibility of its own stupidity.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • Our laws force women into celibacy on the one hand, or abortion on the other. [npg] Both conditions are declared by eminent medical authorities to be injurious to health.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • Has knowledge of birth control, so carefully guarded and so secretly practiced by the women of the wealthy class – and so tenaciously withheld from the working women – brought them misery? Rather, has it not promoted greater happiness, greater freedom, greater prosperity and more harmony among them? The women who have this knowledge are the women who have been free to develop, free to enjoy in its best sense, and free to advance the interests of the community.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • All of our problems are the result of overbreeding among the working class, and if morality is to mean anything at all to us, we must regard all the changes which tend toward the uplift and survival of the human race as moral.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its general, though prudent, practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race.
    • "Morality and Birth Control", February-March, 1918, pp. 11,14.
  • It is a noteworthy fact that not one of the women to whom I have spoken so far believes in abortion as a practice; but it is principle for which they are standing. They also believe that the complete abolition of the abortion law will shortly do away with abortions, as nothing else will.
    • Birth Control Review, December 1920
  • Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.
    • "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", October 1921, page 5.
  • The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.
    • "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", October 1921, page 5.
  • ...give dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.[1]
    • "A Plan for Peace", April 1932, pp. 107-108

Other published sources

  • [We propose to] hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. And we do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.
    • Commenting on the 'Negro Project' in a letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, December 10, 1939. - Sanger manuscripts, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts. Also described in Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.
    • (Note: There is a different date circulated, e.g. Oct. 19, 1939; but Dec. 10 is the correct date of Mrs. Sanger's letter to Mr. Gamble.)
  • The third group [of society] are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.
    • Speech quoted in "Birth Control: What It Is, How It Works, What It Will Do." The Proceedings of the First American Birth Control Conference. Held at the Hotel Plaza, New York City, November 11-12, 1921. Published by the Birth Control Review, Gothic Press, pages 172 and 174.
  • But during all the long years this matter has been discussed, advocated, refuted, the people themselves—poor people especially—were blindly, desperately practicing family limitation, just as they are practicing it today. To them birth control does not mean what it does to us. To them it has meant the most barbaric methods. It has meant the killing of babies—infanticide,—abortions,—in one crude way or another.
    • My Fight for Birth Control, 1931, page 133.


  • Woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that woman in her which struggles for expression.
  • Anyone, no matter how ignorant, how diseased mentally or physically, how lacking in all knowledge of children, seemed to consider he or she had the right to become a parent.
  • It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them.
  • Mothers! Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them? Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent! Safe, Harmless Information can be obtained of trained Nurses.
    • (Handbill advertising Sanger's first clinic, Brooklyn, New York, October 1916)


  • Eugenic sterilization is an urgent need ... We must prevent multiplication of this bad stock.
    • Ernst Rudin, Birth Control Review, April 1933.
  • More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue in birth control.
    • Editors of American Medicine in a review of Sanger's article "Why Not Birth Control Clinics in America?" published in Birth Control Review, May 1919
  • The mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.
    • W.E.B. DuBois, Birth Control Review, June 1932. Quoted by Sanger in her proposal for the "Negro Project."
  • Blacks, soldiers, and Jews are a menace to the race.
    • Unknown source. Often cited as Birth Control Review, April 1933.
  • Colored people are like human weeds and are to be exterminated.
    • Unknown source, attributed by Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN) [2]
  • The marriage-bed is the most degenerating influence of the social order.
    • Alice Groff, "The Marriage Bed", The Woman Rebel, V.I No. 5, p.39 (edited by Margaret Sanger)
  • Birth control appeals to the advanced radical because it is calculated to undermine the authority of the Christian churches. I look forward to seeing humanity free someday of the tyranny of Christianity no less than Capitalism.
    • Unknown source, often attributed to The Woman Rebel.

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