The Woman Who Invented Birth Control
The clinic she opened is now Planned Parenthood.
Our Unsung Heroes series brings history’s unknown badasses out of the footnotes and into the spotlight.
Women’s reproductive health is currently under attack; the new administration promises to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that will cripple the healthcare provider and make it impossible for them to continue providing important services like STI testing and cancer screenings for the often low-income patients who frequent the facility.
Women have never had as many reproductive freedoms as we have right now and we owe much of our good fortune to Margaret Sanger, a women’s health pioneer, advocate and complicated feminist.
Are you there birth control? It’s me, Margaret Sanger
In 1879, Margaret Louise Higgins was born in Corning, New York to working class, Irish Catholic parents. Her family was large; her mother delivered eleven children and suffered seven miscarriages. When Margaret was nineteen years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Margaret blamed her father for her mother’s untimely passing, saying “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.”
After leaving home, Margaret attended school in the Catskills, before becoming a nurse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, she was quickly exposed to to poor women, forced to spend five dollars on a back-alley abortion. Confronted with this ugly reality, Margaret shifted her focus away from nursing and towards birth control and family planning advocacy.
The Comstock Act
Margaret grew up under the shadow of the Comstock Act, a federal law passed in 1873 that criminalized the distribution of obscene materials, including pornography, sex toys and contraceptives. The statute made it illegal to circulate these materials through the US Postal Service, but in other areas of the country where the legislation was even more prohibitive, anti-obscenity acts made it so that even possessing contraceptives was punishable by law.
Margaret famously believed that women’s rights were inextricably linked to motherhood, saying
“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.”
And so, she made it her lifelong mission to educate women and lobby for legal, affordable and easily accessible methods of contraception.
In 1912, Margaret first began publishing her thoughts about women and sexuality in a column called “What Every Girl Should Know.” Two years later, she launched “The Woman Rebel” a feminist publication aimed at educating women about their contraceptive options. It was around this time that Margaret first coined the term “birth control.” Margaret’s dissemination of information directly defied the Comstock Act and she was forced to flee to England to avoid a prison sentence.
After returning to the states in 1915, Margaret opened the first birth control center in the country; she was arrested nine days later. In 1921, she opened the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood.
The many beliefs of Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger was famously pro-woman, but she was not necessarily pro-abortion. In a paper published in 1932 called “The Pope’s Position on Birth Control,” Margaret writes “Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious.”
In fact, the organization Margaret helped establish, Planned Parenthood, didn’t begin offering abortions until 1973, four years after her death and only after the act became legal through Roe v. Wade.
Margaret’s focus was on providing safe and accessible options for female birth control. Diaphragms were invented in Europe in the late 1900’s but did not become available in the States until 1938, when the federal ban on birth control was lifted. What Margaret really wanted was a “magic pill” a device she had been dreaming about since 1912.
In 1951, she found an ally in Gregory Pincus, an expert in human reproduction, and the two collaborated to create such a pill. Nine years later, the first oral contraception, Envoid, was approved by the FDA.
For Margaret Sanger, the ‘60s were the perfect culmination to a career spent advocating for women’s rights. In 1964, the Comstock Law was overturned, and a year later, Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that contraception was a constitutional right. Margaret died the following year, in 1966, having finally accomplished her goal of making birth control both legal and accessible.
A complicated woman
In an article for Rewire, writer Imani Gandi writes that “Margaret Sanger was a complicated woman living in a complicated time.” And its true that her supporters and detractors have thrust upon her undue levels of both worship and condemnation.
Margaret Sanger was a flawed feminist. A product of her time and environment, Margaret espoused many beliefs that would horrify us today. She aligned herself with eugenicists and notably said that the purpose of birth control was “to create a race of thoroughbreds.” She advocated for forced sterilization for the mentally ill and gave speeches to anyone who would listen, including a talk at a KKK rally in 1926.
But Gandi argues that Margaret’s critics, especially those who paint her as a racist intent on systematically eliminating Black people, are rewriting her message to fit their own. Margaret may have harbored racist sentiments, as were common in the United States in the early 1900’s, but she also worked tirelessly to make birth control available to black women.
At the time, clinics were legally required to adhere to the laws of segregation, so Margaret opened black clinics staffed by black doctors and nurses. In 1939, she launched the Negro Project, an initiative aimed at making birth control accessible to black women in the South.
Margaret Sanger was not perfect, but dismissing her life’s work out of hand does a disservice to women. Her mission statement, boiled down to its most essential elements was this: women are deserving of complete autonomy over our bodies and sexualities.
And today more than ever, we should fight to uphold the freedoms she helped create.