The Incredible Woman Who Revolutionised Women's Right to Birth Control
The story of Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger was born in 1879; she came of age as the Comstock Act was introduced. The act was a federal statute that criminalised those who wished to take contraceptives.
Through her family experiences and her determination to change women's lives, she decided that the only way to change this act was to break it. So she started a campaign that would span half a century to challenge the federal and state laws to allow women to control their bodies.
Her ultimate aim was to provide women with information and contraceptives so they could decide when they had children.
Sanger was inspired to take this journey by her mother. She was born one of eleven children. The family were a working-class Irish Catholic family who lived in Corning, New York.
At nineteen, she watched her mother die young from tuberculosis due to the stress her body had endured with eleven pregnancies and seven miscarriages.
She was determined that neither she nor other women should suffer the same fate as her mother, so she fled the family home to attend nursing school in Catskills.
Having qualified as a nurse, she found herself back in New York, working as a visiting nurse on the lower east side. She discovered quickly that her mother was not the only female in a predicament due to a lack of birth control.
Many of these women resorted to five-dollar back alley abortions to deal with unwanted pregnancies. As a result, Sanger found herself caring for these women after the abortion had gone wrong.
In 1912, Sanger quit her position as a nurse to devote herself to the cause of sex education for women. She published several articles on the subject, including What Every Girl Should Know, The Woman Rebel and Family Limitation.
During this writing, she introduced the world to the term birth control and started to provide women with information and contraceptives in the form of the diaphragm invented in Europe in 1842 and the condom introduced in 1869.
Sanger was indicted in 1915 for sending diaphragms through the post. This did not deter her, and one year later, she set up her first birth control clinic. She was arrested and charged, fleeing to England for a year until the charges were dropped.
Back in America, she founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, leading to the Planned Parenthood Federation. Finally, after three decades of campaigning, women started getting safe, effective birth control.
Most people have thought this would have been the end of her career, but she was still not satisfied; she was disappointed that her vision for a contraceptive pill had never been reached. It was now the 1950s; she had been dreaming of her 'magic pill' since 1911.
Sanger was now in her 70s, and her health was failing, but she would not give up. The population explosion was a concern for anyone interested in the planet. Then, 1951 she met Gregory Pincus, and this would all change.
Pincus was a medical expert in human reproduction and said he would be willing to work with her on a contraceptive pill. Backed by the investment of International Harvest heiress Katharine McCormick they worked on this vision.
In 1960, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill called Enovid; it would lead to many other brands being available on the market and women's fertility being revolutionised.
A Vision Fulfilled
Sanger's life was not without controversy; some would state that she was part of the eugenics movement, which allows selective breeding for racist reasons. However, these were primarily considered lies used to discredit her while fighting for women's rights.
Four years later, at eighty-one, Sanger witnessed the undoing of the Comstock Laws when the Supreme Court Griswaldt v. Connecticut ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right.
Sanger died one year later, having fought for the right of women to control their fertility for half a century. You can only imagine how far she will think America has gone back today with some of the state abortion rules.