June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
In January, 1917, outside a New York courtroom, the crowd behaved predictably: the same whispers and sly grins, the same ugly innuendoes and unreasoning anger, greeted her whenever she appeared in public ; alone, facing them down, was the little woman with the shy smile and dark, penetrating eyes, quietly determined to speak her mind and persuade those who opposed her of the sanity of her cause. A few months earlier Margaret Sanger had opened the first American birth-control clinic; as a result she had been arrested several times, and now she was charged with violating a state law that prohibited distribution of literature on contraception. The judge promised leniency if she would agree to abide by the law in the future, but Margaret Sanger was determined to test the statute. “I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect,” she said, and was sentenced to thirty days in the workhouse, where she occupied her time by giving her fellow prisoners lectures on birth control.
The sixth of eleven children born to Michael Higgins, an Irish sculptor of tombstone angels in Corning, New York, Margaret had seen childbearing take her mother to an early grave; as a nurse she had come across babies “wrapped in newspapers to keep them from the cold; six-year-old children … pushed into gray and fetid cellars, crouching on stone floors, their small scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lamp shades, artificial flowers.” From the day in 1912 when Margaret Sanger decided to champion birth control, the enemy was never very far away. Arrayed against her were federal and state governments, churches, the medical profession, the press, and many of her friends, but if anyone personified the opposition, it was Anthony Comstock, a self-appointed “Guardian of Purity” who was incapable of distinguishing between information and obscenity. He had been largely responsible for persuading Congress to enact legislation in 1873 that barred “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent” materials from the U.S. mails. He had also succeeded in including contraceptive devices and literature about them under those headings, thus equating birth control with smut and pornography.
When in 1914 Margaret Sanger began publishing a paper, The Woman Rebel , that dealt with health, social hygiene, child labor, and the damaging effects of large families, the New York postmaster advised her that it could not be mailed. Not long afterward she was indicted by a grand jury on nine counts for alleged violations of federal statutes; if convicted, she could receive up to forty-five years in prison. When her case came up she asked for a stay, but the judge gave her only until the following morning. Even though it was wartime, she decided to flee to London, buying time to prepare her defense and publish a pamphlet she had just completed, called “Family Limitation,” in which she presented the forbidden information about birth control. In 1916 she was back in the United States, brimming with practical information concerning new methods of contraception and with renewed determination to test America’s antediluvian laws. When her trial began early in 1916, the government disappointed her by declining to prosecute (no test case meant that it was still against the law to advocate birth control).
The public, which heard so much about her views, knew very little of Margaret Sanger’s private life. Her divorce from William Sanger, the father of her three children; her love affairs (including one with Havelock Ellis, the English authority on sex) ; her marriage in 1922 to J. Noah Slee, founder of the Three-in-One Oil Company, which brought her happiness and freedom from financial worry—none of these events overshadowed her determination to inform the public about birth control and to change the laws that prevented it. She hated speaking to large audiences, but she memorized a set talk that she delivered again and again. Her correspondence reached enormous proportions; she wrote constantly—books, tracts, articles; she founded clinics; she launched the American Birth Control League; she journeyed abroad to spread the word. And every step was dogged by controversy. By the time opposition from Protestant churches began to wane, the Catholic Church took up the fight with a vengeance. In 1921 an overflow crowd waiting outside New York’s Town Hall for a birth-control rally was locked out on Archbishop Patrick Hayes’s orders, and Margaret Sanger was arrested when she tried to speak. “Children troop down from Heaven because God wills it,” the archbishop announced, and any attempt to prevent the increasing tide of humanity was “satanic.” As late as 1929 her birth-control clinics in America were still being raided by police, prodded by the Catholic clergy.
Each flare-up of bigotry benefited her cause, bringing discussion of birth control out in the open, providing her with an opportunity to broadcast her views. Woman’s fertility, she believed, was the chief cause of human misery and resulted in poverty, famine, and war. Fewer births would mean better and healthier children, more money for each member of a poor family, better-cared-for and better-educated young people. Until her eighty-sixth year Margaret Sanger persisted. She lived to see birth control acclaimed by most Protestant churches and by the American Medical Association; the courts liberalized the interpretation of existing laws. Birth-control instruction, which she had introduced, was available in hospitals and clinics; there was increased awareness of the tragedy implicit in unchecked population growth; birth control was saving the lives of many mothers, ending their ancient fear of constant pregnancy; and, partially through her efforts, people had begun to accept sex as a normal part of life. But after her death in 1966 the urgency remained: a recent Princeton University study indicates that of the population growth in the United States between 1960 and 1965, unwanted births accounted for 35 to 45 per cent.