Topic Guide for National History Day 2003: Rights and Responsibilities
Margaret Sanger's Fight for Women's Reproductive Rights
A key element of Margaret Sanger's crusade for birth control was her insistence that women have the right to decide when and whether to have children. "No woman can call herself free," she wrote in 1920, " who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." (Woman and the New Race, 94). Along with the right to have children, however, Sanger argued that parents needed to make responsible decisions about how many children they could afford to care for, offer good health and education. Sanger's ideas about the rights and responsibilities inherent in parenthood were critical to the modern concept of reproductive rights.
Some specific ideas:
Trace the development of the idea that parents, (fathers, mothers, or both) have the right to determine how many children they would have. What responsibilities go along with these rights?
Starting in 1873 it was illegal to provide information about birth control through the mails and many states criminalized birth control as well. Looking at specific challenges to these Comstock Laws (1914 Woman Rebel case; the 1916 Brownsville Clinic case; and the 1936 U.S. v. One Package decision) trace the development of the idea that the state could not prohibit men and women from using birth control to control the size of their families and the spacing of their families. Look particularly at the role that the providers of birth control information played--what responsibilities did they have to their constituents; how did their activities, background and behavior affect their success?
Look at the role that birth control played in the larger movement for women's rights. How did feminists, suffrage leaders and other women's rights leaders juggle a woman's right to control her body with other rights, such as the right to vote or right to equal pay?
Related material on this site
See our biography of Margaret Sanger for an outline of her life and career, as primary and secondary sources about her work and the birth control movement. Our newsletter articles are a good place to look for highlighted events of her life and evaluation of their impact.
You may also want to consult the Sanger Documents on the World Wide Web section of this site for access to primary source material mounted by libraries and other scholarly institutions. Woman and the New Race (1920) is a particularly valuable source on Sanger's feminist arguments for birth control.
Primary Source Material on the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition
There are over 120,000 Sanger documents on microfilm. You will need to
narrow your search to include only those that cover your topic most
directly. The two-series microfilm published by the Sanger Project is
organized in chronological order, and its reel guide provides access to
documents by personal and organizational name. If your topic focuses on a
specific person or event you will be able to locate relevant documents
Another good place to look for general information is in Sanger's speeches and articles. Many of these provide autobiographical information as well as Sanger's arguments for birth control. Check our microfilm descriptions for the nearest library that holds copies of the microfilm; they can also be ordered on interlibrary loan. Speeches and articles are located on Library of Congress reels 128-131, Smith College Collection Series reels S70-S73, and Collected Documents Series reel C16.
Selected Secondary Sources
In addition to the general birth control histories listed on our bibliography on Margaret Sanger, some of these works will be helpful.
Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America, 1994.
Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 2002.
Carol McCann, Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945, 1994.
James Reed, The Birth Control Movement in America: From Private Vice to Public Virtue, 1978