Topic Guides: Taking a Stand in History

Margaret Sanger Papers Project Celebrates National History Day 2006

“Life has taught me one supreme lesson. This is that we must--if we are to really live at all, if we are to enjoy the life more abundant promised by the Sages of Wisdom--we must put our convictions into action. My remuneration has been that I have been privileged to act out my faith.”

~ Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control

The theme for this year is “Taking a Stand in History: People, Ideas, Events.” Margaret Sanger certainly took a stand on an issue she believed in strongly. This site provides a guide for students interested in basing their National History Day projects on the life and work of Margaret Sanger, the world’s foremost birth control activist.

Suggested Topics:

1. What did Margaret Sanger stand for?

In the course of her long and active life, Sanger made many speeches about the importance of information about birth control and the need of legal, accessible contraceptives. What encouraged Sanger to choose her cause? What precisely was she advocating in her speeches? What were her rationales? Did her arguments change over the years? How effective was she at conveying her message?

In 1914, Sanger launched a journal called The Woman Rebel, a fiercely feminist journal that contained discussions on politics, social issues and women’s rights as well as birth control. Some of the content was deemed illegal, under the Comstock Laws, but Sanger demanded the right to free speech and a free press and refused to withdraw the offending issues from circulation. What stand did The Woman Rebel take on a particular issue or issues? What resulted from Sanger’s refusal to suppress her journal? Who supported Sanger in her stand? What did Sanger sacrifice for her beliefs?

2. Margaret Sanger takes the stand.

Sanger quite literally took the stand more than once in her life, when she served as a defendant in court cases and as a witness in Congressional hearings.

Sanger chose to break the law by opening the nation’s first birth control clinic in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn in 1916. She and her colleagues were arrested and tried for their commitment to providing contraceptive information to the women of Brooklyn. What were the main issues in the trial? What strategies did Sanger and her supporters use in her defense? What were the verdicts? How did the impact of the court case affect the birth control movement?

The Federal Comstock Laws prevented people from sending through the mail any documents or products deemed to be obscene, including birth control information and contraceptive materials. Enacted in 1873, the laws were still on the books in the 1920s, so Sanger organized a national campaign to repeal them. She won thousands of endorsements from individuals and organizations, but perhaps her greatest achievement was to have the issue of birth control debated before Congress. How did Sanger win the ground-breaking Congressional hearings on birth control? What did she and other birth control experts argue before the Senate and House committees? What opposition did they face? What was the outcome?

3. Margaret Sanger stands up for women around the world.

Sanger was very concerned about the plight of women overseas and in developing countries. She funded a number of clinics in countries as far away as Japan, China and India. She sent information and supplies and helped interested people establish local birth control organizations. She arranged international conferences and encouraged political leaders to take responsible positions on population control. How did Sanger inspire the women and men of a particular country? How did she make birth control a global issue? How successful were her conferences in raising awareness? How did a particular country respond to her activism?

In 1922, a local progressive journal invited Sanger to Japan to give a series of lectures on birth control. The government of Japan, concerned about the incursion of foreign ideas into their traditional culture, forbade her to enter the country. How did Sanger react to this? How did the various groups in Japan respond? What was the impact of her visit?

MSPP Sources for Your Research:

There are a number of materials available on this web site.

Our biography of Margaret Sanger gives an outline of her life and career.

A list of primary and secondary sources will point you toward more information on Sanger’s life and the birth control movement.

Our newsletter articles highlight some of the more interesting or unusual aspects of Sanger’s life and interests.

Sanger Documents on the World Wide Web offers links to primary source material on the internet. These documents are mounted by libraries and other scholarly institutions.

Margaret Sanger Papers on Microfilm:

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project has compiled a microfilm edition of more than 120,000 documents related to Sanger and the birth control movement. You will need to narrow your search to identify only those that relate most closely to your topic.

The two-series microfilm published by the Sanger Project is organized in chronological order; its reel guide provides access to documents by personal and organizational name. If your topic focuses on a specific person or event, you’ll be able to locate relevant documents very quickly.

Sanger’s speeches and articles are also available on microfilm. They provide good autobiographical information as well as arguments for birth control. See our list of libraries that hold copies of the microfilm, or you may order one through 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.

Sanger’s journal The Woman Rebel (1914) and the Birth Control Review (1917-1940) are also available on microfilm. The Woman Rebel is available on the Margaret Sanger Papers Project Microfilm, Collected Documents Series; the Birth Control Review was re-issued by De Capo Press in 1970 and is also available on microfilm as part of Research Publication's History of Women Collection, Reels 14-15.

Primary Published Sources:

The Project has published two of four volumes of our selected edition of Sanger’s papers. The book’s collection of letters, journal entries, speeches and other documents is accompanied by an introduction, an index, annotation and a bibliography and presents Sanger’s life and work in her own words. The second volume will appear shortly.

The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume I: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928. Edited by Esther Katz, with Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter C. Engelman. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume II: Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939. Edited by Esther Katz, with Peter C. Engelman, Cathy Moran Hajo and Amy Flanders. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

The Selected Papers of Marfaret Sanger, Volume III: The Politicis of Parenthood, 1939-1966 by Esther Katz, with Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter C. Engelman (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune all carried reports of the birth control campaign and its leaders. Check the archives of your local paper for stories about birth control activism in your area.

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.

Nancy E. McGlen, Women, politics, and American Society, 2002.

Nancy Tobin, The American Religious Debate over Birth Contro, 1907-1937 McFarland, 2001)- Google Books Preview

And take a look at these web sites:

The Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

The Arthur & Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College

American Women's History: A Research Guide from the Middle Tennessee State University

The Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College

National Women's History Project

National Women's Hall of Fame

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930