Topic Guides: Conflict and Compromise in History

Margaret Sanger Papers Project Celebrates National History Day 2008

"I merely want to point out the situtaion I found when I entered the battle. One the one hand, I found the wise men, sages, scientists, discussing birth control among themselves. But their ideas were sterile.... I might have taken up a policy of safety, sanity and conservatism--but would I have got a hearing? And as I became more conscious of the vital importance of the idea, I felt myself in the position of one who has discovered that a house is on fire; and I found that it was up to me to shout out the warning. The tone of the voice may have been indelicate and unladylike...but this very gathering...is ample proof that intelligent and constructive thought has been aroused."

Margaret Sanger, "Hotel Brevoort Speech," January 17, 1916

The theme for this year is “Conflict and Compromise in History.” Throughout her career, Margaret Sanger used conflict as a means of gaining publicity and a forum for her ideas. She fought with the government, whose laws banned birth control information from the mails. She fought with doctors, who refused to be associated with a topic many found immoral and even once they did accept some responsibility for birth control, did not want to work with the lay women with years of experience. But most famously, she fought with the Catholic Church, whose opposition to the legalization of birth control and the creation of birth control services, formed the backdrop for much of her career.

Sanger compromised when she could, to gain greater public acceptance and win small victories along the road to greater and greater successes. But when compromise was not an option, she was willing "to wage a hard and bitter fight to the highest tribunal in the land." (Police Can't Stop Me' Says Margaret Sanger, New York Call, October 22, 1916.)

Sanger and the Comstock Act

The Federal Comstock Act of 1873, and associated laws, barred the mailing and distribution of contraceptives and contraceptive information. Starting in 1914, Sanger launched a long battle to overturn these laws, first by direct-action, or law-breaking, and then by lobbying Congress directly, and finally by seeking a new interpretation of these laws from the courts. Explain how she used conflict to gain press and public notice and whether her compromises enabled her to succeed in her goals.

Sanger and Medical Profession

In order to offer birth control services, Sanger needed to cooperate with the medical profession. But at the start of her campaign, few doctors wanted anything to do with birth control. Trace how Sanger used compromise and the judicious use of conflict to win individual physicans to her cause and eventually secure the support of the American Medical Association in 1937. One place on which to focus is on Sanger's creation of a "doctor's only" legislative bill which exempted doctors from birth control prosecution, while technically leaving the subject under the obscenity statute. How did this compromise affect both the legal status and public opinion on birth control.

Sanger and Catholic Church

For much of her career, Sanger's strongest organized opponent was the Catholic Church. She fought against their interpretations of birth control, their calls to boycott her and block her public appearances, and their efforts to quash birth control organizations, laws, and clinics. Sanger used the conflicts to get favorable press, as in 1921, when her Town Hall meeting was disrupted by the police at the behest of local Catholic officials, or in 1940, when she was banned from speaking in Holyoke, Mass. How did these conflicts advance her aims? Was compromise possible, and how might it have been effected?

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.

The Model Editions Partnership sponsors an online edition of The Woman Rebel, which contains all the issues of the journal as well as a wealth of information about its publication and impact.

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)

Transcripts of the Congressional birth control hearings have also been published, though they may be somewhat difficult to obtain. They will provide both pro- and anti-birth control arguments.

Birth Control Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate on S.4582, Feb. 13-14, 1931 (Washington, 1931).

Birth Control Hearings Before the Committee of Ways and Means, House of Representatives on H.R. 11082, ,May 19-20, 1932 (Washington, 1932).

Birth Control Hearings Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives on H.R. 5978, Jan. 18-19, 1934 (Washington, 1934).

Birth Control Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate on S.1842, Mar. 1, 20, 27, 1934 (Washington, 1934).

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.

Virginia Sapiro, Women in American society: an introduction to women's studies, 2nd edition, 1990.

And take a look at these web sites, too:

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