Topic Guides: The Individual in History: Actions and Legacies

Margaret Sanger Papers Project Celebrates National History Day 2009

"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 ample proof that intelligent and constructive thought has been aroused."

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

"I seem to have no life and no history apart from the birth control movement," Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) wrote in 1938 (Margaret Sanger to W.W. Norton, September 21, 1938). This year's theme, “The Individual in History” is a particularly apt one for Margaret Sanger, who during her life and even well afterwards, personified women's struggle for reproductive rights. Her actions, challenging the Comstock Law banning birth control through the mail, lecturing around the nation and the world, opening birth control leagues and clinics, helped change public opinion on birth control, popularizing the notion that men and women should plan their families. Other actions, including her association with eugenicists and her decision to ally with the medical profession, also shaped the reproductive rights movement.

What is Sanger's legacy? How have reproductive rights expanded and developed since her death in 1966? Can you still identify her ideas in the efforts of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America or the International Planned Parenthood Federation, two organizations she helped found.

Founding a Movement

What led Margaret Sanger to found a new movement? Born to a working-class family of eleven children, Sanger found inspiration to help women control their fertility everywhere she looked--from her mother's early death, the plights of the patients she treated as a visiting nurse in New York City, to her own worsening tuberculosis, exacerbated by pregnancy. She also took inspiration from radical and socialist critiques on American society and government. How Sanger convert this hodge-podge of inspirations into a strong and strident call for change? What parts of the movement she inspired remain wedded to Sanger's early ideals, what parts have not been continued?

Sanger and the Medicalization of Birth Control

Margaret Sanger began her crusade for birth control from a perspective of free speech. But after her 1915 trip to birth control clinics in the Netherlands, Sanger realized that she had to involve the medical profession. She worked with physicians to operate clinics in the United States, lobbied for the support of the American Medical Association, and pursued a legislative policy that would have left birth control technically obscene, but allowed medical professionals to prescribe it. There were other options, purused by birth control activist Mary Ware Dennett in the 1920s. Why did Sanger choose this track for birth control and how did it shape the movement?

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)

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:

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