Topic Guides: Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences

Margaret Sanger Papers Project Celebrates National History Day

"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

"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, “Debate and Diplomacy in History ” is a particularly apt one for Margaret Sanger, who during her life and even well afterwards, brought into focus the debate over reproductive rights. Sanger's actions, challenging the Comstock Law banning birth control through the mail, lecturing around the nation and the world, opening birth control leagues and clinics, and lobbying to change laws helped to change public opinion on birth control, popularizing the notion that men and women should plan their families. Margaret Sanger personified the birth control movement during her life, and her interactions with individuals and organizations can provide topics for National History Day presentations.

There are many incidents that can be used to focus attention on the debate over birth control. Here are a few suggestions.

Margaret Sanger debated birth control in person in homes and in public halls, in Congress, and in the columns of newspapers. Look at any one debate and the ideas expressed to unpack the meanding of birth control on either side of the argument.

Margaret Sanger v. John Winter Russell, 1920 debate.

In 1920, Margaret Sanger debated Catholic convert John Winter Russell, a New York lawyer over the morality of birth control. (The debate can be read online as a pdf.)

Margaret Sanger v. Archbishop Patrick Hayes, 1921.

When Margaret Sanger sought to hold the first birth control conference in the United States in New York City in 1921, she ran into the opposition of Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes. Hayes managed to close Sanger's mass meeting on birth control and morality down temporarilily, and the two debated the columns of newspapers, the pulpit and in the Birth Control Review over birth control and the role of the Church in socoety. (Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1: the Woman Rebel, 1900-1928; "The Town Hall Raid," MSPP Newsletter, 2001, and "Archbishop Hayes on Birth Control," New York Times, December 18, 1921, pg 16, and other newspaper coverage)

Margaret Sanger vs. Richard B. Russell, 1931

Sanger debated Chief Justice Russell in Atlanta in 1931, pitting a modern forward-thinking woman with an old-fashioned and traditional man. Russell, with eighteen childred, was famous for his debate style of ridiculing his opponent. (For more see " Sanger versus Famous Father of 18!,", MSPP Newsletter, 2001/2002.)

Margaret Sanger v. Mohandas Gandhi, 1935.

Sanger and Gandhi diuscussed their views on sex, love, lust and birth control at a historic meeting in India in Dec. 1935. Sanger published her version of the discussion in the journal Asia. ( See MSPP Newsletter article, "Gandhi and Sanger Debate Love, Lust, and Birth Control," 1999/2000)

Margaret Sanger v. Benito Mussoloni, 1937

Margaret Sanger and Benito Mussolini had diametrically different views about wome's value and role in society. These played out in two articles, "What Mussolini Thinks of Women," published in Plain Talk in 1937, and in Sanger's response article, "What Margaret Sanger Thinks of Mussolini," also published in Plain Talk. (see Il Duce v. the Woman Rebel: It's Birth Control of War!, MSPP Newsletter, Fall 2008, #49.)

Congressional Debates

Throughout the 1930s, when Margaret Sanger and the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control lobbied Congress to repeal parts of the Comstock Law that forbade mailing birth control materials. Sanger marshalled her forces to testify in Congress, while her opposition put forward their best case against birth control. ("Birth Control and the Good Old Boys in Congress," #26, MSPP Newsletter, Winter 2000/2001 link; Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume II: Birth Control Comes of Age; see also the published Hearings.

These are just a few of the instances in which Margaret Sanger debated on the various aspects of the birth control movement. The very nature of her work was organized towards debating the wisdom of the current laws and social leanings on birth control.

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:

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