"Sanger Finds a Home in the Sophia Smith Collection," Fall 1995, #10
In the spring of 1946, Margaret Sanger sorted through boxes of letters that had long gathered dust in the closets of Willowlake, her home in Fishkill, NY. Sanger was selling Willowlake and preparing to make her final move to Tucson, Arizona where she had been living for most of the past nine years. The work of sifting through and repacking letters and photographs that dated back to her childhood was physically and emotionally exhausting. She re-read forgotten letters from old lovers, her husbands, and her children. With the recent death of her second husband, J. Noah Slee, and the infirmity of many of her close friends, including H. G. Wells, who would die later that summer, the well-traveled bundles of letters took on greater emotional and historical significance for Sanger than ever before.
Endeavoring to preserve the history of the birth control movement (the "Cause" as she called it), Sanger had begun depositing records of the various birth control organizations she founded in the Library of Congress in 1942. While depositing her papers in the Library of Congress gave Sanger an added dose of respectability, the irony of the situation surely attracted her to the arrangement. While the nation's venerated library sought to acquire and preserve the records of her life's work, the U.S. government steadfastly repelled her repeated attempts to legalize birth control. But Sanger soon grew disenchanted with the Library's bureaucracy and became worried that her collection was under-appreciated in the large repository she referred to as "the cold barn." (MS to Florence Rose, June 13, 1946, MSM S25:783).
She would continue to send organizational material to the Library of Congress until her death in 1966, but during this last stay at Willowlake in May and June of 1946 Sanger decided she did not want her personal papers to be overshadowed by the growing collection of birth control records in Washington. She wanted her personal letters to be protected and highlighted on her own terms: "...they are rather precious and much more interesting than the material on the Cause, or letters relating to the Cause." (MS to Florence Rose, June 10, 1946, MSM S25:773)
Sanger approached the New York Public Library (NYPL) in May of 1946 with a letter of intent to deposit unknown quantities of material there. The NYPL had long sought Sanger's papers, but she insisted on maintaining some control over access. "We must have a few restrictions," she wrote, "inasmuch as our material is very personal + the movement is still on the wing." (MS to Dorothy Brush, May 27, 1946 MSM S25:705). The NYPL, however, wanted complete control over its manuscript collections. The negotiations dragged on, but a satisfactory agreement could not be reached.
As Sanger was negotiating with the NYPL, her good friend Dorothy Brush, an active alumna of Smith College, wrote to Margaret Storrs Grierson, the director of the Sophia Smith Collection, a repository of primary sources in women's history founded in 1942 in the Smith College Library: "I am a close personal friend of Margaret Sanger and have worked with her for years," Brush wrote. "It is just possible I might persuade her to turn over to the Library her papers at least when she dies, and possibly sooner since she is about to break up her home." (Brush to Margaret Grierson, May 2, 1946, the Sophia Smith Collection, Dorothy Brush Papers, Box 13, Folder 19)
Grierson responded enthusiastically and plans were made for Sanger to visit Smith College in late June of 1946. Excited by Brush's description of the Sophia Smith Collection and flattered by Margaret Grierson's interest in her papers, Sanger ended negotiations with the NYPL. She wrote to her secretary Florence Rose: "I am considering quite seriously giving Smith most of my correspondence as they are now building up a library around noted women in this country where they hope future historians will come for the intimate material on these women of America." (MS to Florence Rose, June 10, 1946, MSM S25:773). Rose responded with encouragement, reminding Sanger that donating her papers to Smith College would in a sense keep an old promise: "That was what Mary Beard was trying to do with her WOMEN'S ARCHIVES. You did promise her a lot of your personal material – but that all was washed up when the WOMEN'S ARCHIVES idea was abandoned early in the 1940s, as I recall it." (Florence Rose to MS, June 17, 1946, MSM S25:808; for more on World Center for Women's Archives, see Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, Spring/Summer 1994.)
Sanger and Brush arrived in Northampton, MA on June 22 and met with Smith College President Herbert Davis, Margaret Grierson, and several of the librarians. Sanger came away from the visit feeling less than warm towards President Davis, noting that she thought him pro-Catholic. But she was delighted with Margaret Grierson and excited about her plans for further developing the Sophia Smith Collection. Nevertheless, she still hesitated. Two weeks later, Brush informed Margaret Grierson that Sanger "...fell in love with you...[but was] not too certain the College really wanted her papers...I think it would be an awful blot on our escutcheon if we let this slip through our fingers now!" (Brush to Margaret Grierson, July 8, 1946, in the Sophia Smith Collection, Dorothy Brush Papers, Box 13, Folder 19)
With great care and the utmost respect for Sanger's position in history, Grierson wrote Sanger to express her "joy and excitement" over the possibility of receiving the papers: "The possession of your papers would, of course, be to the great glory of Smith College ... you can make possible the creation on this campus of a distinguished research center for the study of the forces of women in shaping human destiny." (Margaret Grierson to MS, July 3, 1946, MSM S25:874) Grierson also assured Sanger that every effort would be made to collect additional material on the birth control movement and that Sanger would be given free rein on imposing any restrictions she desired.
Delighted at having found a suitable home for her collection, Sanger began sending periodic gifts of her personal papers, along with many organizational records to the Sophia Smith Collection. Hesitant at first to send love letters and other personal material, Sanger cautioned Brush who was helping her pack boxes for Smith: "... (don't let my morals get out of line until I'm dead and gone) I'll trust you to hold back anything not fit for these young modern Smith minds." (MS to Dorothy Brush, October 1946, MSM S26:332) But by the 1950s Sanger had given the Sophia Smith Collection most of her early personal correspondence including some very combustible letters from her first husband William Sanger, along with correspondence chronicling her intimate relationships with such figures as H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and Hugh de Selincourt. Always she admonished Grierson to restrict the most sensitive correspondence until after her death: "The letters from Wm. Sanger will be most revealing to a biographer should one wish to delve into personalities of a Career Woman....But they must not be given to anyone to read or use during my lifetime Please". (MS to Grierson, July 1949, MSM S30:467)
After each Sanger donation, Grierson responded with a long letter of gratitude expressed in her inimitable way: "The actual possession of your records has...acted as fruitful stimulus to the acquiring of other valuable records in the woman's field. While none of our acquisitions can compare to your collection in intrinsic value and eventual service in the study of civilization, we owe to your gift the encouragement and strengthening of our enterprise." (Margaret Grierson to MS, November 22, 1947, MSM S27:769)
In 1949, after an intense lobbying effort by Dorothy Brush, Smith College bestowed an honorary LL.D. on Margaret Sanger, citing her as "one who with deep sympathy for the oppressed and disinherited, yet with a dispassionate and scientific approach, has made a conspicuous contribution to human welfare through her integrity, courage, and social vision." (Smith College Honorary LL. D., Statement, MSM S77:645) Extremely pleased with this recognition, Sanger began sending the bulk of her public as well as her private papers to Smith, rather than the Library of Congress. She encouraged her friends and associates in the movement to donate their birth control-related papers as well, many of which were incorporated into the Sanger collection. With the Sanger papers as its cornerstone, Sophia Smith Collection staff were subsequently able to lure the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, and the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts into donating their records; and personal collections for Dorothy Brush, Florence Rose, and several other pioneers of the birth control movement were also established. After Sanger's death, the Sophia Smith Collection also acquired Sanger's personal library and photo collection.
Modest about their mission, but fully aware of the significance of their friendly compact, instigated and cultivated by Dorothy Brush, Grierson and Sanger helped to insure that the Sophia Smith Collection is home to the preeminent collection of archival and manuscript material on the birth control movement in America. The Sanger Papers Project microfilmed Sanger's papers in the Smith College Collections. Published by University Publications of America, the 83-reel Smith College Collections Series includes material drawn from the Margaret Sanger Papers and 19 other collections in the Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives.
Revised: November 14, 2002