Topic Guides: Communication in History: The Key to Understanding

Margaret Sanger Papers Project Celebrates National History Day 2005

Below are suggested topics that relate to Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement:

Communicating the Birth Control Message

Margaret Sanger's success in communicating the idea and necessity of birth control enabled her to form and lead the American birth control movement and later head the international cause.

- Look at the arguments for birth control before and after Sanger began her agitation to explain why her message inspired others and captured public attention; what about the time, the message and the circumstances made it different than earlier attempts to promote this issue?

- Sanger's rationale for making birth control legal and accessible changed over the course of her life. Her arguments for birth control in the 1910s and early 1920s were very different than those she put forward during the Depression and the post-World War II years. How did the concerns of each time period affect the way she communicated her ideas about birth control?

- One way to better understand how and why Sanger promoted birth control in different ways at different times, and to measure the effectiveness of her communication skills, is to study the impact she had on one locality following a speech or particular event. A charismatic leader and the most sought-after spokesperson for her cause, Sanger initiated activism and debate wherever she appeared. Using local newspapers as well as resources at the Sanger Project, reconstruct an event: describe her audience, analyze her message, look at the aftermath of her appearance and determine the effectiveness of her visit to a particular town or city.

Margaret Sanger's Battle Against Censorship

- 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 the effect of her advocacy, public relations maneuvers and communication skills on these long-standing anti-obscenity laws.

In her efforts to both overturn the Comstock laws and change public opinion, did she ultimately succeed or fail as a communicator?

Related material on this site

See our biography of Margaret Sanger for an outline of her life and career, as primary and secondary sources about her work and the birth control movement. Our newsletter articles are a good place to look for highlighted events of her life and evaluation of their impact.

You may also want to consult the Sanger Documents on the World Wide Web section of this site for access to primary source material mounted by libraries and other scholarly institutions. Woman and the New Race (1920) is a particularly valuable source on Sanger's feminist arguments for birth control.

Primary Source Material on the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition

There are over 120,000 Sanger documents on microfilm. You will need to narrow your search to include only those that cover your topic most directly. The two-series microfilm published by the Sanger Project is organized in chronological order, and its reel guide provides access to documents by personal and organizational name. If your topic focuses on a specific person or event you will be able to locate relevant documents

Another good place to look for general information is in Sanger's speeches and articles. Many of these provide autobiographical information as well as Sanger's arguments for birth control. Check our microfilm descriptions for the nearest library that holds copies of the microfilm; they can also be ordered on 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.

For examples of material on how Sanger communicated her message, see The Woman Rebel (1914) and the Birth Control Review (1917-1940).

Other Primary Sources

The complete transcripts of Congressional birth control hearings are published, though they may be somewhat difficult to obtain. These 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).

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