Margaret Sanger: The Woman Rebel

Photo of Margaret Sanger (by buttonknee on flickr.com ; used with permission)

Margaret Sanger was born in New York State on September 14, 1879.  She grew up in an Irish-American, working class family and would later study nursing at Claverack College.  From an early age, her experiences shaped her into the influential and significant birth control activist and fighter for women’s right that she turned out to be.

As the sixth child out of eleven, Sanger was no stranger to the effects lack of birth control can have on a woman’s body and well being.  Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devote Catholic woman who ultimately was pregnant eighteen times before in the span of her life.  Sanger would never forget the effect her mother’s pregnancies had on her health, and how said burden to her body would ultimately lead to Higgins’ death at the age of 50.

In the early twentieth century, Sanger worked as a nurse and mid-wife to the underprivileged pregnant women of the Lower East Side slums in New York City.  The separation of class here was palpable.  According to Gloria Steinem in her article for TIME magazine entitled Margaret Sanger, in the poor neighborhoods “she saw women deprived of their health, sexuality and ability to care for children already born” where as in the wealthy, educated women “had access to such information and could use subterfuge to buy ‘French’ products, which were really condoms and other barrier methods, and ‘feminine hygiene’ products, which were really spermicides.”  This is a perfect example of how the underprivileged cannot even afford such a basic right as knowledge about their options as women and sexual beings, while the affluent can afford to be in control of their bodies with contraception methods.

Margaret Sanger understood this institution, witnessing it every day in her work, and decided to do something about it.  Her activist career, which would last a lifetime, started with educational texts, firstly informative articles “What Every Girl Should Know,” then a newspaper called The Woman Rebel.  The aim of these publications was to educate poor women on their birth control option.  In 1921, Snager founded the American Birth Control League, what we now know as Planned Parenthood, and about family planning institutions that she helped start would “extend as far as Japan and India.”  As Gloria Steinem says in her article, Sanger’s main focus was on education for Sanger believed that “poor mental development was largely the result of poverty, overpopulation and the lack of attention to children.”

The fight to educate the women of the world on their sexuality and birth control options was a fight that Sanger helped

Margaret Sanger's plate in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (by mellydoll on flickr.com ; used with permisson)

initiate, and a fight which we are still struggling with today.  With the help of Sanger and many, many other people, we have come a very long was as a society with this issue.  But it is important to remember we aren’t done yet.  Gloria Steinem eloquently sums this up in her article Margaret Sanger, “anti-choice lobby and congressional leadership that opposes abortion, sex education in schools, and federally funded contraceptive programs that would make abortion less necessary; that supports ownership of young women’s bodies through parental-consent laws; that limits poor women’s choices by denying Medicaid funding.”  We need to stop taking away options for women and girls to know their sexuality, and start collectively making birth control options and education on the matter ubiquitous and available.

Margaret Sanger once said “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body.”  She devoted her life to the fight for all women to be able to exercise their right to make informed decisions about their own bodies and reproductive health, a fight we are still combating today.  As women and as sexual beings, we should all be eternally grateful to the great leaps she made for sex education and the betterment of society.  We cannot let all the amazing work she did be in vain.

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