Margaret Sanger was truly a great woman of the twenties. In reading her biographies, one can admire her contributions to the time. They were extremely important, not only to the twenties’ society, but also to the world today. Although her crusade for birth control was a great success, further research showed she might not be as “heroic” as many biographers made her out to be. Margaret Sanger fought fervently and bravely during the early 1900s to provide free and valuable birth control information to poor and underprivileged women. To further her crusade for birth control, Sanger was insulted, indicted, and arrested for her radical ideas. Her zeal for the birth control movement led many of her biographers to label her as a “rebel”, “criminal”, and “heroine”.
Before one can start to describe Margaret Sanger’s “transformation”, it is important to give a background about why she started her fight for birth control in the first place. Sanger grew up in a very poor family being one of eleven children. In describing her mother, Sanger remarked in her book, My Fight For Birth Control, that: “As far as I can remember, she was always pregnant or nursing a baby…” (11).
Not only disturbed by her mother’s frequent pregnancies, Sanger also resented the fact her mother had no control over how many babies she was to have. After Sanger’s mother died at the age of forty-eight, Sanger became a nurse. As a nurse, Sanger encountered even more aggravating incidences of poor women, risking their lives, to self-induce an abortion because they could not afford to have another child. After having witnessed countless women and her own mother go through the pain of uncontrolled child bearing, Sanger resolved there was a need to educate the lower class women about birth control.
Sanger started her crusade with one goal in mind: to help the poor, lower class women gain control over their bodies. According to Sanger, “no woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body … No woman can call herself free until she can choose conscientiously whether she will or will not be a mother” (Parrish 143). With this argument, Sanger sought support from the Feminists. She spoke to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the leaders of the Feminist movement, about her ideas, but Gilman was unwilling to help her. As Mortimer Smith illustrated in his book, Evangels of Reform, “They [the Feminists] told her [Sanger] that nothing could be done, that she had better go home and take care of her children and wait until women got the vote” (221). The feminist had another reason for rejecting Sanger: they thought her ideas were too radical.
As Sanger pointed out in her autobiography, “When I suggested that the basis of Feminism might be the right to be a mother regardless of church or state, their inherited prejudices were instantly aroused. They were still subject to the age-old masculine atmosphere…” (109). After being disappointed by the Feminists, Sanger turned to the Socialists, whose goals to help the poor are similar to hers.
Again, she was told to wait until the Socialist got votes. Lastly, Sanger turned to the doctors, who in turn told her to “mind her own business…” (Smith, Mortimer 221). Sanger was not going to get any support from anyone else; Mortimer Smith explained that, ultimately, “those who believed in her cause refused to support her because of the ‘social odium’ attached to those openly espousing birth control” (221).
Unable to find support and unwilling to wait for the feminists, Sanger bravely started her crusade for birth control alone. Not caring about the “social odium”, Sanger published her first issue of Woman Rebel in 1914. “I was solely responsible for the magazine financially, legally, and morally; I was editor, manager, circulation department, bookkeeper, and I paid the printer’s bill” (109), Sanger proudly explained her situation in her autobiography. In issues of Woman Rebel, Sanger expressed her ideals and urged women “To look the world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an idea; to speak and act in defiance of convention” (Sanger, Margaret Sanger 110).
Sanger’s strategies were simple: she set out to break the unjust, absurd laws against birth control and then fight in court valiantly. For the publication of Woman Rebel alone, she was indicted with nine counts of violation of section 211 of Postal Law which prohibits “the use of mails for circulating obscene literature” (Smith, Mortimer 227). In 1916, along with her sister, Sanger again challenged the law by opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brownsville, New York. This time, Sanger was arrested for violating section 1142 of the Penal Code which prohibited the “dissemination of birth control information” (Smith, Mortimer 232). After Sanger was released on bail, she immediately reopened the clinic. She was arrested again declaring war against the law.
People displayed admiration and even reverence for her. Sanger knew her mind and would not compromise her goals regardless of the persistent pressures from the government. One example of Sanger’s rebellious determination happened after her arrest in 1916. She was taken into custody and jailed, but when the police tried to collect her fingerprints, she refused. Sanger had declared herself a “political prisoner”, and that she would never submit her fingerprints. Two guards tried forcibly to obtain her fingerprints, and after two hours of resistance, Margaret Sanger was not fingerprinted (Smith, Mortimer 233). However, the government was only one of many of her oppositions in the first decade of the twentieth century. One of Sanger’s most powerful enemies was the Catholic Church.