Margaret Higgins (Sanger) was born in the small industrial community of Corning New York state, on September 14, 1879. She was the sixth of eleven children. Her father was, by all accounts, an irresponsible man who didn't care that his large family were often cold, went hungry, and suffered other deprivations.
Michael Higgins was also a radical socialist, his family were shunned and isolated by the community they lived in. Sanger once described her family life as being "joyless and filled with drudgery and fear."
Margaret's mother Anne was a devout Catholic who was utterly devoted to her husband and to her family, although she and the children hid their spiritual activities from Michael who would have been furious had he known. Although Michael had also been brought up as a Catholic, he was both a cynic and a skeptic.
Margaret had her early spiritual beliefs ridiculed and eventually smothered by her father's unrelenting scorn. By the time she was seventeen she had totally turned against Christ and the Church with a hatred that lasted her entire life.
At Claverack College at the Hudson River Institute, where Margaret went as a boarder, she got her first taste of radical politics, suffragette activism and sex. After leaving the College due to lack of funds, Margaret moved in with an older sister and tried teaching. After two terms she gave that up and tried nursing although she gave that up also, before she finished her training, reaching the status of a nurse-probationer.
She met William Sanger at a party and he fell deeply in love with her. They married a few months later and had three children soon after. Some years later, after moving to New York, William renewed his old ties within radical political circles by attending Socialist, Anarchist and Communist meetings in Greenwich Village.
Margaret joined him a few times and then, suddenly, she embraced Bohemian ways and zealously attended meetings, rallies, and caucuses. She mixed with the leading radicals of the day and joined the Socialist Party.
The Socialist Party had great appeal to Margaret because of its championing of women's suffrage, sexual liberation and birth control. William eventually became concerned about Margaret's revolutionary ideas and companions and was shocked when she told him that she needed "emancipation from every taint of Christianized capitalism, including the strict bonds of the marriage bed."
In a desperate attempt to save their marriage, William took Margaret and the children for a long holiday. When they returned Margaret became involved in a 'strike' that the Socialists planned to use in an effort to bring the revolution "into the streets of America." She was able to gain a large amount of publicity which gained a lot of sympathy for the strikers, so much so that the government became involved and resolved the conflict.
Margaret was very despondent at the lost opportunity for revolution, and returned to her family feeling rather discouraged. She occupied herself doing part-time midwifery in the daytime. Her evenings were spent at 'salons' held by a wealthy young divorcee, Mabel Dodge. Each night had its own theme and discussions were held with plenty of food and liquor.
Margaret's topic was always sex. When it was her turn to lead an evening, guests were enthralled with her ideas of "romantic dignity, unfettered self-expressions, and the sacredness of sexual desires." Despite the promiscuous lifestyle of those she mingled with, no-one was more in favour of sexual freedom than Margaret Sanger. She had a captive audience whenever she spoke.
The one person who was less than delighted was William. He decided once again that Margaret needed to be separated from her friends and took her and the children to Paris. After two weeks Margaret wanted to return to New York and when William refused she abandoned him in Paris and taking the children she returned to her friends and lovers.
Needing to support herself, Sanger wrote for The Call, the Socialist Party newspaper, and decided to publish her own paper. The Woman Rebel had eight pages and carried the slogan "No Gods! No Masters!" The first issue denounced marriage as a "degenerate institution," capitalism as "indecent exploitation," and sexual modesty as "obscene prudery."
The second issue proclaimed that "rebel women" were to "look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes." Another article stated that "rebel women claim the following rights: the right to be lazy, the right to be an unmarried mother, the right to destroy - and the right to love."
In other issues she published articles on contraception, sexual liberation, the necessity for social revolution, and two that defended political assassinations.
Facing prosecution for publishing lewd and indecent articles and sending them through the mail, Sanger managed to get hold of a false passport in an assumed name from her Socialist friends, placed her children in their care and left the country.
Her final act before she left was to print and distribute an inflammatory leaflet on contraception that she had written called "Family Limitation." It was deliberately designed to infuriate the postal authorities and entertain the masses. Unfortunately, it was also dangerously inaccurate, "recommending such things as Lysol douches, bichloride of mercury elixirs, heavy doses of laxatives, and herbal abortifacients."
Margaret Sanger had begun to establish herself as the "champion of birth control."
In the year she was in England, Margaret was drawn to "Malthusian Eugenics" during her strange affair with the "grandfather of the Bohemian sexual revolution", Havelock Ellis. The two of them worked out a plan for Margaret's cause. Ellis knew the value of political expediency and advised Margaret to tone down her pro-abortion stance.
The Beginnings of Planned Parenthood
Sanger's return to America meant that she would have to face the charges against her. She began a brilliant public relations campaign and gathered so much public support for her cause that the authorities had little choice but to drop the charges against her.
Taking advantage of all the publicity, she immediately set off on a speaking tour that took her from coast-to-coast and lasted three-and-a-half-months. She drew large, enthusiastic audiences and was a huge success.
Her next step was to open a birth control clinic in New York. In line with her views on Mathusianism and Eugenics she chose Brownsville that was an area had a large population of new immigrants such as Slavs, Latinos, Italians, and Jews.
She lasted two weeks before being closed down by the authorities. Margaret, one of her sisters and another woman were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to 30 days in the workhouse for distributing 'obscene' materials and for 'prescribing dangerous medical procedures.'
Upon her release Margaret founded the Birth Control League with its magazine The Birth Control Review. She planned to use these avenues to broaden her support base before opening another clinic.
Despite fiery opposition from the popular evangelist Rev. Billy Sunday, Catholic social reformer Msgr. John Ryan, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret gained support among the "urbane and urban intelligentsia." Donations and subscriptions began to come in and many influential authors appeared on the pages of the Review, which enhanced Margaret's popularity.
Despite her successes and her increasing fame and fortune, Margaret wasn't happy. Her marriage had ended, her daughter died of pneumonia, her sons were neglected and her beauty was fading.
She began to search for some meaning to her life and flirted for a while with the occult, Eastern meditation, and even looked at Rosicrucianism and Theosophy.
Unable to find satisfaction or fulfilment in any of these pursuits she married once more, this time to millionaire J. Noah Slee who was a conservative Episcopalian.
Slee was irresistably attracted to Sanger even though he was opposed to everything she stood for.
For her part, Sanger still regarded marriage as a "degenerate institution" and declined his offer initially, but nine million dollars was eventually too hard to resist.
She did, however, insist on a pre-nuptial agreement that stipulated the freedom for her to do as she pleased, with no questions asked. She was to have her own private apartment within Slee's house, with her own servants, and Slee was to phone for an appointment even to ask her to join him for dinner. She told her lovers that nothing had changed -except that now she was rich.
With huge funds now at her disposal, Sanger opened another clinic which, to avoid legal troubles she called a "Research Bureau," and started smuggling diaphragms in from Holland. She received substantial grants from the Rockefeller, Mellon and Ford Foundations and testified before congressional committees advocating liberalisation of contraceptive prescription laws.
Margaret Sanger's Nazi Connections
With her connection with Malthusianism and Eugenics, Sanger was closely associated with some of the authors of Nazi Germany's "race purification" programme. In the early days of the Third Reich she had openly given her approval to the euthanasia, sterilisation, abortion and infanticide programmes.
The Birth Control Review published some articles similar to Hitler's White Supremacist rhetoric. Sanger was not the editor at that time, although she apparently commissioned Dr. Ernst Rudin, director of the Nazi Medical Experimentation programme, to write some articles for her to publish in the Review.
When World War II broke out and news came in of the gruesome reality of the Nazi programmes, Sanger had to quickly reverse her position before the anti-Semitic accusations of 1917 came back to haunt her.
With access to her husband's almost unlimited resources, Sanger worked at cleaning up her reputation. One of the first things she did was to change the name of her organization to "Planned Parenthood." The new name was to impart a "clean, wholesome, family-orientated image."
It was to turn attention away from the revolutionary ideals of the organization as well as its international links. By 1942, Sanger's organization was re-born as Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Sanger's next step was to amalgamate hundreds of local and regional birth control groups under PP's wing, then national organizations under the umbrella of an international organization. This gave Sanger a substantial power base and confirmed her position at the top.
The final step in her campaign was to stress patriotism and family values to middle-class America, being careful to conceal her promiscuity and radical political leanings. The PR campaign was a huge success and to quote Planned Parenthood:
"Margaret Sanger gained worldwide renown, respect, and admiration for founding the American birth control movement and, later, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as well as for developing and encouraging family planning efforts throughout the international community."
None of her achievements appear to have brought her much lasting joy. She delved deeper into the occult, and by 1949 had become addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died in 1966, eight days before her 87th birthday, having gone through most of her husband's money at the time.
Anti-abortionist activists point to her widely published views as proof that her vision of "birth control" was really an attempt to limit the elements of the population she considered undesirable - racial minorities and others she labeled "feeble-minded."
Planned Parenthood today prefers to distance itself somewhat from its founder, with statements such as:
"Sanger also entertained some popular ideas of her own time that are out of keeping with our own. Finding it easier to undermine her character than to confront the message she conveyed, the anti-family planning movement has seized upon some of these ideas, taken them out of context, and exaggerated and distorted them in order to discredit Sanger and the organization she founded."