For more than a century, suffragists fought for women’s right to vote, but voting wasn’t the only thing on women’s minds at that time. What good was the right to vote if women weren’t entitled to get an education so they could learn about political issues and develop their opinions? And being able to vote was small comfort to women who were barred from holding a job that would make it possible for them to earn a living. But even the right to learn and to get a job were not enough to give women control of their lives.
Deciding when to have a child and how many children to have made a huge difference in women’s lives. Today It is hard to realize how the lack of birth control affected families. Employers often refused to hire married women because they might become pregnant. Graduate schools rejected married women applicants with the excuse that an unplanned pregnancy could derail a degree plans at any time. And lots of women, especially poor women, often had far more children than their family could support. But during the 19th and early 20th century it was very difficult to get information about birth control. Christian reformers had passed laws declaring that information about birth control was obscene and therefore distributing it was illegal. In many states even married couples were forbidden to use contraceptives.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, progressives began to recognize this problem. One woman, Margaret Sanger, devoted most of her life to changing the way women experienced motherhood. Born in 1879, the sixth child in a family of Irish immigrants in Corning, New York, she saw at first hand the result of having a large family. Each year as another child was added to the family, Michael Higgins, their father, who was a sculptor of gravestones, became less able to support them all. Maggie Higgins, Margaret’s mother, gave birth to 22 children of whom eleven survived to grow up. She died at the age of 48 leaving the family to struggle on without her.
Margaret Sanger was fortunate in having older sisters who helped her to get an education and to become a nurse. After getting her degree she married, quit work, and settled down to raise her three children. For several years she was a traditional housewife and mother, but she wanted a more active life. When she went to work in New York City as a visiting nurse, she saw for herself the way women’s lives were restricted by the number of children they bore. Most of the women she worked with were immigrants with little money and no way of finding out how they could limit the number of children they had. Sanger decided that she had an obligation to give these women information. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the city and was promptly arrested for distributing obscene material. That arrest inspired her to become a lifelong crusader for birth control.
Sanger has become one of the most controversial leaders of the early feminist movement, but much of the criticism directed at her has been misinformed. She has been reviled for supporting abortion, but in fact she always opposed it. She knew that many women were driven to having abortions because they had suffered through too many pregnancies. These illegal abortions sometimes led to illness and death. Sanger promoted birth control as a way of preventing abortions by allowing families to limit the size of their families. She founded birth control clinics in Harlem and in the Lower East Side. She worked with African American leaders to make sure that both Black and White women could control the number of their pregnancies.
Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood and has become a national source of support for women’s health across the United States. Sanger’s interest in the eugenics movement during the 1920s, has led to much criticism, but she was only one of many people who were searching for ways to encourage Americans to have fewer, but healthier babies. She was a woman of many enthusiasms who spoke out about her beliefs and incited both strong support and bitter hatred. Several biographies have been published. For a well-balanced account of her life and accomplishments, you might want to try one of the more recent ones—Jean Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011).