Comets Across The Sky

Bachanten II

Artwork: Bachanten II by Anita van Kempen

Yesterday's Trailblazer

The Woman Rebel

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

The century had changed not too many years earlier and Margaret Sanger, laboring daily as a home nurse in the immigrant ghettos in New York, felt the times needed changing also. Watching women die in childbirth, which came too often and too harshly, motivated her to publish The Woman Rebel and establish the National Birth Control League in 1914.

Through these efforts, she coined the term "birth control" and established the principle that the foundation of human rights is based upon a woman's right to control her body. She was the first to promote the concepts of every child as a wanted child and every woman entitled to decide when, or whether, to have a child. She didn't stop there and further introduced the idea that women are entitled to sexual pleasure and fulfillment, just like men.

The Woman Rebel taught wives to fight for their own rights, and revealed there were safe ways for women to prevent excess pregnancies. Becoming a national symbol of protest, her goal was to eliminate the tyranny of unwanted pregnancy, thus giving women control over their own lives. 1915 found her debating, in court, whether poor women might receive the same access to birth control the rich enjoyed.

Undaunted, she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 and was arrested for creating a public nuisance. Still she pressed on, challenging and defeating both federal and state "Comstock Laws" which prohibited the dissemination of birth control information to women, including publication and distribution of information about sex, sexuality, contraception, and human reproduction. The defeat of these laws nationwide allowed doctors to freely disseminate birth control information for the first time in our nation's history.

Changing her name for a year got around censorship guidelines, and she was able to publish Family Limitation, a journal about birth control.

Planned Parenthood literature states, "In 1921, Margaret Sanger organized and was the first president of The Planned Parenthood Federation of America."

Through her efforts, birth control became medically sanctioned for women of all income levels, a key component in contemporary attitudes concerning both social and economic change.

For Further Reading

Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and The Birth Control Movement In America, Ellen Chesler, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992 (hardcover); Anchor/Doubleday, 1993 (paperback).

Online Sources

The Papers of Margaret Sanger Courtesy of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London

Planned Parenthood National Home Page


Artwork: Bachanten II by Anita van Kempen

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