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The Rebel and the Reformer
16 Nov 2018

The Rebel and the Reformer

Exploring the different approaches – and different personalities – of birth control advocates Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett

By Courtney Suciu

The birth control movement emerged out of the early 20th century at a time of tremendous social change in American culture. The role of women in society, immigration, poverty and labor had a major impact on the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and influenced how the ongoing struggle would continue.

But researching the early birth control movement is also a reminder that history isn’t just an impersonal chain of past issues and events. It’s a chain of events shaped by people and their quirks, passions and determination – meaning that the unfolding of women’s reproductive rights in America was as much influenced by the iron-willed, conflicting personalities of its foremothers as it was the changing society in which they lived.

We’ll take a closer look at how the relationship between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett “helped determine the course of action for achieving reproductive rights in America”1 according to scholar Peter C. Engelman in a recent essay he wrote for ProQuest.

The medical establishment and reproductive decision making

Engelman, associate editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers (which are digitized in ProQuest History Vault), put this feud between the founders of the birth control movement into perspective in his essay “The Rivalry Between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett”1:

There was no duel (a la Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton) or tabloid name-calling (in the vein of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) or dinner party fisticuffs (have another drink! Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer). No, the long battle between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett for leadership of the birth control movement was too civilized (most of the time) for any of that. But it was, without a doubt, one of the most intense rivalries in the history of American social protest movements.

A major point of disagreement between Sanger and Dennett, as Engelman illustrated with primary source documents from the Sanger Papers and Mary Ware Dennett Papers, had to do with the question: “how much power should the medical establishment have over reproductive decision-making?”

Sanger, a former nurse who considered contraception critical to women’s health, advocated for a “doctors only” exemption from the prohibition on birth control. She argued that way around the law and to “dissolve any remaining association between birth control and indecency and lead to a safe, clinic-based system of contraceptive health care,” Engelman wrote.

Meanwhile, Dennett drafted a competing bill that removed all restrictions on birth control to “allow anyone to purchase or distribute contraception without oversight.”

It seems they should have been able to find a compromise for this disagreement, but neither Dennett nor Sanger were particularly given to compromise – especially with each other. And that was the second point of conflict between them: their major personality differences.

A vicious competition for a common cause

As a nurse working in the slums of New York’s East Side, Sanger grew increasingly radical as she witnessed the suffering from multiple pregnancies (and botched attempts at birth control) for poor and working-class women. She was a socialist and labor activist, as well as a burgeoning feminist, all of which prompted her to write on the issue of women’s sexual health and contraception – in defiance of the era’s Comstock laws regarding decency.

In 1914, she launched a publication called The Woman Rebel in collaboration with her anarchist associates to promote birth control as an issue of free speech and, facing arrest for violating the decency laws, she fled to England. While she was away, suffragist Mary Dennett and some of the staff from The Woman Rebel formed the National Birth Control League (NBCL). In his book The History of Birth Control2, Engelman noted “Dennett quickly asserted leadership of the new League and embraced the cause of birth control as her own.”

Engelman’s book described Dennett as “wellborn,” and seeming “like a slightly eccentric, buttoned-down matron in contrast with Sanger.” With Dennett at the helm of this new organization, there was a “rapid evolution of birth control agitation— from anarchist noise to an issue that was beginning to capture the attention of moderate progressive reformers.”

“Dennett leveraged the Sanger name and sought access to Sanger’s mailing lists even as she refused to support Margaret Sanger’s legal defense,” he explained in the essay. “Dennett and her allies made no secret of their resentment of Sanger and her autocratic leadership style. They made every effort to distance the NBCL from Sanger’s street radicalism and anarchist ties.”

While in Europe, Sanger studied the history and practice of birth control, and when she returned to the U.S., she launched a rival organization, the American Birth Control League. Sanger “needed the support of [the] wealthy and powerful women” associated with Dennett, though she “resented their increasing influence and visibility in the press, not to mention their loosely veiled disapproval of her one-woman leadership,” according to Engelman’s The History of Birth Control.

“Dennett and other emerging leaders... were well-positioned to lure in birth control proponents who had no stomach for Sanger’s direct action tactics,” he added, “Yet none of the other leading advocates could match Sanger’s charisma or flare.”

The on-going legacy of the birth control movement

Sanger altered her approach from defying the law to pressing for legislative change, “a clear shift in strategy,” Engelman noted in his essay. “Sanger’s timing, if not intent,” he argued, “was driven by spite.” The NBCL, struggling to compete with Sanger’s organizations, was short-lived and the two women “attacked each other in print and public meetings” as they competed within the organization to garner support for their different bills.

In an introductory article from the Women and Social Movements Library, scholars Melissa Douk and Rachel Brugger3 wrote, “Historians have argued that Sanger's competitiveness and controlling nature actually fueled the rift between Sanger and Dennett.” She cited Dennett biographer Constance Chen’s quote from an anonymous co-worker of Sanger, who said:

As far as her cause was concerned, Margaret Sanger counted 1, 3, 4, 5. She was number one and there was no number two, she would let no one approach her that closely. When Mary Ware Dennett had the effrontery to claim to be another number one, she became Margaret's enemy who had to be vanquished at all costs.

“Operating in Sanger’s shadow much of the time, Dennett failed to gain traction with her message,” Engelman wrote in his essay, though Dennett wasn’t quick to give up. (Read the essay for an especially scandalous altercation at the police station after Sanger’s arrest for distributing contraceptive pamphlets.) However, Sanger continued to ostracize Dennett from the movement – often, most hurtfully, by simply ignoring her.

In the 1930s, when Sanger sought to pass a proposed birth control bill in Congress, Dennett emerged out of the background to denounce the bill as “unenforceable” and “a mockery,” according to Engelman, to which “Sanger shot back, ‘You had your day, you had the open field, and we are still cleaning up the messy confusion in Washington as a result of [your] open bill.’”

In 1937, the American Medical Association endorsed Sanger’s clinic-based approach to birth control and a series of court rulings deemed contraception a necessary part of women’s health care. While this was a remarkable turning point in the struggle for reproductive rights, it’s hard not to wonder how the legacy of the birth control movement might have been altered had Sanger and Dennett worked as partners rather than rivals. Or if Dennett’s open bill had won out over Sanger’s approach.

What, if any, impact would that have had on today’s ongoing debate about reproductive freedom?

For further research

Read Peter Engelman’s complete essay, learn more about the Margaret Sanger Papers and the Mary Ware Dennett Papers.


  1. Engelman, Peter C., “The Rivalry Between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett”.
  2. Engelman, P. C. (2011). A History of the Birth Control Movement in America Available from Ebook Central.
  3. Douk, Melissa and Rachel Brugger. Introduction: How Did the Debate between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett Shape the Movement to Legalize Birth Control, 1915-1924? Available from the Women and Social Movements Library.


Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu

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