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The Birth Control Movement & Social Change
How the Margaret Sanger Papers illuminate the intersections of social reform in the 20th century
By Courtney Suciu
The recent retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has stirred up concern about the future of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 court decision that ruled undue state restrictions on abortion deprive women of their constitutional right to privacy. These concerns have also stoked already heated, ongoing discussion and activism around the importance of accessible and affordable birth control.
Women’s reproductive rights are a controversial topic that rouse strong feelings on either side of the debate, all around the world. (Ok, that might be an understatement…) But when we start to examine the issue of birth control from a historical perspective, we see that the controversy around reproductive rights isn’t really a single debate at all – it involves a multitude of debates about social issues related to the position of women in society, health care, child care, immigration, poverty and labor.
To unravel the ways these issues are woven together with issues of birth control, it’s essential to consider the legacy of Margaret Sanger, the mother of the early birth control movement and radical social reformer. Here is a look at how the Margaret Sanger Papers – including correspondence, speeches, pamphlets, diary entries, travel records and more, now digitally available from ProQuest History Vault – provide context for deeper understanding not only of current concerns about women’s reproductive rights, but also the fabric of international social reform which unfolded in the early 20th century.
What inspired Margaret Sanger to crusade for birth control?
“Schooled in the pre-World War I activism of the radical labor left, and mobilized by her work as a home nurse and midwife in the immigrant ghettos of New York, Sanger became convinced that in liberating women from the tyranny of unwanted pregnancies, birth control would effect fundamental social change,” wrote Prof. Esther Katz in a recent essay for ProQuest.
In this essay, Prof. Katz, Research Scholar and adjunct Associate Professor (ret.) at New York University, as well as founder of the Sanger Papers Project, gives a compelling overview of Sanger’s role as a reformer, the ripple effect of her advocacy for birth control, and why digitization of her papers is a boon to scholars researching a cross-section of social issues.
“The success of Sanger’s crusade for birth control has altered the historical patterns of relations between men and women, contributed to the phenomenal growth of women’s participation in the labor force, and affected the very character of the family, not only in the United States but around the world,” Prof. Katz continued.
For researchers interested in delving into the history of the birth control movement in the U.S., the content in the Margaret Sanger Papers traces back to Sanger’s earliest efforts to promote education about female anatomy and pregnancy prevention. In pamphlets and guides, Sanger addressed women’s reproductive health in a blunt, matter-of-fact way – at a time when it was illegal to mention birth control at all.
For example, in 1914’s Family Limitation1 Sanger empathized with the “inartistic and sordid” elements of dealing with contraception, but she stressed:
… it is far more sordid to find yourself several years later burdened down with half a dozen unwished for children, helpless, starved, shoddily clothed, dragging at your skirt, yourself a dragged out shadow of the woman you once were.
And it’s not only for women’s well-being that birth control should be practiced, she argued, but for the welfare of society to prevent exploitation of future generations of the poor and working classes:
It is only the workers who are ignorant of the knowledge of how to prevent bringing children in the world to fill jails and hospitals, factories and mills, insane asylums and premature graves, and who supply the millions of soldiers and sailors to fight battles for financiers and the ruling classes. The working class can use direct action by refusing to supply the market with children to be exploited, by refusing to populate the earth with slaves.
The birth control movement goes international
For the next few decades, that message was the drum Sanger continued to beat in her writing, speech and increasingly in her actions, from the time she opened the first U.S. birth control center in 1916, to her travels around the world to promote affordable and respectable access to contraception. Her efforts frequently put her in opposition with law enforcement and the government, landing her prison or butting heads with officials, such as General Douglas MacArthur, who in 1950 forbade Sanger from traveling to Japan to deliver a series of lectures. (At the time, Japan was still under Allied military control.)
According to an article in The New York Times2, a Japanese newspaper sought to sponsor Sanger’s lecture series “to help find a solution for Japan’s overpopulation problem,” but under pressure from Roman Catholic organizations, MacArthur put a halt to the arrangements.
In an interview with The Times, Sanger called this decision an “outrage” and said, “What [the people of Japan] want is some real help and practical information on overpopulation and how to reach the poorest people. That is the work I’ve been doing for 30 years.”
But, as evidenced by the travel itinerary included in the Margaret Sanger Papers3 in History Vault, she wasn’t one to take “no” for answer. Two years later (and 30 years after her first visit there), Sanger returned to Japan after American forces left the country. In 1954, she was again invited back, this time as the first foreigner to address Japanese parliament, a trip which is also detailed in her papers.
In addition to advocating for birth control in Japan, Sanger traveled throughout Europe, India and China to teach about contraception to promote women’s health care and rights, combat poverty and empower the working classes. This work eventually led to the founding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in 1952, of which Sanger served as President until 1959.
Documents related to the formation and function of this organization are also encompassed in the Margaret Sanger Papers as well as the Women and Social Movements Library. (For further confirmation that Sanger wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, her letters seeking sponsors for 1954’s inaugural World Conference on Population Control and Planned Parenthood provide a compelling lesson in effective fundraising4.)
Insight on relationships with other notable figures
In addition to exploring early 20th century social reform through the lens of the birth control movement, the Margaret Sanger Papers also shed light on other key people and events of the that era.
Sanger’s extraordinary life and work overlapped with many influential thinkers, writers and activists of the time. The Margaret Sanger Papers encompass correspondence, interviews and journal entries illuminating her interactions with critical figures of the early 20th century. These include:
The prolific writer H.G. Wells, best known as “the father of science fiction,” and also a prominent social critic with whom Sanger had a passionate relationship.
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck, who was an avid advocate of women’s and minority rights.
Helen Keller, the radical political activist and the first blind and deaf person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Peace activist Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement in India who met with Sanger in 1936 to debate birth control.
Carrie Chapman Catt, women’s suffrage leader and founder of the Women’s League of Voters.
Havelock Ellis, physician, writer and social reformer who extensively studied human sexuality and published early research on topics including homosexuality and transgenderism.
Sanger’s connections with progressive organizations such as the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World are also documented in these papers. For researchers of such as events as the historic 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Margaret Sanger Papers can lend unique insight that wouldn’t be available elsewhere.
For further research
Download the essay, explore related content, and watch the video sample Changing the World, Makers: Women Who Make America, available in Academic Video Online.
Find content by and about Margaret Sanger, H.G. Wells, Pearl S. Buck, Helen Keller and others.
Women and Social Movements Library document projects including:
- How Did Margaret Sanger's 1922 Tour of Japan Help Spread the Idea of Birth Control and Inspire the Formation of a Japanese Birth Control Movement? (Peter C. Engelman, fl. 2010, Cathy Moran Hajo, fl. 2010, Esther Katz, fl. 2010, Rui Kohiyama, fl. 2010 1922 Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2011)
- How Did the Debate between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett Shape the Movement to Legalize Birth Control, 1915-1924? (Melissa Doak, fl. 2000, Rachel Brugger, fl. 2000 1920 Vol. 4, 2000)
History Vault collections including:
- Workers, Labor Unions, and the American Left in the 20th Century: Federal Records
- Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights. National Politics, and Reproductive Rights
Sanger, M. (2012). The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger.
Sanger, M. (2014). Happiness in Marriage.
Sanger, M. (1956). Motherhood in Bondage.
Sanger, M. (1922). The Pivot of Civilization.
Sanger, M. H. (2016). What Every Girl Should Know.
- The Margaret Sanger Papers, Margaret Sanger Pamphlets, available from ProQuest History Vault. Folder: 002681-076-0838
- Mrs. Sanger Barred by MacArthur from Birth Control Talks in Japan.(1950, Feb 13). New York Times (1923-Current File), pp. 1. Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- The Margaret Sanger Papers, Margaret Sanger Itineraries, Tours and Posters, available from ProQuest History Vault, Folder: 002681-078-0268.
- The Margaret Sanger Papers, Margaret Sanger Correspondence July 1952, available from available from ProQuest History Vault, Folder: 002681-038-0404.
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