Margaret Higgens was born in Corning, New York, on 14th September 1883. She was the sixth of eleven children. Her mother also had seven more babies that died in childhood, before dying of cervical cancer. Educated at Claverack College, she became a trained nurse and married William Sanger, an architect, in 1902. After moving to Saranac for health reasons she gave birth to three children. Over the next 12 years she devoted herself to being a housewife and mother.
In her autobiography she wrote: "My own motherhood was joyous, loving, happy. I wanted to share these joys with other women. Since the birth of my first child I had realized the importance of spacing babies, but only a few months before had I fully grasped the significant fact that a powerful law denied and prevented mothers from obtaining knowledge to properly space their families."
When her three children were old enough to go to school she returned to work as a public health nurse in the slums of New York. Sanger joined the Socialist Party and became friends with other radicals such as John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge, Robert Minor, Agnes Smedley, Kate Richards O'Hare, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Flynn, Norman Thomas and Emma Goldman.
In July 1912 she was summoned to a Grand Street tenement. "My patient was a small, slight Russian Jewess, about twenty-eight years old, of the special cast of feature to which suffering lends a madonna-like expression. The cramped three-room apartment was in a sorry state of turmoil. Jake Sachs, a truck driver scarcely older than his wife, had come home to find the three children crying and her unconscious from the effects of a self-induced abortion." When Sadie Sachs died Margaret Sanger made a pledge to devote her life to making reliable contraceptive information available to women. She began her campaign by writing a column for the New York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know."
Upset by the poverty she experienced as a nurse in New York she founded a radical feminist magazine, The Woman Rebel. As Sanger later observed in her autobiography: "During these years in New York more and more my calls began to come from the Lower East Side, as though I were being magnetically drawn there by some force outside my control. I hated the wretchedness and hopelessness of the poor, and never experienced that satisfaction in working among them that so many noble women have found. My concern for my patients was now quite different from my earlier hospital attitude. I could see that much was wrong with them that did not appear in the physiological or medical diagnosis. A woman in childbirth was not merely a woman in childbirth. My expanded outlook included a view other background, her potentialities as a human being, the kind of children she was bearing, and what was going to happen to them."
After the death of a patient during childbirth Sanger decided to devote her life to making reliable contraceptive information available to women. She published the Birth Control Review and persuaded Lou Rogers and Cornelia Barns to be co-art editors of the journal. The main theme of her articles was that "no woman can call herself free who doesn't own and control her own body." After advice about birth-control appeared in her newspaper in 1915, she was charged with publishing an "obscene and lewd article".
The Masses gave its full support to Sanger's campaign. Floyd Dell was assistant editor at the journal: "The Masses published articles in defense of of Margaret Sanger, and the magazine was immediately flooded with thousands of letters from women, asking for information about the methods of birth control, and giving the best as well as the most heart-breaking reasons for needing such information. These letters, as associate editor, I answered, saying that we were forbidden by law to give the information; then, as a private individual, I carefully turned over all these letters to other private individuals, who mailed this information to the women; and in this law-breaking I cheerfully and conscientiously participated. I believed then, as I do now, that it is a moral duty to violate evil laws."
Margaret Sanger fled to Britain and it was while she was in London she met Marie Stopes. She later recalled: "She then explained to me that, owing to her previous unfortunate marriage she had no experience in matters of contraception nor any occasion to inform herself of their use. Could I tell her exactly what methods were used? I replied that it would give me the greatest pleasure to bring to her home such devices as I had in my possession. Accordingly, we met again the following week for dinner in her home, and inspected and discussed the French pessary which she stated she then saw for the first time. I gave her my own pamphlets, all of which contained contraceptive information."
After hearing Sanger's story Marie Stopes decided to start a birth-control campaign in Britain. She knew it would be dangerous as several people in Britain, including Richard Carlile, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, had been sent to prison for advocating birth-control.
In December 1914 Sanger sent a letter to Havelock Ellis. As Phyllis Grosskurth, the author of Havelock Ellis (1980), has pointed out: "He invited her to tea the following week and was startled to find her so pretty and so comparatively young. At first she was overwhelmed by his patriarchal beauty and his refusal to make small talk. She was also surprised - as many others were on first meeting him - by his thin, high voice, so unexpected in a man of his size."
Sanger fell in love with Ellis. She wrote in An Autobiography (1938): "I was at peace, and content as I had never been before... I was not excited as I went back through the heavy fog to my own dull little room. My emotion was too deep for that. I felt as though I had been exalted into a hitherto undreamed-of world."
Soon afterwards Sanger tried to turn it into a sexual relationship. Havelock Ellis wrote to her explaining "What I felt, and feel, is that by just being your natural spontaneous self you are giving me so much more than I can hope to give you. You see, I am an extremely odd, reserved, slow undemonstrative person, whom it takes years and years to know. I have two or three very dear friends who date from 20 or 25 years back (and they like me better now than they did at first) and none of recent date."
Sanger returned to New York City and on 16th October, 1916, with the help of Kitty Marion, she opened a family planning and birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was raided nine days later by the police and Sanger served 30 days in prison. In 1917 she published What Every Mother Should Know.
Ernest Gruening, the editor of The Nation, was one of Sanger's greatest supporters and joined her campaign to distribute birth-control literature. When Patrick Hayes, the Archbishop of New York, condemned Sanger's attempts to hold a meeting in the city on the subject, he commented that "I am confident that in this great city of ours the majority of the women are too pure, clear-minded and self-respecting to want to attend or hear a discussion of such a revolting subject."
In the next edition of The Nation Gruening argued: "The Archbishop has furnished the birth control movement with advertising worth thousands of dollars. He has given all anti-clericals definite and specific evidence of clerical interference in government and hostility to the fundamental American rights of free speech which will be used in those anti-Catholic campaigns which The Nation has deplored."
Gruening invited William R. Inge, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London, to write an article on birth-control, which began: "The control of parenthood is perhaps the most important movement in our time. It is not only universal in the civilized world, but the degree to which it is practiced is a very fair gauge of the position of that country in the scale of civilization." Gruening added: "I continued my own activities in behalf of the birth-control movement which for the next third of a century continued to be opposed by the same forces against which Margaret Sanger had battled so indomitably."
In 1921 Sanger founded the American Birth-Control League. Later that year her friend Marie Stopes also opened the first of her birth-control clinics in Holloway on 17th March 1921. Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop, joined the campaign and when they published a pamphlet written by Margaret Sanger, they were found guilty of selling an obscene publication. The case drew much press coverage and the couple were supported financially by John Maynard Keynes, Dora Black and Bertrand Russell. Later that year this group was joined by Katharine Glasier, Susan Lawrence, Margaret Bonfield, Dorothy Jewson and H. G. Wells to establish the Workers' Birth Control Group.
Margaret Sanger continued her campaign and in 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva. The following year she resigned as the president of the American Birth-Control League and devoted her energies to the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. She also published two books on the subject: Motherhood in Bondage (1928) and My Fight for Birth Control (1931).
In 1932 Margaret Sanger became president of the Birth Control International Information Center. The dissemination of birth control information by doctors was finally legalized in the United States in 1937. Her memoirs, The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger was published in 1938.