Reproductive autonomy, not eugenics, was Sanger’s driving passion. As she wrote in The Woman Rebel, the magazine she started in 1914, in words that still seem radical, “A woman’s body belongs to herself alone.” It “does not belong to the United States of America or any other government on the face of the earth…. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.”
It is against this background that Sanger’s alliances with the eugenics movement should be understood. Eugenics offered respectability to a cause seen as scandalous and marginal. Its assumptions undergirded almost all discussions of birth control, pro and con.
Undeterred, she went on to found a magazine, The Birth Control Review, and two organizations, the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which in 1942 would merge to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
On October 16, 1916 she opened the nation's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Some four hundred women received instruction in sexual hygiene and various contraceptive methods from suppositories and douches to pessaries. Nine days later police closed the clinic and arrested Sanger and her two coworkers. She was tried and convicted in February 1917 for violating the New York State Comstock Law's ban on the dispensation of birth control information and services and spent thirty days in the Queens County Penitentiary.
When her husband began pursuing a growing interest in painting, Margaret Sanger helped support her family by resuming her nursing, taking cases for the Visiting Nurse Association among the immigrants of New York's Lower East Side. She also began writing articles for the socialist daily, the New York Call, particularly on issues relating to the health of hygiene of the working class women and children she was treating. Among these articles was a 1912-1913 series on sex education, "What Every Girl Should Know," that drew the attention of the U.S. Post Office, which in 1913 suppressed her article on venereal diseases on the grounds of obscenity.
While the Parisian sojourn was enlightening for Sanger - who would soon use the information she acquired to draft a birth control manual - her marriage continued to disintegrate. At the end of December 1913, she left her husband in his Paris studio and returned home with the children, with plans to write a book on Malthusian ideas and sex hygiene. But her sudden departure may have had more to do with her wish to separate from William, who remained to paint, and to rejoin her circle of anarchist free lovers in New York.
The sexual awakening and experimentation pursued by the Village crowd challenged traditional notions of heterosexual marriage and monogamy and contributed to the increasingly fragile state of the Sanger marriage; Margaret Sanger carried on at least one affair before the family retreated to Provincetown on Cape Cod in the summer of 1913, joining other intellectuals, artists, and activists. Both William and Margaret Sanger turned to their own interests that summer, he focusing on painting, she on accumulating information on sex hygiene and possibly on what was then referred to as family limitation.
When she was 23 years old, Margaret met 28-year-old Bill Sanger, a tall, dark, and handsome architect. Sanger was immediately obsessed with this slim and pretty redhead. For weeks, he courted her with expensive dinner dates, daily bouquets of flowers, and long love notes.
What she came to think of as an "awakening" allegedly occurred in the service of a young Jewish immigrant named Sadie Sachs, whom Margaret nursed in a Hester Street tenement through the complications of a self-induced septic abortion. Countless times through her fifty-year career, she would repeat the saga of Mrs. Sach's broken plea for reliable contraception and the doctor's callous rejoinder that she tell her husband, Jake, "to sleep on the roof."
What Margaret really wanted was to become a doctor, a highly considered profession for educated girls of the Victorian middle class, because medical ministrations seemed a natural extension of inherently female sympathies, but the aspiration was far beyond her own economic reach. Nursing was in this sense a disappointment. The hours were too long and the work too arduous, but by her own acknowledgment, the experience left her with a discipline and an endurance she depended upon for the rest of her life.
Maggie, born in Corning, New York, in1879, was the sixth child in a family of eleven children.