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Margaret Sanger

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She was born Margaret Higgins in 1876, in Corning New York and went on to become a nurse, sex educator and birth control activist.  She was the 6th born in a family of eleven children.  Her mother was a staunch Irish catholic and had about 18 pregnancies by age 45. Her father, Michael Hennessey Higgins, was an atheist and a women’s right activist. In her early years, she spent most of her time doing domestic chores. She also took care of her younger siblings. After a while, her older sibling paid tuition for her to attend Claverack College for two years. However, her dad’s decisions made her abandon school, and take care of her ailing mother, who later died of pneumonia and cervical cancer. Later on, her mother’s friend enrolled her for a nursing program at a hospital in White Plains, in New York. She then met and married an Architect known as William Sanger in 1902, and they moved from New York to start their own family. She bore three children and, for the next years, she devoted herself to taking care and raising her children.

In 1912, their house was destroyed by a fire, and they moved back to New York. It was then that she started working as a nurse in the Lower East Manhattan slums. They discovered the bohemian culture at the Greenwich Village where they interacted with many intellectuals, activists and radicals including Emma Goldman. She developed an interest in reproductive health while working in the poverty stricken slums in Manhattan. Her experience of seeing the women sick and traumatized by recurring pregnancies, and the high number of children in those low income households made her decide to do something about that situation. She decided that dealing with the root problem of lack of birth control measures could improve the conditions of these women.

Birth control could enable women to space the children and decide how many children they wanted.  She knew that contraception and sex education was the best solution; however, Comstock Laws prohibited distribution of contraceptive. Sanger gave an example of a Russian woman who got seriously ill after a self induced abortion, and when she asked the doctor how she could prevent an unwanted pregnancy from happening again, the doctor told her to abstain. Months later, Sanger went to that apartment and found that woman dead in her apartment after a botched self induced abortion. She felt that this situation could be avoided by women taking charge of their sexuality and determining when they were ready to have other children. She gave up nursing and engaged in the distribution of birth control information and wrote The New York Call socialist paper with articles titled “ What every girl should Know” in 1916 and  “ What Every Woman Should Know”.  She was later arrested for distribution of contraception and information and fled to Europe.

Birth control movement started with her return from Europe where she learnt about diaphragms, which were better than the suppositories and douches the women had been using. However, the diaphragms were not available in the United States, and she had to import them against the law. In 1916, she opened the sheer first Birth control clinic in New York (Selected papers, p.199). The first few weeks after the clinic opened, 464 women lined up to receive contraceptives and sex education. She was arrested later that year for breaking the law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives and was convicted. She had worn her appeal when the judge ruled in her favor and allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives. Her arrest, conviction and ruling, fueled the activism and the birth control movement. The first visit to Japan in 1922 was the first of many Asian visits and by 1930’s there were fifty five clinics across the United States of America.

In 1927, she spoke before the first world population conference in Geneva and her world wide fame began. She got a lot of following as she and her followers continued to lobby for better federal and state laws in the country. After her release, she travelled the world learning and teaching about contraception, and it resulted in the establishment of American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Her beliefs also provoked the wrath of pro life advocates, as she believed in infanticide as a way of birth control, eugenics and racial idealism. In Eugenics, she believed that it sought to assist the human race to eliminate the unfit (Engleman, p.132). She was an advocate of this thought that social intervention could improve hereditary traits and that the feeble minded should not be allowed to procreate. She also advocated for sterilization and compulsory segregation of the retarded people in society (Sanger, p.181).

Sanger also proposed that government should be more careful in the issues of immigration to ensure that those with conditions detrimental to the race should not be allowed to immigrate to the United States of America.  Her racial stand brought more controversy in her birth control movement than anything else she had been fighting to achieve. She believed that light skinned people were a superior race, even though she worked closely with the African American community in her clinics, in New York. Her family planning policy and advocacy always focused on contraception rather than abortion, and it was after her death that the movement started to focus on abortion as well as contraception (Sanger, p.12). In all the years of her activism, she viewed birth control as a freedom of speech issue, as it was banned to speak or distribute contraception by Comstock laws.

In 1929, she tried advocating for the overturning of legislation on contraceptive to allow her import diaphragms, but she did not succeed in that.  However, she saw this as an opportunity to take the matter to be determined by the courts. This led to the 1936 court decision allowing doctors and other medical practitioners to obtain and issue contraceptives. The American Medical Association adopted contraception as a normal medical service and part of the medical schools curriculum. She died of congenital heart failure in 1966 at the age of 86 having lived and significantly influenced the reproductive health movement in America. Even after her death, she is still considered as a leading figure in America’s women’s rights.

Margaret is regarded as an icon of the American Reproductive Rights movement because, through her efforts, she gave women the tools and choices they needed to determine the spacing of their children and how many children they want. Her impact is felt through breakthrough in issues of pregnancy, obstetrics and prenatal care. In 1916, when she opened the first birth control clinic in New York she paved the way for the possibilities of women accessing sex education and contraception. This was the first step towards women being in charge of planned parenting and birth control. American Birth Control League (ABCL) formation in 1921 provided a platform to train social and health workers on birth control issues and availing information to the population. In 1936, the federal courts reinterpreted the Comstock’s laws to allow doctors to prescribe contraceptives and the nurses lost the power they had in administering to the poor.  Through her activism and the birth control movement, she convinces a rich heiress to finance research on the oral contraceptive in 1950.  This brought about a suitable birth control method for ladies, as it was not as cumbersome as the other physical methods used to birth control.

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill ands it is now the most commonly used form of contraceptive with a 99% rate of success against conception. Five years later, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Griswold vs. Connecticut made the pill a constitutional right for married women and later for unmarried women. Even after her death in 1966, her legacy of the birth control movement continued, with the federal government allocating funds for family planning services in 1970.  The following year saw the repeal of Comstock Laws and in 1973, in the Roe vs. Wade, made abortion legal.

Her story has been a base of many biographies, and her writings are curetted by New York University’s History department and Smith’s College. She has been honored and received awards from all over the world. She was named Humanist of the year in 1957 by the American Humanist Association, and the Planned Parenthood issues a Margaret Sanger’s award annually to individuals with distinction and contribution to reproductive health and right. The government has dedicated some land marks to her memory, and they include; a residential building in Stony Brook University campus, Margaret Sanger Square in Greenwich Village and a room in Wellesley College’s library. All those honors and landmarks in New York serve as a reminder of the iconic figure that fought for the reproductive rights of women and helped shape policies appertaining to birth control (a word that she coined) and sex education.  She always believed that women should control their sexuality to know that they are free indeed.

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