Margaret Sanger Discussion (September 1998)


Margaret Sanger Discusssion (September 1998)


Query From Amy M. Nelson 18 Sept 1998

Greetings! I am starting my research on the birth control movement during the early 1900s, specifically looking at Margaret Sanger and how she succeeded in publicizing such a "taboo" subject. Does anyone know of any good sources?

Also, I am writing the history of the School Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Mankato, Minn. There really isn't much out there about the Mankato convent, but if anyone has general information about the order, I'd appreciate that.


From Lesley Hall 19 Sept 1998

Depends on what level you are researching at, when you ask for 'good sources.' There are two vast collections of Sanger's papers at the Library of Congress and in the Sophia Smith Collection, plus her interactions with others (individuals and organizations) as reflected in their papers in a plethora of different collections. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project in New York has information about what's where (in the 2 collections) and is also involved in various publishing projects. There are also several biographies of Sanger plus at least 2 autobiographical volumes.

From Cathy Moran Hajo 19 Sept 1998

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project published her correspondence, organizational materials and writings in two microfilm series (101 reels), which are available through University Publications of America. There is also a 145-reel microfilmed collection of the Margaret Sanger Collection at the Library of Congress which can be ordered directly from LC.

You can get all the information on Sanger and the availability of the microfilm collections at the Margaret Sanger Papers web site: We also publish a newsletter three times a year; anyone interested should contact me for a subscription.

From Anne F. Mattina 23 Sept 1998

..., I would suggest the chapter on Sanger in _Women Public Speakers in the U.S., 1925-1993: A Bio-Critical Source Book_Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Ed. (Greenwood, 1994)

From Maria Elena Raymond 23 Sept 1998

Sanger has been a topic of discussion on this list a couple of times. If you take
a look at the H-Women website, esp. the bibliographies section , you should find some helpful information...although not all-inclusive. We're at

From Don Weitzman 23 Sept 1998

There will be a documentary on Sanger on PBS circa October 12.

From James Wishart 24 Sept 1998

...there is a biography of Sanger by Ellen Chester entitled _Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America_. It's fairly recent.

From Michelle Kilbourne 25 Sept 1998

Sanger wanted to reach working-class women, so she used working-class and left-wing periodicals, showed up at their rallies, passed out pamphlets, and went door-to-door in their neighborhoods (and set up shop in New York), relied on word of mouth, relied on other women engaged in the movement. A good secondary source is M-J Buhle's book on women and socialism. I would suspect Sanger also inadvertently benefited from her arrest, as it was covered by papers from coast to coast. The point is that the "publicizing"did not rely wholly on the written word, but on other means as well. Moreover, Sanger was not the first woman (or man) to publicize birth control; thus she was able to start her campaign upon the labors of others.

From Lesley Hall 28 Sept 1998

Given Michelle Kilbourne's very apposite remarks about Sanger >Moreover, Sanger was not the first woman (or man) to publicize birth control;
>thus, she was able to start her campaign upon the labor of others.

and given the really rather substantial historiography of the US birth control movement which focuses on MS, I would certainly like to see more history of everyone else who was working on this cause and the wider social history of the spread of family limitation as ideology and practice. Studies on the UK are well beyond the 'Marie Stopes as sole individual heroine of contraception' stage.

My impression of Sanger (re: MK's point about her left-wing affiliations) was that although she was active in socialist and syndicalist circles at first, she dropped these rather rapidly by the early 1920s and made something of a fetish of 'respectability' (getting in with the medical profession, distancing herself from abortion, etc).

From Bud Burkhard 29 Sept 1998

While it is certainly true that Margaret Sanger was not the first or only publicist for birth control, she was the most well known and effective--at least so far as keeping the issue alive and the subject of public debate and discourse. Moreover, she was the one individual most dedicated to make it legal and respectable. Many others certainly worked for the cause over the decades and their efforts are beginning to be documented. I agree with Lesley Hall's call for more studies of the "wider social history of the spread of family limitation...", especially as ongoing studies of the American clinic movement begin to be published.

However, I think scholars have underestimated Sanger's involvement with leftist causes. She was for a time deeply committed to the ideals of socialism and anarchism, and did not throw them off as rapidly or blithely as has been suggested to make a "fetish of respectability." Sanger, for example, had turned against abortion not as a part of a disassociation from the left, as out of a moral discomfort with the practice. Too many women, she believed, were dying from botched abortions and Sanger felt birth control, if properly practiced, would save them. Her disassociation from the left had perhaps as much to do with a series of events in Sanger's private life and the intellectual changes she was experiencing as a result of new professional and personal friendships she was making, as out of a pragmatic desire to shed her bohemian past in order to cultivate more conservative supporters. Moreover, the left itself was under siege in the US in the late teens and early 1920s and, as several scholars noted, it was arguably as much a matter of the left abandoning Sanger as Sanger abandoning the left.

From Lesley Hall 01 Oct 1998

Discovered today in the Family Planning Association archives: Guy Aldred, 4 Mar 1962 to John Peel (who was writing a history of FP) re: Sanger: 'Her work was very important but I believed that she liked to be patronised too much by the great and the rich. I had no time for that sort of thing.'

[Aldred] and his partner Rose Witcop published a cheap UK edition of Sanger's _Family Limitation_ and were prosecuted for obscenity. He was an anarchist and it would seem something of a Puritan (certainly from this letter, written when he was quite old) about matters of sex. Obviously writing with some degree of hindsight, but it's interesting that Stella Browne, writing to Havelock Ellis about her break with Sanger, said rather the same things.