WeWalk: Behind the Scenes of Opening the Way

Opening the Way is a walking tour celebrating women's history in downtown Manhattan. It is a multifaceted new project developed by the award-winning nonprofit organization Women's eNews. The walk honors the achievements of women such as Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells -- 21 women in all. This blog has been created to update fans of the walk on its exciting developments and expansion. Please join us in revitalizing history that has been ignored or forgotten!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Celebrating Margaret Sanger's Role in the History of Birth Control

I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky.” – Margaret Sanger, recalling the death of a woman who was desperate not to bear any more children.

Today in 1960, the birth control pill was finally approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This victory came about primarily through the work of Margaret Sanger, with support from Katharine McCormick, who was just the second female graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sanger and McCormick first met in 1917, when Sanger was already a well-established activist and McCormick had a sizable inheritance, eventually becoming a major sponsor of the pill’s research.

Sanger began as a nurse on the Lower East Side, but became discouraged as she saw more and more poor women come in for treatment from self-induced and botched abortions. She left nursing in 1912 and founded the monthly publication The Woman Rebel, which included birth control information. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921—the predecessor to what would become the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1942. In 1916, Sanger opened the nation's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days later, police shut it down and confiscated its literature, contraception, and other materials, and Sanger served 30 days in prison. Nevertheless, in 1923, Sanger opened the first permanent birth control clinic in the United States. Today, the Margaret Sanger Center on Bleecker Street continues to be named for her.

But these accomplishments were hardly met without opposition. In 1914, Sanger was indicted on nine charges of obscenity deriving from the Comstock Act. Passed in 1873, the Comstock Act defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it illegal for birth control—or even just information about abortion—to be distributed through the mail or across state borders. This federal law was named after its crusader Anthony Comstock, whose ideals of Victorian morality led him to create the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and advocate censorship in a number of areas.

Sanger witnessed the approval of the pill as an 80-year-old widow living in Tuscon, Arizona, and celebrated by herself with some champagne. She lived to see the Comstock Act’s repeal as well, and died in 1966. Margaret Sanger undoubtedly left her legacy, and today, 80% of American women have used the contraceptive pill.

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