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Margaret Sanger was an early feminist and women's rights activist who coined the term "birth control" and worked towards its legalization.
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Watch a short video about Margaret Sanger and find out how she started a movement encouraging women to take control of their bodies.
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Rather than face a possible five-year jail sentence, Sanger fled to England. While there, she worked in the women's movement and researched other forms of birth control, including diaphragms, which she later smuggled back into the United States. She had separated from her husband by this time, and the two later divorced. Embracing the idea of free love, Sanger had affairs with psychologist Havelock Ellis and writer H. G. Wells.
Sanger returned to the United States in October 1915, after charges against her had been dropped. She began touring to promote birth control, a term that she coined. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. Sanger and her staff, including her sister Ethel, were arrested during a raid of the Brooklyn clinic nine days after it opened. They were charged with providing information on contraception and fitting women for diaphragms. Sanger and her sister spent 30 days in jail for breaking the Comstock law. Later appealing her conviction, she scored a victory for the birth control movement. The court wouldn't overturn the earlier verdict, but it made an exception in the existing law to allow doctors to prescribe contraception to their female patients for medical reasons. Around this time, Sanger also published her first issue of The Birth Control Review.
In 1921, Sanger established the American Birth Control League, a precursor to today's Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She served as its president until 1928. In 1923, while with the league, she opened the first legal birth control clinic in the United States. The clinic was named the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. Also around this time, Sanger married for her second husband, oil businessman J. Noah H. Slee. He provided much of the funding for her efforts for social reform.
Wanting to advance her cause through legal channels, Sanger started the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in 1929. The committee sought to make it legal for doctors to freely distribute birth control. One legal hurdle was overcome in 1936, when the U.S. Court of Appeals allowed for birth control devices and related materials to be imported into the country.
For all of her advocacy work, Sanger was not without controversy. She has been criticized for her association with eugenics, a branch of science that seeks to improve the human species through selective mating. As grandson Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, explained, "She believed that women wanted their children to be free of poverty and disease, that women were natural eugenicists, and that birth control, which could limit the number of children and improve their quality of life, was the panacea to accomplish this." Still Sanger held some views that were common at the time, but now seem abhorrent, including support of sterilization for the mentally ill and mentally impaired. Despite her controversial comments, Sanger focused her work on one basic principle: "Every child should be a wanted child."
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With Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony began working to establish women's right to vote in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, Anthony never got to see the impact of her efforts—the 19th Amendment, granting women the righ to vote, was passed on August 26, 1920, more than a decade after Anthony's death—but hers remains one of the most important stories in women's history. Explpre this group to learn more about Anthony and other leading suffragettes, including Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louisa May Alcott, Alice Paul, Dorothy Day, Amelia Bloomer and Jeannette Rankin.
Visit Biography.com's Women's History group to explore more biographies, photos and videos of some the world's most fascinating women.
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