“No Gods, No Masters,” the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World, was her personal and political manifesto. Emma Goldman and Bill Haywood, Mabel Dodge and John Reed, were her earliest mentors and comrades. Allied with labor radicals and bohemians, Margaret Sanger emerged on the American scene in those halcyon days at the turn of the twentieth century when the country seemed wide open with possibility, before world war, revolution and repression provided a more sober reality.
She organized pickets and protests and pageants in the hope of achieving wholesale economic and social justice. But what began as a joyous faith in revolution quickly gave way to a more concrete agenda for social reform. In 1913, working as a visiting nurse on New York City’s Lower East Side, she watched a young patient die tragically from the complications of a then all-too-common illegal abortion, and vowed to abandon palliative work, devoting herself instead to single-minded pursuit of sexual and reproductive freedom for women.
Women would achieve personal freedom by experiencing their sexuality free of consequence, just as men have always done, Sanger predicted. But in taking control of the forces of reproduction, they would also lower birthrates, alter the balance of supply and demand for labor, reduce poverty and thereby achieve the aspirations of workers without the social upheaval of class warfare. Not the dictates of Karl Marx but the refusal of women to bear children indiscriminately would alter the course of history, a proposition ever resonant today, as state socialism becomes an artifact of history while family planning, though still contested by conservative religious forces, endures with palpable consequences worldwide.
In 1917 Sanger went to jail for distributing contraceptive pessaries to immigrant women from a makeshift clinic in a tenement storefront in the Brownsville district of Brooklyn. The nation’s birthrate was already declining as a result of private contraceptive arrangements and a healthy underground trade in condoms, douches and various contraptions, but it was Sanger who first recognized the far-reaching consequences of bringing the issue of reproductive freedom out in the open and claiming it as a woman’s right. She staged her arrest deliberately, to challenge the state’s anachronistic obscenity laws–the legacy of the notorious Anthony Comstock, whose evangelical fervor had captured Victorian politics and led to the adoption by the federal government and the states of broad criminal sanctions on sexual speech and commerce, including all materials related to birth control and abortion. Authorized as a special agent of the US Post Office, with the power to undertake searches and make arrests, Comstock had died of pneumonia two years earlier, after repeated confrontations with Sanger and her supporters that generated widespread publicity and sympathy for her cause, transforming it from a radical local gesture to a cause célèbre.
Appeal of Sanger’s clinic conviction also established a medical exception to New York law. Doctors–though not nurses, as she had hoped–were granted the right to prescribe contraception for health reasons. Under that constraint, Sanger built what became the modern family-planning movement, with independent, free-standing facilities as the model for distribution of services to women without private healthcare, a development that occurred largely in spite of American medical leaders, who remained shy of the subject for many years and did not formally endorse birth control until 1937, well after her clinics had demonstrated its efficacy.