Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1917 for distributing contraceptives to immigrant women from a makeshift clinic in a tenement storefront in Brooklyn, New York. When she died fifty years later, the cause for which she defiantly broke the law had achieved international stature. Although still a magnet for controversy, she was widely eulogized as one of the great emancipators of her time.
For more than half a century, Sanger dedicated herself to the deceptively simple proposition that access to a safe and reliable means of preventing pregnancy is a necessary condition of women's liberation and, in turn, of human progress. Although she encountered enormous resistance in her own lifetime and still invites criticism, Sanger popularized ideas and built institutions that have widespread influence today. Her leadership, though often quixotic, helped create enduring changes in the beliefs and behavior of men and women who perceive themselves as modern, not only in America but throughout the world.
Birth control and the promise of reproductive autonomy for women have fundamentally altered private life and public policy in the twentieth century. As the late psychologist Erik Erikson once provocatively suggested, no idea of modern times, save perhaps for arms control, has more directly challenged human destiny than has birth control, which may account for the profound psychic dissonance and social conflict it tends to inspire. 1
Margaret Sanger was an immensely attractive woman: small, lithe, and trim. Her green eyes were flecked with amber, her hair a shiny auburn, her smile warm and charming, her hands perpetually in motion, beckoning even to strangers. As H. G. Wells once described her, she had a quick Irish wit, high spirits, and radiant common sense. She married twice and enjoyed the affection and esteem of both men and women, who provided her a lifelong network of emotional, financial, and organizational support. At the same time, she could be