Convictions to Action: Margaret Sanger’s Legacy and Leadership Lessons

Folks have asked me to post this speech that I gave at the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on September 13. Today, September 14, would be the 130th birthday of the founder of the American Birth Control Movement, Margaret Sanger. So here you go!

I just got back from my high school reunion in West Texas. It was a long journey from teen mom with little sense of power over or intention for my life to a movement leader and an activist for women’s human right to reproductive self-determination.

So when I tell you I’m amazed to be here with you, so near 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, where Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic 93 years ago next month—believe it! This is hallowed ground.

Would the girl born Margaret Higgins in Corning NY in 1879, the sixth child of eleven living siblings, have imagined she’d be immortalized by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party as a flaming red vulva here in the Brooklyn Museum?


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The first leadership lesson I learned from the founder of the birth control movement is:   All worthwhile accomplishments start with a vision. Not a small, incremental vision, but a bold, audacious, flaming red, bigger than yourself vision.

I’ve often turned to Margaret Sanger for inspiration, courage, and practical examples of movement building in the face of both external opposition and institutional resistance.

Today I’ll focus on 9 leadership lessons I learned from her by telling you the story of her life and work, and opening a discussion of the challenges still before us.

While Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are lauded for saying women’s rights are the great moral imperative of the 21st century, and I’m glad they are saying it,  the fact is Margaret said the essentially same thing 100 years ago.

She was visionary and practical, courageous and cranky, idealistic and pragmatic, a redheaded, green-eyed feminist socialist who died a registered Republican, mother, grandmother, sexual adventurer, a woman of many contradictions—but then aren’t we all?

The personal and political are intertwined in her life as in mine, and probably yours.

Margaret’s earliest childhood memories were of crying beside her mother’s bed after a nearly fatal childbirth. Anne Higgins, a devout, traditional Catholic, did die at age 50, worn out from frequent pregnancies and births.

Margaret’s father was a freethinker, a stonemason, a charmer who loved to drink and spin a tale but was less than a dependable provider. Margaret knew poverty; she identified with the struggles of women. Her experiences formed her sensibilities about the moral rightness of birth control. And she had that freethinker streak that allowed her to break boundaries.

She enrolled in nursing school. But a few months shy of finishing, she resigned to marry a handsome architect, William Sanger.

Three children followed, along with stresses well known to women today– how to pursue both profession and parenthood. When fire destroyed their suburban home, the family moved into New York City. Bill’s widowed mother moved in with them and Margaret began to take special duty nursing assignments.

Imagine: 1912. 8 years before women got the right to vote. A time of political and intellectual ferment. Of rapid immigration, economic turmoil, crowded tenements.

Have you toured my favorite museum, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum?

According to the 1900 census, the 18 wives living in the museum’s Orchard Street tenement had given birth to 111 children, of whom 67 were alive. A 40% infant and child mortality rate sounds shocking now. Back then it was the norm. Maternal mortality was 99% higher than it is today; 40% of those deaths were caused by infection, half of those from unsafe back alley or self-induced abortion.

Birth control, such as existed, was illegal too, largely because of Anthony Comstock —the one-man sex police. Comstock formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

He was appointed a special investigator for the U.S. Postal Service where he could personally enforce the 1873 law named for him, making it illegal to send information or devices for birth control or abortion through the mail. Many state laws followed suit.

Comstock bragged that he had seized 60,000 “obscene rubber articles” and tons of “lewd and lascivious material”. Like today’s abstinence only zealots, he didn’t distinguish healthy, responsible sexual expression from promiscuity, pornography, prostitution.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU is a great resource on Sanger

Margaret soon demonstrated her second leadership lesson: A leader is someone who gets things done—she turns vision into action.

The Nike Swoosh had nothing on Margaret Sanger. She said,

“I have noticed that for those people who compromise by the excuse that ‘the time is not yet ripe,’ the time never does arrive for decisive, courageous action.

Comstock was about to meet his match.

The defining moment came when Margaret was called to an overcrowded tenement to nurse a 28-year-old mother of three, Sadie Sachs.  Sadie had been told another pregnancy would kill her. But when she asked her doctor how to prevent pregnancies, he callously replied, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.”

Bitterly poor, weak from her last pregnancy, Sadie self-aborted. She got a raging infection (pre-antibiotics). She begged Margaret to tell her how to prevent pregnancies. Margaret shared what knowledge she had, but it wasn’t much.

A few months later, Margaret was called back to the same house. Again, Sadie had self-aborted. This time she died, leaving a bereft husband and three small children.

Margaret walked for hours afterward, immersed in grief that she hadn’t had an answer for Sadie.  Back home, she looked out over the city and saw a panorama of misery:

“children dying in infancy, neglected and hungry pushed into the labor market to help earn a living…mothers half-sick most of their lives.”

She resolved,

“Women would have knowledge of contraception…I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. No matter what it should cost, I would be heard.”

Leadership lesson #3: There’s power in your story.

Margaret told Sadie’s story over and over. Dramatically. Using all media at her disposal, connecting the personal story with the call for political change.

She wrote a sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for a Socialist newspaper, “The Call”.

Comstock censored it. The following week, the paper ran an empty space with the headline, “What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing by order of the U.S. Post Office.”

She ratcheted it up by publishing a periodical, “The Woman Rebel,” to challenge Comstock directly. About this time, a friend coined the term “birth control.” Margaret ran with it.  It was, as the media mavens say, sticky.

She was arrested in August, 1914. Rather than stand trial—she hadn’t aroused public opinion sufficiently yet, she fled to Europe. She researched homemade birth control methods prevalent in France. In England, she began what would be a long term affair and deep intellectual bond with sexologist Havelock Ellis.

She visited a clinic in the Netherlands, where family planning advice, diaphragms, and contraceptive jelly had been dispensed for 30 years. This gave her the model she would emulate when she returned home in the fall of 1915, and the vision of a network of clinics all over the country.

The fourth leadership lesson I learned from Margaret Sanger is the importance of timing.

Did you ever see anyone so happily posed for her arraignment?

She sensed the tide turning in her direction. Bill Sanger had been arrested for distributing birth control pamphlets, with much media fanfare, and her rival leader in the birth control movement, Mary Ware Dennett, had started the National Birth Control League. Readers of “The Woman Rebel” flooded the charismatic Margaret with letters of support.

On January 17, 1916, the eve of her trial, she gave what she called her “maiden speech.” She would repeat it 119 times across the country. Excerpts:

They tell me that “The Woman Rebel” was badly written, that it was crude, that it was emotional and hysterical, that it was defiant and too radical. To all these indictments, I plead guilty.

Women from time immemorial have tried to avoid unwanted motherhood.

On the one hand, I found wise men, sages, scientists, discussing birth control among themselves. But their ideas were sterile. They did not influence the tremendous facts of life among the working classes or the disinherited…I might have taken up a policy of safety and sanity—but would I have got a hearing?

I felt myself in the position of one who has discovered that a house is on fire and it was up to me to shout out the warning.

Leadership Lessons # 5, 6, and 7:

Use what you’ve got.  What you need is usually there if you can see it. Controversy is your friend; it gets people’s attention.

Outmaneuvered, the prosecution dropped the charges in February.

On Oct. 16, 1916, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the nurse; they couldn’t get a doctor to help them. Handbills in English, Yiddish and Italian advertised the clinic.

Police closed down it 10 days and 464 patients later.

But Sanger had founded something much larger than a clinic: she had ignited a great movement for women’s reproductive freedom.

Ultimately, she was arrested 9 times for her civil disobedience. Each time, she used what she had—not money, certainly not the law, and few influential supporters. But she had the power of an idea that touched a deep human need.

This is my favorite example of her brilliant use of controversy to rally people to her cause:

In 1929, she was banned in Boston. She got esteemed Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. to read her speech for her while she stood gagged beside him. This made major papers across the country. Imagine if she’d had Twitter and YouTube!

“Dear Mrs. Sanger” letters flowed:

DMS: married at 20 to a laboring man, in 11 years I have five living children, one stillborn, and 5 miscarriages…I am desperate…DMS: I’m writing to you as the last hope of help. I’m the mother of 8 children and have nothing. I never expect to have but just children…

She compiled these stories into a book, Motherhood in Bondage, which inspired my own first book, Behind Every Choice Is a Story.  Even in the 21st century, there is no end to the heartrending human stories.

Successful legal challenges began to convince doctors they could provide birth control to their patients.

Margaret cris-crossed the country helping start clinics; increasingly, prominent women joined these efforts. Here she is with volunteers and patients at the Tucson Mother’s Health Clinic in 1936. She lived in Tucson, both for her son’s asthma and her second husband, Noah Slee’s retirement, starting about that time.

Slee, millionaire founder of Three-in-One Oil company, was so besotted with his wife that he smuggled diaphragms illegally for her clinic, staked the Holland–Rantos pharmaceutical company to increase the supply of diaphragms and condoms, and contributed loads of money and time to her efforts while providing her with separate living quarters to live as she pleased—her condition for marrying him.

There were over 80 local clinics by 1942 when the Planned Parenthood Federation of America was formed. Margaret hated the name, thought it was weak, a euphemism for what she was about–birth control.

She was wrong that time—Planned Parenthood turned out to be one of the strongest brand names ever. But the conflict over style and strategy continues to this day.

Though she remained its honorary chair, as the organization became more mainstream, she looked for new and bigger goals elsewhere.  She found those by forming the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and raising the money to develop the birth control pill. She was convinced that an effective, woman-centered pill would be the transformational, woman-controlled, method to free women from Motherhood in Bondage at last.

The birth control pill saved my life when it was approved by the FDA in 1960—well actually 1962 by the time it reached West Texas. It allowed me to have a life, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Birth control was finally legalized nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v Connecticut in 1965, and then abortion was legalized in 1973 with Roe v Wade; both based on a right to privacy. The government started financing family planning for low-income women as part of the Great Society programs. Today, more than 95 percent of Americans have used birth control. When the Mayflower Moving Company surveyed customers about what they’d take first when they moved, birth control ranked in the top four. Now that’s a culture shift!

Don’t get me wrong. Margaret was far from perfect.

She was egotistical. She rarely credited others’ contributions to the movement. Though unwavering about her mission, she changed her argument based on what was selling at the time. Her strategy was to go where the power to help advance birth control was.

That’s how she came to align with the eugenicists during the 1930’s when that sentiment was at its height. She saw through it sooner than most and broke away publicly; still, this remained a stain on her personal narrative and the one most difficult to remove.

Those opposed to women’s equality in any form will always use it against her and the movement she founded, even though she more than redeemed herself and was among the first U.S leaders to denounce Hitler.

Sanger’s argument also morphed variously into women’s health, poverty alleviation, population control, and “every child a wanted child.” These are all valid benefits of birth control. Still, the feminist crusade for women’s biological and sexual liberation was where Sanger started and was the core principle to which she returned over and over.

My dear friend Alice Bogert who hosted Sanger when she spoke in Chicago during the 1930’s told me, “I think she quite liked the gentlemen.”

That was an understatement. And they liked her. She slept with the most interesting men of her time, including H.G. Wells who would later call her the heroine of the 20th century.

She loved parties, especially international theme parties with costumes, and threw them often. Her friend Grace Sternberg in Tucson told me she was a notoriously bad driver—people knew to get out of her way. She fancied herself an artist. I had one of her watercolors in my Phoenix office, and believe me, it’s a good thing she had another calling.

In less than a century, the movement Margaret Sanger launched won so many victories that most people couldn’t believe they could ever be reversed.  That was certainly the mood when I became executive director of the fledgling West Texas Planned Parenthood in 1974.

Instead, the backlash against such sweeping change in the gender power balance was fierce, and the War on Choice rages on.

Leadership lesson #8: A movement has to move. Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, not from standing still.

That’s why as Planned Parenthood’s president, I focused on building the grassroots, advocating a proactive agenda, and raising the profile of the organization as both a service provider and a political force.

Our great challenge now is to shift the moral and legal framework from privacy to women’s human rights to make their own childbearing decisions, to connect reproductive justice with economic justice, and to say as clearly as those early feminists did that it’s time for women to have an equal place at life’s table.

And in the immediate future, to make sure health reform includes comprehensive reproductive health care for women.

For, as Margaret said so many times in so many ways,

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free who cannot choose for herself whether and when she will become a mother.”

This was her core conviction. But no one knew better that convictions alone aren’t enough.

This is the leadership lesson I hold most dear, and it’s a good summation of Margaret’s life: “Life has taught me,” she said, “We must put our convictions into action.”

One last story, from Ellen Chesler’s excellent biography of Margaret:

Not long before she died in a Tucson nursing home in 1966, a few days shy of her 88th birthday–The New York Times obituary said she was 82, which would have pleased her–her granddaughter and namesake Margaret Sanger Lampe asked how she’d like to be remembered. She said she hoped she’d be remembered for helping women.

And help women, she most surely did.

Listen to a 1953 recording of Margaret Sanger on “This I Believe” with host Edward R. Murrow here.


  1. andy on March 21, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    My god things have certainy changed for the better. What hardship these people had to go though in there lives. Makes you stop and think.

  2. […] and nonprofits: Susan B. Anthony and women’s rights, Jane Addams and the Settlement House, Margaret Sanger to call up some women from history. Candy Lightner and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Emily May […]

  3. […] and nonprofits: Susan B. Anthony and women’s rights, Jane Addams and the Settlement House, Margaret Sanger to call up some women from history. Candy Lightner and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Emily May and […]

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