Margaret Sanger

By: Lynn Peril
September 14, 2009


As a visiting nurse in New York’s tenements at the turn of the 20th century, MARGARET SANGER (1879-1966) once heard a woman recovering from a self-induced abortion beg her doctor for information on how to keep from getting pregnant again. “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof” was his flippant reply. When the woman died three months later after another attempt to end yet another pregnancy, Sanger embarked on a lifelong crusade to make contraception available to the masses. It wasn’t easy. Most issues of her publication, Woman Rebel — the term “birth control” made its first appearance in its pages — were confiscated by the Post Office, but that didn’t stop the authorities from indicting Sanger on nine counts of sending contraceptive information through the mails. On the eve of trial in 1914, she fled to Europe, where she took the opportunity to learn still more about birth control methods; the indictment was eventually quashed. In 1916, she and her sister opened their first birth control clinic, in Brooklyn; the police shut it down, and Sanger spent 30 days in jail. The court case that followed laid the groundwork for the eventual legalization of birth control — for married couples in 1965, and singles seven years later.

Also see: The Keeping-My-Baby Meme.

MORE ACTIVISTS: Mother Jones | Alexander Berkman | Eugene V. Debs | Tina Modotti | Big Bill Haywood | Lucy Stone | Antônio Conselheiro | Emmeline Pankhurst | Félix Fénéon | Meridel Le Sueur | Pierre-Joseph Proudhon | Zo d’Axa | Mikhail Bakunin | Voltairine de Cleyre | Emma Goldman | Will Allen | Rosa Luxemburg | Simone de Beauvoir | Émile Henry | Pancho Villa | Joe Hill | Margaret Sanger | Aldo Leopold | Screaming Lord Sutch | Nestor Makhno | Dorothy Day | Garry Kasparov | Adriano Olivetti | Mildred Harnack | Frederick Douglass | Murray Bookchin | George Orwell | Bayard Rustin | Abbie Hoffman | Ti-Grace Atkinson | Gloria Steinem | Rudolf Rocker | Stokely Carmichael | Angela Davis


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jackson Publick, Ben Cohen, Amy Winehouse, Margaret Sanger.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).


Activism, HiLo Heroes

What do you think?

  1. Thanks for the question, Rod. We don’t always make explicit where our Hilo Heroes fall on the map of dispositions. Sometimes, it’s because we’re not entirely sure (except that we’re sure the person is not middlebrow). Speaking only for myself, and not for the author of this item, I’d call Sanger a lowbrow. In our analysis of the dispositions, the lowbrow doesn’t merely pity society’s weakest members, she imaginatively enters into the experience of others, feels their pain. ( doesn’t regard lowbrows as unintelligent or unintellectual. Empathy is not unphilosophical; in fact, inverting the term’s usual etymology, Levinas once called philosophy “the wisdom of love.”) Their empathy drives lowbrows to ameliorate the flaws of classic liberalism and modern capitalism, e.g., in the name of “family values.” Although today’s anti-highbrows who’ve hijacked the language of family values regard Sanger as a cold-hearted villain, she was quite the opposite.

  2. Thanks–reading these essays is like examining a mosaic piece by piece and trying to discern the larger image. Most of them have their place on my own cultural map, but there’s something elusive for me about Sanger.

  3. We could sure use another of her today. Over the past thirty years, the left seems to have done a massive retreat on the matter of limiting births. You’d think the eco people especially would be all over the cause, as they were in the ’70s (whatever happened to Zero Population Growth?), but instead they are apparently afraid to bring it up.

  4. We got a copy of Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy the other day (1832) where he talks about the same issues, including recommendations for birth control, and the ruinous effects of huge families on the lower classes and it’s amazing how far we’ve gotten from all of this basic common sense.

    Maybe we need another Malthus too.

  5. Rod, you have great instincts. Actors are tough, generally, to fit into our scheme — they’re all ciphers. MacMurray seemed to embody something about the culture… but, again, it’s an elusive concept. Please keep posting, keep us on our toes.

    Yeah, population control was once a lowbrow idea — empathy was its impetus. But its opponents have successfully branded it an anti-lowbrow idea, a cold-blooded elitist, classist, racialist idea.

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