Margaret Sanger: Radical Heroine
Margaret Sanger founded a movement in this country that would institute such a change in the course of our biological history that it is still debated today. Described by some as a "radiant rebel", Sanger pioneered the birth control movement in the United States at a time when Victorian hypocrisy and oppression through moral standards were at their highest. Working her way up from a nurse in New York's poor Lower East Side to the head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret Sanger was unwavering in her dedication to the movement that would eventually result in lower infant mortality rates and better living conditions for the impoverished. But, because of the way that her political strategy changed and evolved, Margaret Sanger is seen by some as a hypocrite; a rags to riches story that involves a complete withdrawal from her commitment to the poorer classes. My research indicates that this is not the case; in fact, by all accounts Margaret Sanger was a brave crusader who recognized freedom and choice in a woman's reproductive life as vital to the issue of the liberation of women as a gender. Moreover, after years of being blocked by opposition, Sanger also recognized the need to shift political strategies in order to keep the movement alive. Unfortunately, misjudgments made by her in this area have left Margaret Sanger's legacy open to criticism. In this paper, I would like to explore Margaret Sanger's life and career as well as become aware of some of the missteps that she made and how they reflect on both.
Margaret Sanger was not born a crusader, she became one. A great deal of her early life contributed to the shaping of her views in regards to birth, death, and women. Born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York to Michael and Anne Higgins, she was the sixth of eleven children. Anne Higgins was a devout Catholic while Michael Higgins was a stonemason with iconoclastic ideas and a flair for rebellion. It was her father that fascinated Margaret. Corning, being a strictly Catholic town, disapproved of Michael Higgins and, consequently, the stone cutting commissions that kept the family fed were often lacking. The children did not fair much better than their father in terms of public ridicule. The Higgins children would arrive to school to chants of "Children of the Devil". One day, her teacher saw to it that Margaret was made the brunt of the torment in class, at which point she simply picked up her things and left the schoolhouse vowing never to return. Margaret was exceptionally bright in school and her father pleaded with her to go back. Margaret refused. Margaret's two older sisters, Mary and Nan, offered to pay for the cost of a private school out of their paychecks if Margaret agreed to wait tables for her room and board. So, in 1896 Margaret ended up at Claverack, one of the first coeducational schools in the East. It was there that her natural leadership skills blossomed in the form popularity and pranks (Miller 199-203).
After graduation, Margaret taught first grade in a public school in New Jersey; she loved it. Unfortunately, Margaret had to leave her job that same year to care for her mother who had become critically ill. Anne Higgins had suffered from tuberculosis since before Margaret was born, but Margaret still tried her hardest to nurse her mother back to health. All of her attempts failed and, in March of 1896, Anne Higgins died. Margaret always believed that it was her mother's frequent pregnancies (18 total) that led to her ill health and premature death. Realizing that it was her turn to pitch in and help the family, Margaret stayed at home and took over most of her mother's duties. Margaret did not mind the housework much, but it was the change in her father that she could not handle; he had turned in to a bitter tyrant that rant the girls ragged. Margaret reconciled with her father,...
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