What difference can one rebellious person make to change the culture of the country?  Quite a bit if one is familiar with the story of Margaret Sanger.  Born Margaret Higgins, she was child number six of eleven of a mother who died of tuberculosis.  She believed her mother’s many births led to her death which inspired her to learn as much as she possible could about the subject of child birth.  When she became a mother she had problems with tuberculosis and pregnancy which prompted her to become a nurse.  Early on in her nursing career she learned about the plight of poor women and unintended pregnancies; convincing her advocate for contraceptives on their behalf.

The important thing to remember is that at the beginning of the 20th century contraceptives were illegal: they had to be smuggled in from other countries, which she did.  If a woman was poor and had an unintended pregnancy; her options were quack medicines or unintended suicide.  One way to prevent such unfortunate occurrences is to educate the public about contraceptives with a newsletter called Woman Rebel.  Intended as a public service, the newsletter violated laws prohibiting send obscene material through the mail.  Around this time, she traveled to several European countries learning about contraceptives, and wrote about it in a pamphlet called Family Limitation.  Over 10 million copies were printed and it was translated into different languages.

In 1916 she opened a clinic that distributed contraceptives in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, servicing mostly immigrant woman.  This was a risky proposition because most doctors did not want to violate the law of giving contraceptives to women, but giving it to men was perfectly legal.  Women came from the tristate area to receive their services, which brought the clinic to the attention of the authorities.  At trial she was offered a suspended sentence if she would agree not to commit the crime again and she refused; as a matter of principal she chose jail time.  By 1936 a judge ruled that the government could not interfere in the distribution of contraception.

In her effort to free woman of unwanted pregnancies, she supported the eugenics movement.   At that time most of the movements supporters wanted to limit undesirables from the gene pool, which Margaret spoke out against vociferously.  In 1930 she opened up a family planning clinic in Harlem and later expanded her clinics to the rural south.  By the end of her life she founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation, raising money for research for involving contraception.

One of the lessons that Margaret Sanger’s story teaches people, especially women, is that one person can really make a difference and change society.  While Making It to The Finish Line does not condone breaking laws (keeping in mind Martin Luther King Jr. also broke laws) bravery is an important part of achieving any goal.  Another important lesson is that people can support terrible ideas for the noblest of reasons.  If you are interested in learning more about Margaret Sanger and other inspirational woman check out the source below.

Dreier, Peter. The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. New York: Nation, 2012.


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