Jean Baker: "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion"

Jean Baker: "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion"

Margaret Sanger spent her life fighting to give women access to birth control. A new biography of the family planning pioneer and why she remains controversial today.

Margaret Sanger spent her life fighting to enable women to plan how many children to have and how often. Working in the slums of New York in the early 1900s, she saw the toll frequent childbirth took on women. She began to view birth control - a term she coined - as a way to help poor families. She was vilified and even jailed for her efforts. More than a century later, Sanger and the Planned Parenthood organization she founded are still under attack. GOP candidate Herman Cain recently called the group "Planned Genocide." The author of a new biography of Sanger tells the story of her battle for women's reproductive rights and why she remains controversial today.


Jean Baker

professor of history at Goucher College and author of many books on 19th-century American history.

Program Highlights

Margaret Sanger began her campaign to legalize birth control 100 years ago. At the time, even written literature about contraception was banned as pornography. Sanger died in 1966, a year after a Supreme Court decision protected an American's right to use contraceptives. Jean Baker's new book on Sanger examines the woman's life and motivations.

Sanger's Early Life

Sanger's mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, dying at age 48. Sanger herself was the sixth child of 11 in a poor Irish family in Corning, New York. Sanger grew up to marry an architect, move to Hastings-on-Hudson, and have several children, but Baker says Sanger would never have been happy to have lived a calm, suburban life there. She encouraged her husband to move the family to New York City, where she began associating with radicals and intellectuals in Greenwich Village.

A Growing Interest in Reproductive Rights

After moving to the city, Sanger became more interested in birth control methods and women's reproductive rights. She believed that no woman was free who could not control her body. She traveled to Europe, where developments of new kinds of birth control were happening. At the time, the only widely available contraceptives in the U.S. were pessaries and diaphragms, and early researchers were focusing on developing spermicides. But Sanger started supporting new work in endocrinology that would allow women to have greater control over their reproductive cycles.

Opening the First Clinic

Sanger's opening of the first women's clinic in 1916 was, according to Baker, "an act of civil disobedience." Sanger went around her New York neighborhood handing out posters asking, "Do you want to have another child?" Can you afford another child?" and imploring people to come to the Brownsville clinic for help. "And they lined up. The women came," Baker said. Within a few days, an undercover policewoman visited the clinic, and a few days after that, police came to shut down the clinic and arrest Margaret Sanger, her sister, and a translator who had been helping to run the clinic. Sanger made the best of the setback, insisting on walking to the jail and taking the opportunity to turn the situation in to a public relations win. In jail for a month, Sanger taught the women in prison about birth control.

Sanger's Legacy

Some people mistakenly believe that Sanger was a proponent of abortion, but Baker say this is simply not true. Baker points out that Sanger died in 1966, and abortion was not legalized in the U.S until 1971, so abortion was still often dangerous and harmful for women in her lifetime. Today, there is a common misconception that one of Planned Parenthood's main goals is to provide abortion services to women. But Planned Parenthood has stated that its abortion services amount to about 3 percent of its total services, with 90 percent of its services classified as "preventive."

You can read the full transcript here.

Related Video

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion by Jean H. Baker. Published November 2011 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Jean H. Baker. All rights reserved:

Please familiarize yourself with our Code of Conduct and Terms of Use before posting your comments.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.