The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. Unstinting in their desire to achieve their goals, these remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”—Margaret Sanger
Born Margaret Higgins in a free-thinking family in upstate New York, Sanger’s parents were activists for women’s suffrage, free education and socialism. But they were working class, and Irish Catholic, and as the sixth of eleven children, Margaret Sanger spent much of her early life caring for her younger siblings. Witnessing her mother’s death at age 40, after 18 pregnancies, stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Sanger moved to New York City as a married woman, and worked as a nurse midwife in slums of the Lower East Side. Appalled by the constant influx of patients suffering and dying from sexually transmitted diseases, botched abortions and back-to-back pregnancies, Sanger took action, distributing a pamphlet called Family Limitation, and writing a column for the New York Call entitled “What Every Girl Should Know.” She not only advocated contraception, she attacked both church and state for refusing to acknowledge the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and accused the Patriarchy of deliberately keeping women ignorant about them. For her efforts, Sanger was repeatedly jailed for violating 1873’s Comstock Law, which outlawed the distribution of all contraceptive information and devices (naturally, the Comstock law created a thriving black market in condoms, douches and suppositories). In 1914 she fled the country to avoid prosecution for mailing contraceptive information. But even then, Sanger never gave up; while in exile in Holland, she learned about a new form of contraceptive—the diaphragm—and arranged to have them smuggled into the US.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States. Police raided it nine days later and Sanger served 30 days in prison. After 1918, when a ruling exempted physicians from the law banning distribution of contraceptive information, Sanger made it her goal to involve the medical establishment in her fight for contraception. With the help of her wealthy supporters, including John D. Rockefeller, Sanger opened the first legal birth control clinic, one staffed entirely by female doctors and social workers. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. The League eventually merged with Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to form today’s Planned Parenthood. It was Margaret Sanger who coined the terms “birth control” and “family planning.”
In recent years Margaret Sanger has been attacked as a racist and eugenicist—and, indeed, some of her writings about race are indefensible—and for her radical socialism (she was an ally of anarchist Emma Goldman). But Sanger’s commitment to a woman’s right to control her own fertility and protect her health is unimpeachable, and has done nothing but benefit the lives of women worldwide. If you take the Pill, use a diaphragm, have an IUD, buy condoms, have ever read a book on women’s health or even just skimmed a pamphlet in an ob-gyn’s office, you have Margaret Sanger to thank. Without her, all those things might still be illegal.
In 2000, Time Magazine named Margaret Sanger one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Gloria Steinem’s accompanying essay read:
“Indeed, she lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the century.”