Margaret Sanger was born in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Her mother had emigrated to North America in the 1840s, fleeing the Potato Famine, and her father had arrived as a teen, and marched as a drummer for the US Army during the Civil War. While Sanger is best remembered for her activism in the Progressive Era and beyond, it is important to recognize her views were shaped by the Victorian Era she grew up in.
Her father was a stonemason who made headstones and cemetery statues. He advocated for girls education and women’s property ownership rights. Margaret’s mother was a devout Irish Catholic who bore 18 pregnancies over 22 years, resulting in 11 surviving children. Middle child Margaret (sixth born survivor) spent her childhood occupied with the endless chores of running a home and raising children.
Encouraged by her parents and older sisters, Margaret attended college and had a short stay at White Plains Hospital (1900) as a trainee nurse before marrying William Sanger in 1902 and ceasing her education. They settled into suburban life in Westchester, New York and had three children. In 1911 a fire destroyed their home and lowered their financial standing. They moved to Greenwich Village.
William was an architect by trade but took on house painting jobs between commissions. Margaret got a job as a visiting nurse, doing home visits in East Side slums. Problems of poverty, overcrowding, and fertility collided before her very eyes. After a somewhat rural childhood and her years in the suburbs, I think urban poverty must have shocked her in its volume and immediacy.
Margaret became an avid activist and advocate for socialist and feminist issues. She marched with strikers, joined women’s leagues, and published two columns on birth control for a socialist magazine. Those columns were later reprinted as books “What Every Girl Should Know” and “What Every Mother Should Know.” Witnessing the effects of back alley abortions caused her to hate abortion, and love contraception as a means of preventing it.