Margaret Sanger, "Autobiographical Sketch," 1924.
Source: " Public Opinion on Women (1924), pp. 150-153 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Collected Documents Series C16:233."
I had for my father not only a great man, but a great philosopher. Both of my parents are of Irish birth and both came from a long line of thinking fighters. My father in particular is an idealist. At the present time he is fighting for the ideal of international peace and international understanding. My mother was one of those old fashioned gentlewomen who devote their lives to the happiness of their husbands and the welfare of their children. She bore eleven children of whom I was the fifth. I was born in Corning, New York State, in 1883. Early in my childhood days, I was instructed by my father that one's life must be a great effort toward accomplishing an ideal. He would often say to his children that what they must first attain was a dream or a vision and then make their life work a struggle to make that dream come true. He also taught me in earliest childhood days that no one can achieve happiness alone, that my happiness depended upon my food, my clothing, my shelter, and therefore I was dependent for happiness upon those who provided these necessities for me. I was in duty bound to consider what I in turn could do to alleviate and assist those millions of men and women who were providing for my comforts and physical necessities and to bring happiness to their lives. This philosophy was my earliest teaching and some one who knew my family in those days said that we were "rocked in the cradle of liberty and nursed at the breast of the goddess of wisdom."
I was always considered a child too old for my age. I was always nursing the sick cats, dogs, horses or other domestic animals that came within my reach. I was also the advisor and little mother for the homeless children in the neighborhood and my days, especially my play time hours, seem to have been spent nursing and bandaged cut fingers of my playmates. Up to the time I was sent away to a boarding school, my life was spent in the little country town in which I was born. This is an industrial city where the finest glass in the world today is produced and cut. Very early I was made to realize that my playmates--both boys and girls--were sent into the factories as soon as they were old enough to secure working certificates and were unable to take advantage of educational opportunities. I learned that invariably the reason behind this grim fact was the pressure of providing necessities for the little brothers and sisters at home.
My own father was a highly skilled artisan. He was a sculptor carving out his vision in marble and granite. Even though he was highly paid, my own family was made to endure many privations in order to obtain the necessary education which the ambition of parents demanded.
My reading as a child was strangely unbalanced. I had for my day time studies the serious philosophy of Henry George who wrote "Progress and Poverty," Edward Bellamy who wrote "Looking Forward," Nietzsche's "Ecce Homo," and Schopenhauer's essays whose philosophy angered and tormented my curiosity. There were other writers along these lines. While my day-time study and reading dealt with serious thought, my night reading around the fire-place was always devoted to fairy tales. These were read from the standard works of Grim or were original stories of Irish folk-lore, the product of my father's wonderful and vivid imagination. As I look back upon these contradictory influences I realize that my parents wished to keep their children simple and yet to encourage original thinking.
My boarding school days had a very great influence upon my social life. Up to this time I had been entirely under the influence of my parents--especially my father, for my mother became an invalid after the birth of her last child. Now at the boarding school I was thrown together with five hundred boys and girls of my own age and was left to my own devices--to "sink or swim" along with these various characters and individuals. I took very naturally to gymnastics, dancing and basket ball, and during four delightful years studied many social activities. I was the first girl at this school to deliver an address on woman suffrage. It was announced that I was to deliver this address in the public forum and I had much difficulty in practicing my delivery because of the amusement and the jokes that were played upon my by the students. In fact, I was compelled to go to a cemetery two miles away from the school to practice the delivery of my address. I succeeded, however, in convincing my hearers of the inevitability of women's emancipation, and later on there were many arguments and debates which resulted in a suffrage organization in that community. At this time I was only fourteen years old and the next year I plunged heavily into political discussion. During these years I formed many charming friends whose friendships have been retained up to the present time. I attempted to make my career that of a physical and passed examinations into Cornell University. Immediately preceding my entrance, my mother died and I had to give up my career in order to mother my younger brothers and sisters. After satisfactory arrangements were made for our home life, I entered a three year course of medical study in the New York Hospital to specialize in medicine and nursing. It was here that all of philosophy of life was put into practice and here that I came into intimate contact with the nakedness, not only of human bodies, but of human souls. It was here that I saw birth and death as grim realities, and during these four years of study and devotion I learned to know that there are two human instincts which guide humanity in its destiny. These instincts are Hunger and Love. While much attention has been given to the former, very little attention has been directed toward understanding the latter, and as the solution of the problem of hunger has been the aim of man, so will the understanding and direction of the love impulse come under woman's realm. As the faster woman evolves in her emancipation, the higher and more spiritual will be her understanding of the beauty of life and of love.
When I finished my medical training, I married William Sanger, an artist. Mr. Sanger is an artist of the new day. He belongs to that school of the impressionists generation has passed away. He has the temperament of the idealist and is willing to sacrifice material gain in order to live up to his own ideal. He is considered to be temperamental and eccentric but is acknowledged by all who have looked on his work to be a genius.
My marriage to Mr. Sanger came as a logical sequence to my life's work, for he helped me to realize love in all its pristine beauty. Three children were born to us. Stewart is now eighteen, Grant is thirteen, and the little daughter who passed away five years ago, would have been nine. When I fist began my married life, I had a dream of a large family. We built a large house--an Italian villa--over looking the Hudson River in which we made provision and plans for at least ten children. By the time my third child was born, I gave up this plan and also the house and decided that it would be better for my three living children to have a mother who had health and to raise them, if possible, to full maturity, than it would be to risk my life to further maternity. My children were spaced far enough apart to permit me to continue my studies in economics and science and to develop literary clubs and to keep abreast of current topics. My husband and I evolved a plan of working together for six months and to spend the other six months in the country with our children for leisure to devote ourselves to their development and recreation. In this way we were both permitted to develop our tastes, he continued with his artistic career, while I spent my leisure time in the study of sex hygiene.
It is impossible to hide one's knowledge, and I could in no time when I was called upon to lecture in social hygiene before working girl's club and various women's organizations. These lectures I delivered in the evening after my day's work, for I continued nursing for six months each year continually though many years.
In 1912 I became convinced that the necessary element in woman's freedom was not the vote but control over her own body. For no matter what ideals placed before the mother of the day, such ideals were cast aside to make place for the more urgent need of her life–-"How can I prevent having more children than I can feed, clothe and care for." This was the urgent cry of mothers in the poor districts everywhere.
In 1912 I was confronted by a serious case of a mother who had been brought to death's door though the ill-advised attempt to interrupt a pregnancy. She was poisoned as the result, and with the greatest difficulty we brought her out of the valley of death. She already had a small family of three children and felt she could afford no more. She asked me and the doctor to advise her how to prevent conception, but we both turned away and left her question unanswered. A few months later I was called again to this woman's bedside, but this time it was too late to rescue her, for she died before either of us could aid her.
I was greatly agitated by this woman's death and I saw from it the whole panorama of social evils arise before me. I resolved that night to devote my life to help women avoid such experience and to rescue them from such untimely death. Since 1914 I have been publicly advocating the idea of Birth Control. I expect to continue in such work until every mother in the entire world may have such knowledge if she desires it.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project