Digital History

The Struggle for Women's Suffrage

Birth Control Previous
Digital History ID 3210



Few people have had a larger impact on the 20th century than Margaret Sanger, who led the effort to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies. She coined the phrase "birth control," opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, brought legal suits that allowed doctors to distribute birth control information, founded Planned Parenthood, and pushed for the development of the birth control pill.

Under the Comstock Act of 1871, it was illegal to distribute information about birth control or birth control devices through the U.S. mail. In 1913, the U.S. post office refused to deliver an issue of a New York newspaper, the New York Call, because it contained an article about syphilis written by Margaret Sanger. The next year she was indicted by an all-male grand jury for writing about birth control in a magazine called the Woman Rebel. Afterwards, she fled to Europe for two years.

Her staunch support for birth control was rooted in two incidents. The first was the death of her Irish Catholic mother, hastened, she believed, by 18 pregnancies. The other was the death of an immigrant mother who died of complications from a self-induced abortion.

In 1916, she and her sister-in-law, Ethel Byrne, both trained nurses, opened the first American birth control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y., with the slogan: "Every child a wanted child." Ten days later, police shut down the clinic and arrested the two women, but not before nearly 500 women had visited the clinic. Charged with creating a public nuisance, the two were sentenced to 30 days in jail.

In the mid-1930s, Sanger won a series of court cases that ruled that obscenity laws could not be used to restrict the dissemination of information about pregnancy prevention. As a result, doctors in many states began to prescribe the use of contraceptives.

Throughout the 1950s, Sanger raised money to finance research on a birth control pill. In 1960, the first birth control pill went on the market.

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