Historical Essay

Copyright © 1999. Esther Katz. All rights reserved.

Introduction to the Edition

The documents gathered for this edition chronicle Margaret Sanger's publication of the radical, feminist journal, The Woman Rebel, and her emergence as the foremost leader of the birth control movement. The events surrounding the publication of The Woman Rebel in 1914, including Sanger's indictment for violation of federal obscenity laws, her unlawful flight from prosecution, her 13 months in exile in Europe, and her emotional return to New York in the fall of 1915 to face trial, trace the inception of the birth control movement in the U.S. and mark a pivotal time in Sanger's life. The Woman Rebel established Sanger as a dynamic and controversial feminist voice, the leading birth control agitator in America, and an influential international leader, a position she held for the next fifty years.


Margaret Sanger was the mother of three, a wife, nurse and seasoned radical by the time she first declared her resolve in the pages of The Woman Rebel to defy the law and provide women with contraceptive information. Immersed in the liberating bohemian and radical political culture of Greenwich Village in New York, Sanger developed a vibrant sexual and philosophical independence in the years leading up to World War I -- a belief in the potential of women to change the social structure of society by obtaining sexual equality through birth control.

Her work as a nurse accompanying doctors to immigrant neighborhoods in New York's Lower East Side, where she saw first-hand the suffering of women from home abortions and incessant childbearing, shocked and angered her enough to become an activist determined to find a means of educating women about their bodies. Her experiences in New York Socialist politics and as a labor organizer during the I.W.W.-led 1912-1913 strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey grounded her in the methods of protest and propaganda. In her personal life -- she was estranged from her husband and often uprooted from children and home -- she drew sustenance from a newfound sexual freedom and pursuit of sexual gratification. When, in the spring of 1914, Sanger decided to articulate her doctrine of women's sexual emancipation in the pages of The Woman Rebel, her personal compulsions and political convictions merged to engender a crusade for birth control that would develop into one of the major reform movements of the twentieth century and fundamentally alter women's sexual, reproductive and professional lives.

The Woman Rebel

After conducting research on European contraceptive methods and meeting with socialist theorists and French syndicalists during a 1913 trip to Paris, Sanger had returned to the U.S. convinced that women could become the primary agents of social and economic change. In March of 1914, she published the first issue of The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newspaper, designed and written from her New York apartment. On its masthead, etched in crude, block letters, was the defiant slogan drawn from the Industrial Workers of the World strikes, "No Gods, No Masters." Sanger wanted the paper to be a fulcrum for uniting women around issues of class and gender oppression. She called on women "to speak and to act in defiance of convention." Her immediate aim was to challenge the laws that prevented contraceptive education and the distribution of contraceptive devices. "Birth Control," a term first coined in the pages of The Woman Rebel, provided the foundation and rallying point for Sanger's burgeoning new feminism, one that focused on sexual and reproductive autonomy for women. Sanger argued that unless a woman could be the "absolute mistress of her own body," all other gains -- suffrage, economic equality, education -- were peripheral.

The tone of The Woman Rebel was revolutionary, angry, and some charged quite shrill, but it included an array of contributions by leftist writers on labor strife, marriage, prostitution, and revolution. Sanger's own frank articles on birth control and sexuality provided the editorial focus of the paper, which quickly gained in notoriety. Not surprisingly, the paper also attracted the attention of the postal authorities in New York and piqued the censorious Anthony Comstock, self-appointed moral crusader, who had banned Sanger's articles on sexual hygiene in the New York Call in 1913. Circulation of The Woman Rebel violated a series of 1873 federal laws named after Comstock that prohibited distribution through the U.S. mails of materials considered lewd, lascivious or obscene, including any form of contraceptive information. Before the second issue of The Woman Rebel reached the press, postal authorities notified Sanger that she must cease distribution immediately.

Sanger continued publication, but rather than including specific information on contraceptive techniques in The Woman Rebel, she began writing Family Limitation, a short pamphlet that outlined the importance of birth control and gave graphic details and instruction on various contraceptive methods. In August of 1914, after continuing to defy postal authority notices, Sanger was indicted for violating obscenity statutes in three issues of The Woman Rebel, specifically for several articles on sexuality and for one titled "A Defense of Assassination" by Herbert Thorpe.


Sanger managed to postpone her trial until October at which time she decided to flee to Europe to escape a potential maximum sentence of 45 years, and to let publicity mount in her favor. She took a train to Montreal, travelling under the alias "Bertha Watson," and then sailed for England. En route, Sanger notified friends to release 100,000 copies of Family Limitation. The pamphlet quickly circulated among women throughout the country, sparked a public debate on birth control, and further provoked Comstock and the U.S. Attorney's office.

In exile in Europe, Sanger advanced her views on the relationship of birth control to women's emancipation and to improving an array of social and economic ills. She read widely at the British Library under the tutelage of noted sex psychologist Havelock Ellis and established close relations with British neo-Malthusians. She also visited contraceptive clinics in Holland at the invitation of Dr. Johannes Rutgers. While abroad, Sanger wrote a series of pamphlets on English, French and Dutch methods of birth control. During these months, she also formally separated from her husband, William Sanger, while pursuing intimate relationships with Ellis and with Spanish educator, anarchist and writer, Lorenzo Portet. Meanwhile, William Sanger who had stayed in New York with Sanger's three children, was arrested in January of 1915 for giving a copy of Family Limitation to one of Comstock's agents. He fought the charges against him, keeping the issue of birth control and Sanger's exile alive in the press, and served a thirty-day jail sentence in the New York City's Tombs.

The Trial

Sanger returned home in October of 1915 to finally face trial and articulate her now more sharply focused argument on the need for reproductive autonomy for women. In the midst of her trial preparation her five-year old daughter Peggy died of pneumonia. Peggy's death left Sanger weakened and riddled with guilt, but also produced a groundswell of sympathy and support for Sanger and the cause of birth control. The media frenzy that followed prompted the U.S. Attorney's office to dismiss charges in February of 1916, admitting that they did not want to create a martyr.

The Legacy of The Woman Rebel

The publication of The Woman Rebel laid the foundation for the future work of the birth control movement and the personal crusade of Margaret Sanger. She continued to challenge the Comstock Laws by opening the nation's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1916, founding a new monthly, the Birth Control Review in 1917, and by organizing the first American birth control conference in New York in 1921. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League that same year, and by 1923 opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau -- the prototype for a national network of doctor-staffed clinics that sprang up around the country in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1930s Sanger lobbied unsuccessfully for the repeal of the Comstock Laws through the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control and won a judicial decision, U.S. v. One Package, that exempted physicians from the Comstock Law restrictions on dissemination of contraceptive information. In the 1940s, though semi-retired, Sanger continued her work with her birth control clinic and aided in the formation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. After World War II, she returned to active work and was instrumental in helping to found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, serving as its president from 1952-1959. Sanger died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona.

Margaret Sanger published The Woman Rebel to both defy the law and "raise ... birth control out of the gutter of obscenity and into the light of human understanding." (MS to Friends and Comrades, January 5, 1916) Although only eight issues of The Woman Rebel were published, and many copies were confiscated by the post office, the controversy it generated sparked the emergence of a viable national birth control movement dedicated to women, and propelled Sanger into the forefront of American reformers.

Recommended Citation: The Papers of Margaret Sanger, ed. Esther Katz, et. al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999). Electronic version. http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]


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