Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Margaret Sanger and "What Every Girl Should Know"

Margaret Sanger (first part of "What Every Girl Should Know: Sexual Impulse" published 22 December 1912)

The American birth-control activist and educator Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) published a twelve-part series entitled "What Every Girl Should Know" in the New York Call between 17 November 1912 and 2 March 1913. 

Margaret Sanger, 1922
In her excellent New York Times article on Sanger, "Margaret Sanger's Obscenity," Gloria Feldt indicates something of the genesis of Sanger's educational column. In response to shocking mortality rates among infants and small children, and women's complete "lack of information about birth control," Sanger, then working as a nurse in New York's Lower East Side, began her sex-education column.

In 1914, she was arrested for violating the 1873 Comstock Act, which criminalized the "publication, distribution, and possession of information about or devices or medications for 'unlawful' abortion or contraception." 

Sanger was indicted, published her attack on the Comstock Act in a new magazine called The Woman Rebel, and fled to Europe. She returned to the United States in 1916 after charges against her were dropped and opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States. (The clinic was closed ten days after its opening, she was arrested for maintaining a "public nuisance," and she spent thirty days in jail.)

For the first part of Sanger's column on "Sexual Impulse," published on 22 December 1912 in the New York Call, click here.* This publication is made available by New York University's The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, whose homepage can be accessed here.**

You can read a 1920 pamphlet, published by Sanger, containing all twelve parts in the series, by clicking here.***

From Sanger's "What Every Girl Should Know": "In conclusion I cannot refrain from saying that women must come to recognize there is some function of womanhood other than being a child-bearing machine. Too long have they allowed themselves to become this, bowing to the yoke of motherhood from puberty to the grave."

The New York Call produced this
response to the U.S. postal authorities'
suppression of "What Every Girl Should Know"

Update, 17 April 2021: For an excellent op-ed on Margaret's Sanger's racist views (and thus her complicated legacy), Alexis McGill Johnson's New York Times editorial, "I'm the Head of Planned Parenthood. We're Done Making Excuses for Our Founder," is available here.

Update, 10 December 2022: For more, you may be interested in an episode of the BBC podcast, The Forum, focusing on Margaret Sanger: "Margaret Sanger: The Mother of Birth Control." The one-hour discussion includes a discussion of Sanger's accomplishments as well as the controversy surrounding her involvement in eugenics. (To listen, click here. As always, the host Bridget Kendall is amazing!)

Update, 30 July 2023: For Grace Haley's informative piece on the Comstock Act and the way it is being deployed by forced-birth activists and politicians today, here is a link to the essay, published at Jessica Valenti's Abortion, Every Day.

*As of December 2021, Sanger's 1912 "Sexual Impulse" is no longer available at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project website, and I have not been able to find it elsewhere.

**As of December 2023, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project continues to exist but the website seems to no longer function—the site describes the archive, but documents and resources are no longer made available online.

***Although I can no longer find the 1912 original online, a later version of "Sexual Impulse," in a later is in What Every Girl Should Know--for the 1920 pamphlet, click here. Chapter IV is "Sexual Impulse."