This Day in History: What Got Margaret Sanger Arrested in 1916

October 21, 2022

On October 26, 1916, Brooklyn police officers arrested nurse Margaret Sanger. She was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail where she went on a hunger strike. When her jailers force fed her, Sanger became the first woman in the U.S. to be so treated. What did she do to bring the authorities down on her? What was her crime? 

Colorized photo of Margaret Sanger, American leader of Birth Control Movement. (Getty Images)

Margaret Sanger was arrested and served time for educating women about birth control and distributing contraceptives. As an early advocate for birth control, Sanger was willing to defy the law to see that women who wanted to limit their number of offspring had the resources to do so safely. Let’s look at the criminal activity of America’s first birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger.

Who Was Margaret Sanger?

Margaret Higgins Sanger was born in 1879. Her father was an Irish Catholic who became an atheist. He was a big proponent of both women’s suffrage and free public schooling. Her mother endured 18 pregnancies with eleven surviving children. Margaret attended Claverack College and became a nurse in 1900. Two years later, she married William Sanger, a man she would eventually divorce because of her activism. 

Eye-Opening Experiences

Margaret Sanger, just before testifying at the Senate Judiciary committee in Washington, D.C., seeking support of the "Doctor's Bill", introduced by Senator Gillet of Massachusetts. (Getty Images)

The Sangers lived in New York City and Margaret worked as a nurse. She made frequent house calls to low-income women living in the slums. It was an eye-opening experience for her. She encountered women with multiple back-to-back pregnancies, numerous children to feed, and chronic gynecological health problems. She worked with other women who had frequent miscarriages and ones suffering from self-induced abortions.

Sanger’s work with these impoverished women made her realize that most poor women at the time had no knowledge of safe and effective ways to avoid unwanted pregnancies. She also observed the link between lack of contraception, family size, and poverty. She went to several public libraries in the city in search of information about contraceptives, but she came up empty-handed. The root of the problem was the Comstock Law of 1873. This federal law, together with several state laws, made it illegal for women to obtain information about birth control because it was too ‘obscene’. Sanger made it her mission to change this and set in motion the actions that would eventually lead to her arrest and hunger strike.

Birth Control, But Not Abortion

To be clear, Margaret Sanger was an advocate of birth control, but not abortion. Because she was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood, Sanger is often criticized by anti-abortion advocates, however, Sanger was opposed to abortions. As a nurse, she refused to participate in abortion procedures.

In 1914, Margaret Sanger relocated to England. She connected with women’s rights advocates in Europe and spoke about her belief that poverty and starvation could be relieved if women could control their reproductive rights. She toured around Europe and learned about birth control methods from the more liberal Europeans. Some of these methods, particularly diaphragms, were not available in the U.S. at the time so Sanger arranged to have them imported from Europe, which was against the law.