Margaret Sanger Slee (1879-1966)
Inducted in 1991
Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
“Humanitarian, author, and fearless advocate, your notable contributions to the improvement of family life and to the study of population problems have earned the gratitude of people all over the world.”
— University of Arizona, Honorary Degree Citation
In 1914 Margaret Sanger started a crusade that would generate worldwide benefits. Influenced by her childhood and her career as a nurse, Margaret became convinced that family planning was a necessity for the well being of individual women. She worked throughout the rest of her life to advance the birth control movement.
A native of New York State, she later adopted Arizona as her home, moving to Tucson to improve her adult son’s health in 1934. Soon after her arrival, she worked with local women to found the Mother’s Health Clinic which distributed contraceptives. A few years later, she helped Phoenix women to start a birth control clinic in their city, which opened in 1937. Sanger inspired a group of volunteers who staffed these clinics, offering women the option of controlling their fertility. In Tucson, Sanger also raised funds for the Tucson Medical Center and served on the hospital board, making lasting contributions to improved health care in southern Arizona.
Margaret Higgins Sanger was born September 14, 1879, one of eleven children of Michael and Anne Higgins. Margaret watched her mother suffer from tuberculosis and grow weaker with each pregnancy, eighteen in all. Margaret attended Claverack College but her education was cut short when her mother became seriously ill, and she returned home to care for her. Anne Higgins died at the age of forty-nine.
As a young woman, Margaret worked as a nurse in White Plains, New York. She married William Sanger, an aspiring artist in 1902. They settled in Manhattan and then Hastings-on-the-Hudson. Margaret gave birth to two sons and later a daughter. The Sangers moved back to New York City, and became involved with the socialist movement. Sanger wrote articles for the socialist newspaper, Call, including information about contraceptives.
At this time, the Comstock Law banned the sale, importation, advertisement and mailing of contraceptives. Disobeying the law, Sanger shared information about birth control in her magazine The Woman Rebel and later through a pamphlet entitled “Family Limitations.” After authorities learned of her actions, Sanger fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She remained in Europe for over a year, returning home in 1915. Shortly after Sanger returned, she lost her daughter Peggy to pneumonia.
In 1916, the court postponed Sanger’s trial and later dropped the charges against her. She continued working for birth control, establishing clinics for low income women. In 1916, she and her sister, Ethel, a trained nurse, opened a clinic in New York City. They saw hundreds of women before a plain-clothed female detective sought advice there, securing the information needed to raid the clinic. This time, Sanger could not avoid a jail sentence of thirty days.
After serving her time, Sanger continued working to educate the public about birth control and to overthrow the Comstock Law. She and William Sanger had divorced earlier, and she married Noah H. Slee in 1921. Sanger traveled to Japan and China, speaking about family planning. She continued to encourage the development of birth control clinics throughout the U.S.
In the mid-1930s, Sanger again challenged the Comstock law by arranging to have birth control devices sent from Japan to American Birth Control League physician Hannah Stone. Since her flight to Europe in 1914, Sanger had developed international ties which provided access to education regarding contraceptives and political influence. In this situation, her contacts in Japan provided a means to ship the diaphragms and challenge the Comstock Law.
As expected, the United States Customs Service intercepted the package, resulting in a court battle concerning the rights of physicians to receive birth control devices through the mail. Judge Augustus Hand heard the case and ruled against the government on appeal, maintaining that when the Comstock Law passed in 1873, knowledge about contraception was poor. In his 1936 ruling, Hand stated that Congress would not have considered birth control as obscene if lawmakers had possessed present-day facts related to contraception and pregnancy’s dangers. Hand’s decision removed all federal bans on birth control, but in practice, it was restricted to married women who consulted doctors.
Sanger’s work in Arizona inspired volunteers who founded clinics in Tucson and Phoenix. These clinics eventually became Planned Parenthood Clinics and continued operating into the twenty-first century.
In Tucson, Sanger lived first in the Santa Catalina foothills. After Noah Slee passed away in 1942, she moved to a home on Elm Street. In the early 1950s, she commissioned an architect to build a fan-shaped home on a nearby lot.
Margaret Sanger enjoyed entertaining in Tucson, painting watercolors and spending time with her grandchildren. She also used her fundraising skills to raise thousands of dollars for the Tucson Medical Center and served on the board of the new hospital.
At the end of her life, Margaret received many honors. In 1952, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In May of 1965, the University of Arizona presented her with an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. Further international recognition came in June of that year when Japan awarded her its Third Class Order of the Precious Crown.
Margaret Sanger died on September 6, 1966, after spending her last years in poor health in a Tucson nursing home.