Margaret Sanger and the Founding of Planned Parenthood: Background information when reading The Man Who Hated Women

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The Man Who Hated Women

Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

by Amy Sohn

The Man Who Hated Women by Amy Sohn X
The Man Who Hated Women by Amy Sohn
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    Jul 2021, 400 pages

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    Jul 2022, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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Margaret Sanger and the Founding of Planned Parenthood

This article relates to The Man Who Hated Women

Print Review

Exterior of Planned Parenthood clinic with sign that says Care. No Matter WhatIn 1916 in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, three women opened a clinic providing information about birth control. Despite the fact that birth control has existed in various forms for millennia, at the time it was illegal to share such information, and within 10 days the clinic was shut down and the three women — Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell — were arrested. This marked the beginning but not the end of challenges to the existence of the women's health clinics eventually knows as Planned Parenthood.

Charged with violating the 1873 Comstock Act that prohibited disseminating contraception or even information explaining birth control, Sanger and her fellow activists and nurses reopened the clinic anyway only to be shut down again and re-arrested. The judge in the trial captured a sentiment that remains all too familiar today, stating that women did not have "the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception," as Amy Sohn recounts in her book The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age.

Sanger and her like-minded colleagues continued to push for women's right to access birth control, founding the American Birth Control League in 1921 and the Birth Control Foundation of America in 1939. The latter would become Planned Parenthood in 1942. Although the organization would be pivotal in supporting women's rights throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Sanger's views on eugenics and her support for the sterilization of disabled people have rightly led to a reevaluation of her legacy. In 2020, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York removed her name from their building, noting "This is about saying while we value the work Margaret Sanger did, we recognize that in the process she caused harm."

Planned Parenthood was instrumental in research that led to the first birth control pill receiving FDA approval in 1960. It also led a major challenge to the Comstock Act when, in 1965, its leaders sought to legalize contraception in the case Griswold v. Connecticut. Their victory in this case meant that married women could receive contraception from their doctors, a right that was extended to single women in 1972.

The organization was also a grassroots supporter of the movement to legalize abortion, culminating in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, and they've been involved in many 21st-century cases to uphold the right to abortion. A perennial flashpoint politically, Planned Parenthood locations are frequently sites of protests and even violent clashes between pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The furor continues today, with states passing so-called "heartbeat bills" designed to make abortion essentially illegal, and clinics being forced to shut down due to restrictive building codes and other convoluted measures. As a result, women in numerous states have to travel for hours to reach an abortion clinic, which women's health advocates argue is an undue hardship and, in many cases, an outright impossibility.

Today's climate is often reminiscent of the first iteration of Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn in 1916 — the existence of these clinics advocating birth control, abortion and women's health is a challenge to restrictive laws that are cast as protecting the women whose bodily autonomy they seek to control.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2021, before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. For further reading on reproductive rights, see our June 2022 blog post.

Exterior of Planned Parenthood building, courtesy of Planned Parenthood

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Rose Rankin

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Man Who Hated Women. It originally ran in September 2021 and has been updated for the July 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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