Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement

Name/School: Amy Rutenberg, Ardsley High School
Grade Level: 10-12
Time Period: 1910s-1920s
Topic: U.S. History: Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement
Lesson: An inquiry as to why Margaret Sanger changed her strategy to legalize birth control from radical to mainstream eugenic. 

Overview: Margaret Sanger is a well-known birth control advocate from the turn of the twentieth century. However, it is less well-known that she changed her methods and reasonings as her crusade to legalize the dissemination of birth control information progressed.  In her early years, she was considered a radical, continually and purposefully breaking the law to draw attention to her cause.  However, by the late 1920s, the attitude of the country had shifted and she allied herself more and more with the male-dominated medical establishment, seeing this as the only way to accomplish her goals.  In the late 1920s, this mean espousing the benefits of eugenics, a movement that was well under way during the 1920s.

Time: 1-3 45 minute periods


  • Letters from clients to Margaret Sanger asking for help and advice
  • Excerpts from the “Comstock Laws”
  • Photos of families and children by Jacob Riis
  • Introduction from first edition of “Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger
  • Introduction and “To the Working Woman” from seventeenth edition of “Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger


Concepts (Big idea/central theme):

  • Students will understand why Margaret Sanger changed her strategy in her fight to legalize birth control.
  • Students will evaluate the efficacy of this change.

Content (What students should know):

  • Students will recognize the desperation of those women who could not obtain birth control.
  • Students will learn about living conditions in rural America and in crowded urban centers.
  • Students will determine why many members of society were against the legalization of birth control.
  • Students will formulate arguments for and against the legalization of birth control.
  • Students will be able to summarize the major events of Margaret Sanger’s life.
  • Students will examine Margaret Sanger’s arguments in favor of the legalization of birth control.
  • Students will compare and contrast Sanger’s stated reasons in 1914 vs. her stated reasons in 1928.
  • Students will evaluate the morality of Sanger’s actions and attitude shift.
  • Students will understand the major arguments of the eugenics movement.
  • Students will trace the interplay of radical ideas with mainstream culture in the fight to change society.

Skills (What students should be able to do):

  • Students will use primary sources to establish a setting.
  • Students will analyze legal terminology.
  • Students will act as historians by interpolating, inferring, and generalizing about broader historical themes based on a specific set of documents.
  • Students will use specific written passages from a source to support their findings.
  • Students will become more comfortable speaking up and participating in class discussion.
  • Students will generate new ideas.
  • Students will evaluate historical processes.
  • Students will learn to think historically. 


1)  Have students read several letter or excerpts of letters from clients to Margaret Sanger asking for information and advice about birth control.  This can either be done in class or for homework the night before.
2)  Have students analyze photos of New York’s Lower East Side taken by Jacob Riis.  These are easily findable either online or in his book How the Other Half Lives.  Focus on living conditions, tenement housing, and the prevalence of children in these images.
3)  Have students analyze excerpts from the “Comstock Laws” to determine exactly what was illegal about birth control.
4)  Introduce the Margaret Sanger and the broad outlines of her activities.  Avoid explaining her specific arguments.  Instead, focus on her actions in the mid-1910s.
5)  For homework on the first night, have students write an editorial or letter to the editor of a newspaper in 1915 either in favor of or against the legalization of the dissemination of information about birth control.
6)  At the beginning of the second day, have students share their editorials or letters to the editor with the class.  Write their major arguments on the board.  Discuss the following with the class:

  • Which arguments do you think are the most effective?
  • Which arguments do you think have too much of a twenty-first century sensibility?
  • Which do you think Margaret Sanger used?

7)  Have students read the introduction of the first edition of Margaret Sanger’s pamphlet “Family Limitation” and fill in the guided reading form.  This can either be done individually or in groups. 
8)  Go over the answers in the whole class.  Explain the social climate of New York in the 1910s, the labor movement, the prevalence of socialist/communist thought, anarchism, etc. 
9)  For homework, have students read the section “To the Working Woman” in the 17th edition of “Family Limitation,” published in 1928.  Have them fill in the accompanying handout.
10)  On the third day, start class by having students go over their homework answers in groups.  Have each group pick a total of their three favorite revisions.  Have them write the original and revised versions of these sentences on posting paper.
11)  Have each group post and present their findings to the class.
12)  Discuss what happened and their individual impressions with the class.
13)  Lecture/discuss Sanger’s shift from radicalism to her alliance with the male-medical establishment in the context of the time – eugenics, the Red Scare, etc. 
14)  If there is time, it might be interesting to pass out the introduction to the 17th edition of “Family Limitation” which is clearly in favor of eugenics.  Information on Sanger’s belief in eugenics can be found at the Planned Parenthood website.  It will be necessary to be very careful with this discussion, however as Sanger has been both heavily criticized and misunderstood in terms of her role in the eugenics movement.  She is often criticized as being racist and only one step below the Nazis.  Introducing the case of Buck v. Bell could be useful in terms of showing the prevalence of the movement in this time period.
15)  Finish class with a short discussion of the results of the legalization of birth control on American society.
16)  For homework, have students write a short response that answers the question: “Was Sanger’s shift right?  In other words, did the ends justify the means?”  They should use information from previous class discussions and handouts to support their findings.

Evaluation/Assessment: See procedure step 16 above.


  • Letters from Sanger’s clients to her, 1923-1924, Courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers, Microfilm, Reel 2, The Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
  • Excerpts from “Family Limitation” 1st and 17th editions.  Courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers, Box 85, folder 6, The Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
  • Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Penguin Classics, reprinted 1997.
  • Planned Parenthood website:
  • Text of the Comstock Law: 

Comstock Law

Be it enacted…That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States…shall sell…or shall offer to sell, or to lend , or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper of other material , or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any king, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section…can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States…he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court….

Social Studies Standards Addressed (New York State):
Standard 1: United States and New York History:

1. The study of New York State and United States history requires an analysis of the development of American culture, its diversity and multicultural context, and the ways people are unified by many values, practices, and traditions.

  • Students will analyze the development of American culture, explaining how ideas, values, beliefs, and traditions have changed over time and how they unite all Americans.

2. Study about the major social, political, economic, cultural, and religious developments in New York State and United States history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.

  • Students will compare and contrast the experiences of different ethnic, national, and religious groups, including Native American Indians, in the United States, explaining their contributions to American society and culture
  • Students will understand the interrelationships between world events and developments in New York State and the United States (e.g., causes for immigration, economic opportunities, human rights abuses, and tyranny versus freedom).

3. The skills of historical analysis include the ability to: explain the significance of historical evidence; weigh the importance, reliability, and validity of evidence; understand the concept of multiple causation; understand the importance of changing and competing interpretations of different historical developments.

  • Students will analyze historical narratives about key events in New York State and United States history to identify the facts and evaluate the authors’ perspectives
  • Students will evaluate the validity and credibility of historical interpretations of important events or issues in New York State or United States history, revising these interpretations as new information is learned and other interpretations are developed. (Adapted from National Standards for United States History)