Margaret Sanger: Tucson's Irish Rebel

As St. Patrick's Day approaches, we look back at a local 20th-century icon

In the fall of 1934, Margaret Sanger and her grown son, Stuart, pointed their small Ford west from New York and headed for Arizona's heat and light.

Well-traveled as the birth-control pioneer was at this stage in her life--she was 55 years old, a veteran of countless cross-country trips, European jaunts and even a 30-day stay in a New York jail--the state struck her as strange.

"Arizona was so unlike any place I had been before," she wrote in Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, published four years later in 1938. "You either had to be enthralled by it or hate and dread it. Not being quick to come to conclusions, I was not at first sure. But I knew there was a delight in the cool nights and the translucent, sunny days with a lovely tang in the air."

Sanger had some co-writers on her autobiography, a couple of journalists who holed up with her in Tucson and polished up her taped conversations for the book. Historians consider it a toned-down version of Sanger's fiery life, and its genteel tone differs markedly from her private writing. In a letter written from Tucson on Oct. 8, 1934, to her secretary, Florence Rose, for instance, Sanger revealed entirely different sentiments about this peculiar desert place:

"It's sizzling hot--I drip. Sleep under the stars at night but with bats flying overhead & rattle snakes underneath & spiders watching for their midnight meal."

The two texts reveal the divide that is Margaret Sanger. If her public persona, at least in her later years, tended to be buttoned-down and respectable, her voluminous letters and diaries show her to be as feisty and outspoken as she was in her youth, and still endowed with a pointed Irish wit. Yet, as a resident of Tucson the last 30 years of her life, she moved easily among the city's upper crust, joining the Tucson Country Club, acting as president of the Tucson Watercolor Guild, donating money to the Tucson Little Theatre and serving on the founding board of Tucson Medical Center.

"A lovely lady by the name of Margaret Sanger Slee was very active in the early days of the formation of the community hospital," Roy Drachman wrote in his memoir, Early Tucson, speaking of TMC. Drachman and the other Tucson movers and shakers naturally were aware of Sanger's storied past, and a number of them, including Drachman, Cele Peterson and newspaper publisher William Mathews, were listed as sponsors on the letterhead of the Planned Parenthood Clinic of Tucson.

"Mrs. Slee was famed for her efforts in behalf of birth control throughout the world," continued Drachman. "On more than one occasion she had been jailed by officials who thought her philosophy regarding this sensitive subject was not only unpopular but against the law of the land. Subsequent events and conditions have proven how far she was ahead of the thinking at that time on this important subject."

But in her New York youth, Sanger was not just ahead of her time; she was a bona fide radical. She ran with the Socialists and the Wobblies. She published a daring magazine called The Woman Rebel, emblazoned with the slogan, "No Gods, No Masters." And she declared repeatedly and without quarter the shocking idea that women have the right to decide whether to have children--or not.

When her magazine announced its then-illegal intention "to advocate the prevention of conception and to impart such knowledge," she was indicted on felony obscenity charges. She fled to Europe and spent a year in exile; in 1916, when the charges were dropped, she defied the authorities again by opening the first birth-control clinic in America, in an impoverished immigrant district of Brooklyn. She spent 30 days in prison for her trouble.

For years, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church waged a protracted battle against Sanger; in 1946, when Tucson's bishop, the Rev. Daniel J. Gercke, denounced the principles of Planned Parenthood as "immoral" and a violation of "God's laws," he was just one in a long line of prelates and priests who targeted her and her cause. Archbishop Patrick Hayes of New York once called her work "satanic." But Sanger, an Irish-American raised by an anticlerical Irish father, gave back to the clergy as good as she got. Responding to Bishop Hayes, Sanger saucily wrote in an open letter that many of the Bible's greats could serve as models for birth control.

"John the Baptist was an only child," she noted, "and his parents were well along in years when he was born."

Sanger eventually turned away from her flamboyant radicalism, the better to sell her birth-control message to those in power. She became disillusioned with Socialists, who she thought were dismissive of women's issues. The feisty "Birth Control League" evolved into the more conciliatory "Planned Parenthood." By the 1930s, Sanger was a familiar figure in the halls of Congress, where she lobbied alongside upper-class progressives like Katharine Houghton Hepburn, mother of the actress, to legalize contraception.

By the 1950s, she was routinely feted abroad in nations from India to Japan to Finland. Her passport from those late years, held in the UA Library's Special Collections, details her journeys abroad as an international celebrity.

Mainstream as she had become by the time of her death in Tucson in 1966, Sanger still was able to ignite a skirmish in the culture wars 25 years later. In 1991, when her adopted state of Arizona named her to its Women's Hall of Fame, Sanger's mixed rep triggered a controversy so fierce that the state didn't nominate anyone again for at least 10 years.

The objections came from the right and the left, from the anti-abortionists who routinely denounce Planned Parenthood and all its works, and from civil-rights leaders who claimed Sanger's campaign was a thinly disguised effort to decimate minority groups, a charge Sanger's supporters passionately deny.

"We thought some people wouldn't like her," says Mary Logan Rothschild, a historian at Arizona State University and interim director of women's studies. She believes most of the protests were engineered by the anti-abortion camp. But with the nomination coming 25 years after Sanger's death, "We were surprised that the opposition was so visceral."

What Sanger saw as a public-health nurse on New York's Lower East Side in the early teens changed her life; the tragedies set her on course to make birth control accessible and legal. She was called again and again to care for women in the district below 14th Street, where masses of impoverished Jewish and Italian immigrants were crammed into appalling quarters. Apart from folk remedies, knowledge of contraception was practically nil, and "pregnancy was a chronic condition," she wrote in her autobiography.

Infant and child mortality was staggering. Poor women struggling to care for their children would get pregnant again, and they would try to abort the fetus with such folk remedies as "herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downtowns, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, shoe-hooks." Or they'd go to the neighborhood's "five-dollar abortionist," lining up by the dozens in the street on a Saturday night.

The oft-told tale of Sadie Sachs was a turning point for Sanger. Some historians believe the case may be a composite, or even an invention, but Sanger wrote that in 1912, she was called to the Sachses' Grand Street apartment. She found a 28-year-old woman fighting septicemia brought on by a self-induced abortion. Sachs survived but begged Sanger for information to prevent another pregnancy. Helpless, Sanger turned to the attending doctor.

"You want to have your cake and eat it to, do you?" the doctor demanded of Sachs. "Well, it can't be done. Tell Jake to sleep on the roof."

Three months later, after Sachs tried another abortion, Sanger came back to the woman's deathbed. After she died, leaving behind three wailing children and a distraught husband, Sanger folded Sachs' "still hands across her breast, remembering how they had pleaded with me, begging so humbly for the knowledge ... . I resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky."

The Lower East Side may have galvanized her, but Sanger was first radicalized by her upbringing in a large Irish family. She was born Margaret Louisa Higgins on Sept. 14, 1879, in Corning, N.Y., the sixth in a family of 11 children. Offspring of a big, redheaded Irish immigrant and his Irish-American wife, all the children had red hair, in shades ranging from carrot-top to Margaret's much-admired auburn. Sanger's autobiography sentimentally recalls the cottage in the woods where she was born, but her biographer, Ellen Chesler, says it was actually a shanty by the tracks.

Her longsuffering mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, gave birth to her first child in 1870 and to her last 22 years later, after the oldest had long since left home. A tubercular whose disease was aggravated by her repeated pregnancies, Anne often had to "brace herself against the wall to steady her coughing," Margaret remembered. Though her robust husband lived on to 88, Anne was dead by 50, dying of tuberculosis on Good Friday 1899, when her youngest child was just 7 years old.

Her husband, Michael Hennessy Higgins, was voluble, extravagant and poetic-- "homily and humor rippled unceasingly from his generous mouth in a brogue which he never lost," his daughter would write. He liked his whiskey, but his grandchildren, interviewed later in life, differed over whether he was a classic alcoholic. It seems to have been Michael's political views rather than drunkenness that helped impoverish his large brood.

Born in Ireland in 1846 at the height of the potato blight, Higgins was a famine refugee who fled his native land as a child with his widowed mother and a brother. Ireland's English rulers shipped food out of the country during the "Great Hunger," as the Irish more accurately call the famine; English indifference allowed some 1 million of their Irish subjects to starve to death and forced at least another million to emigrate. This disaster may have pushed him to his own radical views.

"A nonconformist through and through," Sanger wrote. "... he fought for free libraries, free education, free books in the public schools" and perhaps most importantly, "freedom of the mind from dogma and cant."

Unlike most Irish immigrants, who rallied around the church in America as a reminder of home, he loathed priestly power.

"He tried to inculcate in us the idea that our duty lay not in considering what might happen to us after death," Sanger wrote, "but in doing something here and now to make the lives of other human beings more decent."

Anne Purcell was an Irish Catholic from New Jersey; her parents took a dim view of a prospective son-in-law with "Higgins's independent mind, his contempt for religious authority, his sharp tongue and high spirits," wrote Chesler. (As an adult, Sanger traveled to Ireland, where she tried and failed to trace her Purcell roots.) The young couple married anyway, and though Anne stopped going to church and didn't baptize her children, she remained privately devout. And they certainly followed the Bible's injunction to be fruitful and multiply. By the time they landed in Corning in 1877, settling among their fellow Irish, they had five children.

Corning, then as now, was dominated by the glassworks. Its low-paid Irish workers lived in poor housing along the flats of the Chemung River, while the rich American executives lived on the hills looming above. Higgins labored as an independent stonecutter and maker of gravestones. An atheist, he didn't mind carving angels that would speed deceased Catholic believers on their journey to heaven. But after he got into serious conflicts with the church, his business declined and then failed.

During the late 1880s, with labor unrest sweeping the country, Corning's glass workers went on strike. Most of the strikers were parishioners in the town's Catholic churches, but their priests took the side of the factory owners against the underpaid workers. Higgins was furious at this priestly betrayal, and his "vocal apostasy won him few friends in any quarter and cost him dearly in work for church cemeteries," Chesler wrote. "His livelihood never transcended these indiscretions ... ."

In a separate incident, Higgins championed a visiting freethinker by the name of Robert Ingersoll--coincidentally, a proponent of contraception. When local Catholics got wind of his impending lecture, they ran him out of town hall. Michael led him to speak in an open field, as Margaret recalled. She admired her father's daring, but the family suffered for his views. The children were ostracized by their schoolmates. Catholics withdrew their business from the stone-carving apostate. The Higginses were evicted from their rented house and forced to move to the rooms above Michael's monument shop.

If his young daughter got a conflicting lesson in the virtues of free speech and the ultimate failure of radicalism, she later drew a lesson about the way men's freethinking often stops at the kitchen--and bedroom--door.

"He believed in the equality of the sexes ... . He came out strongly for woman suffrage," Sanger remembered, but not so much that he helped his overburdened wife. "Father took little or no responsibility for the minute details of the daily tasks. I can see him when he had nothing on hand, laughing and joking or reading poetry. Mother, however, was everlastingly busy sewing, cooking, doing this and that."

At 13, Margaret had herself baptized in the Catholic Church, possibly longing for the more conventional life enjoyed by her girlfriends. But the conversion was apparently short-lived. A teacher at the parish school ridiculed her one day for wearing fine kid gloves, a gift from an older sister. Margaret refused ever to return. Her two older sisters, Mary and Nan, already out working, paid to send her to a Dutch Protestant boarding school. She would not return to Corning until she was summoned several years later to nurse her mother during her final illness.

Musing on her childhood in her middle age, Sanger recalled her admiration for rich families like the one Mary worked for high up on Corning's hill, so unlike the chaotic Higginses on the flatlands. The difference, she decided, was not so much money but numbers of children.

"Large families were associated with poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, fighting, jails; the small ones with cleanliness, leisure, freedom, light, space, sunshine. ... To me, the distinction between happiness and unhappiness in childhood was one of small families and of large families rather than of wealth and poverty."

Sanger took a lesson from both parents. If her father taught her independence, her mother's short, hard life became a model of what women's lives should not be. In 1920, she dedicated her book, Woman and the New Race, to the memory of Anne Purcell Higgins, "a mother who gave birth to 11 living children."

Michael objected when Margaret left home in 1900 to train as a nurse, saying it wasn't a job for "nice girls." As much a rebel as her father, she marched out anyway.

By the time Sanger got to Tucson in 1934, she had married and divorced architect Bill Sanger, given birth to three children, buried one, taken on numerous lovers and married a second husband, J. Noah Slee, a millionaire industrialist. She had been in and out of jails and courtrooms, been censored in town halls around America, researched techniques of birth control, shared them in books and pamphlets, smuggled diaphragms into the country and battled with fellow activists for leadership of the movement she considered her own. Anti-birth-control laws were still on the books, but she was pushing and shoving Americans toward acceptance of contraception.

In the fall of 1934, Sanger and son Stuart, plagued by respiratory illnesses, came to town for a little R&R. Right after their arrival, in an interview published Oct. 6, 1934, she told the Star, "I'm in Tucson more mainly for a rest and in the interests of my son's health." But she hinted that birth-control plans were afoot for the Old Pueblo. "There's something in the air, but I have nothing definite in mind."

A month later, she was on the stump, giving a speech at the Santa Rita hotel to a gathering that included "every woman's organization in of Tucson," the Tucson Citizen reported on Nov. 23, 1934. Given lengthy and careful coverage, her talk was a curious combination of compassion and contempt for the poor, a mixture that in later years would give ammunition to her critics.

Pushing for birth control for the impoverished, Sanger complained of the "increase of these defective criminal classes," declared that the "majority of delinquent children come from large families" and bemoaned "palatial buildings" being constructed at taxpayers' expense to house the "feebleminded and the insane."

But she also chastised the well-heeled women in her audience for using contraception while doing nothing to help poor women who couldn't get it. She spoke passionately of the "suffering and the fear of undesired pregnancy of innocent women, too poor to defend themselves, too weak to rebel, to inarticulate to cry out."

After a winter in Tucson, "Stuart grew better," Sanger reported in her autobiography. "In the spring, we packed our bags once more in the little car and drove away, looking back regretfully at the indescribable Catalinas, on which light and clouds played in never-ending change of pattern."

By 1935, the papers were counting her as a winter resident, and soon, she moved here permanently. After 21 years at the birth-control barricades, Sanger was in need of a rest, and her husband was elderly and ailing. Arizona had what they needed.

"My husband and I found a house near Tucson of adobe, trimmed in blue," she wrote. "The mountains, not distant or aloof or towering over all, reached into the sky, but they were also somehow intimate, cupping the town gently on all four sides."

Still, Arizona's slower pace didn't stop her from all work. The "something in the air" materialized, in the form of the Clinica para Madres. Located at 28 E. Corral St. in downtown's old Mexican barrio, the Tucson Mothers' Clinic was the first birth-control center in Tucson. After urban renewal, the clinic moved to Fifth Avenue and evolved into Tucson Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Center. (Today's Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona facility, on Wyatt Drive, is still named for Sanger.) The next year, in 1936, she was able to celebrate the overturn of the antiquated Comstock Act, the federal obscenity law that led to her first indictment.

Tucson, then with a population of about 15,000, was dazzled by its famous new resident. The local papers breathlessly reported her comings and goings, veering schizophrenically among her names, calling her variously Mrs. J. Noah Slee, Mrs. Margaret Sanger Slee and just plain Margaret Sanger, "birth control pioneer." The town was still small enough that when her dog went missing, the Arizona Daily Star headlined an Oct. 17, 1937 story, "Mrs. Sanger Goes to Texas to Search for Lost Spaniel."

But the papers regularly reported seriously on her work. When Sanger and her foe Bishop Gercke were invited to speak to the American Legion Luncheon Club in 1946--on separate days--the Star noted the club president's tactful explanation that a "lack of time prevented having both speakers on one day."

News photos frequently pictured her at the airport, arriving home from international meetings in Asia, flying off to Europe, being collected by her son Stuart, being greeted by his two children. (An internist, Stuart had settled in Tucson with his wife, Barbara, and daughters Margaret and Nancy. Sanger's son, Grant, was also a doctor; a resident of New York, he fathered six children.)

After Slee's death in 1943, Sanger moved into town to a house on Elm Street adjacent to the Arizona Inn. By decade's end, she moved around the corner to Sierra Vista Drive, next door to Stuart's place. She had had a daring new house built, "as modern as tomorrow," the Tucson Citizen's women's editor gushed. The story goes that she first offered the commission to Frank Lloyd Wright, but he sneered that the small city lot was fit only for a pigsty. And when he quoted his price, Sanger turned to architect Arthur Brown, Tucson's leading exponent of modernism.

"Let's not put anything in this house that is conventional!" Sanger told Brown, as he later recalled in a written reminiscence. The architect complied. A red-brick house surrounded by gardens, the house is not startling from the outside, but inside an octagonal dining room leads to fan-shaped rooms affording spectacular views of the Catalinas. Brown put a second-story art studio upstairs on the sloping roof; by now, Sanger was a serious watercolorist, studying with Tucson artist Gerry Pierce.

The house allowed her to indulge the little granddaughters who lived next door, and she lavished on them the attention that her own children had sorely missed during her activist days, according to biographer Chesler. Her charisma charmed Tucson, as it had galvanized activists years before.

Logan Rothschild, the ASU professor, said that one of the early movement workers, Edna Rankin McKinnon, told her that "Sanger was electrical. You met her and you just knew you had to work with her."

She became known as a great party giver, specializing in curry and mariachi, and the world's rich and famous regularly made the trek to her home. Eleanor Roosevelt came to tea; John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Martha, to a party; Frank Lloyd Wright to dinner. Ansel Adams took photos of her in her Elm Street garden and declared "at least one of the photographs was about the best thing of its kind that I have done ... . The small figure in the garden is simply swell."

Peggy and Barry Goldwater, pioneers for birth control in Phoenix, were friends, Logan Rothschild said, though Goldwater once joked to her that "Margaret Sanger didn't like him very much--Peggy was always expecting another child when they met up."

Sanger's health slowly deteriorated; by 1959, she gave up the presidency of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She insisted on taking a final trip to India for the group's conference, and Tucsonan Grace Sternberg accompanied her, watching over her frail old friend.

The world's press still journeyed regularly to her Tucson house, seeking quotable comments. She reminisced to Parade magazine that her father, "the most broad-minded Irishman I ever knew," had opposed her work, along with "the law, the police (and) the government." Irishwoman though she was, in 1960 she declared she would leave the country if the Catholic John F. Kennedy were to become president, since he had hewed to the church's birth-control line in Massachusetts. The story made the news the world round, but Kennedy was elected, and Sanger remained.

That same year, on May 9, the Food and Drug Administration OK'd the birth-control pill. An easy-to-take pill was Sanger's longtime dream, and she had helped raise money for its development. Stuart and his daughter Margaret ran over to give her the news. According to Time magazine, Sanger looked up from her breakfast, and said simply, "It's about time."

When she was already in a nursing home, in 1965, the UA awarded Sanger an honorary degree, "over the protests of several Catholics on the board of trustees," Chesler wrote. The Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson sponsored a glittering testimonial dinner the same year; though Sanger was too ill to come, Peggy Goldwater was there, along with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Dr. John Rock, developer of the birth-control pill, and Mrs. B.K. Nehru, wife of the Indian ambassador to the United States.

Sanger died on Sept. 6, 1966. Her funeral was held at St. Philip's in the Hills, an Episcopal church, and a larger memorial was celebrated a few weeks later in New York. Among the New York attendees was 80-year-old Rose Halpern, one of Sanger's first patients at the daring illegal clinic in Brooklyn.

The New York Times ran an obit on the front page. The Arizona Daily Star called her "one of history's great figures"; the Tucson Citizen declared that "the world has lost a great woman. Tucsonans have lost a great friend."

In more recent years, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. By any accounting, Sanger was remarkably successful. A year before her death, the Supreme Court overturned the last state law banning birth control. The church hierarchy hasn't budged, but American women nowadays use contraception as a matter of course. Their great-grandmothers could have been jailed for doing the same thing. Yet even Sanger's most ardent champions admit her flaws.

One can understand her rage at an officially celibate male Catholic clergy who insisted that women bear as many children as possible, and her grief at her mother's hard life. But her attacks on big families nowadays would be called culturally--or ethnically--insensitive, to the Mexicans in the barrio and the Irish back east, among others. And they seem a little hypocritical in light of the love and support Sanger got from many of her Higgins siblings and their children throughout her life. The bootstrap Higginses helped each other get a leg up; they were hardly like the "delinquent" big families Sanger zinged in her speeches.

Lefties recoil at Sanger's cozying up to the upper classes, and the large ego that had her embellishing her role in the movement. Just about everybody is dismayed by her associations with eugenicists in the 20s. Looking back from this side of World War II and the Nazis' plan for a master race, it's hard to understand that eugenics "enjoyed a surprisingly large intellectual following well into the 1930s among liberals and progressives in the United States and Europe," Chesler noted. Many mainstream intellectuals, even black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois, a supporter of Sanger's, openly argued that the fittest people should have the most children. But Sanger stopped short of racism.

"I'm willing to give her a lot of leeway," says historian Logan Rothschild. "She did get involved with unsavory characters, but she never herself personally believed in their racial issues. She didn't buy it, but she did take their support.

"She was fighting a battle that was hard to win. There was so much resistance."

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