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Margaret Sanger  (b. 1879, d. 1966)
Margaret Sanger Sanger's former residence in Tucson
Margaret Sanger dedicated her life to the birth control movement. Living in Tucson from the 1930s to the 1960s, she worked with volunteers to found Mothers' Health Clinics that distributed contraceptives in Tucson and Phoenix. Her work was instrumental in expanding access to birth control for women of all races in Arizona.

Region: Tucson and Southern Arizona
Theme: Women in Science, Medicine and Health

Margaret Sanger, the notorious and pioneering president of the American Birth Control League, came to Arizona from New York during the early 1930s for the same reason as many other new arrivals during this time—to improve a relative's health. Her grown son suffered from respiratory illnesses, and doctors recommended Arizona's dry, warm climate. Sanger quickly began working with local volunteers to establish birth control clinics in Tucson and Phoenix. In 1934, Tucson volunteers leased a small house in a Tucson barrio for $25 a month, and hired a practical nurse to staff Clinica para Madres [the Mothers' Clinic]. Fees charged were never greater than $1, and many women paid nothing for services. Many of the early clients were Mexican American. Despite strong opposition from the Catholic Church, this clinic remained open and eventually became Planned Parenthood of Tucson. Sanger and other volunteers organized the Mothers' Health Clinic in Phoenix in 1939. Like the Tucson clinic, it was staffed by a volunteer doctor and paid nurse. Sanger worked with Peggy Goldwater, Maie Heard and other prominent women to found this clinic, which became a Planner Parenthood clinic in the 1940s.

Although Sanger continued to travel internationally and work around the U.S., she remained a vocal proponent of access to contraceptives in Arizona. She lived in Tucson first as a winter visitor and later, all year round. She frequently spoke in public in Tucson and Phoenix and helped to raise funds for the contraceptive clinics. She also participated in a fundraising campaign to turn the Desert Sanatorium into the Tucson Medical Center during the 1940s.

Sanger, with support from philanthropist Katherine McCormick, spearheaded efforts for a contraceptive pill which used synthetic progesterone to suppress women's ovulation and was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Both Sanger and McCormick were ardent supporters of the pill which they believed would further women's self-determination. Within a few years, the pill became the birth control method of choice for American women because it offered greater freedom and autonomy.

In 1967, Tucson clinic staff and volunteers aided the national Planned Parenthood organization by participating in a study of the birth control pill with approximately 2,200 of the clinic's 2,500 patients. The availability of the pill by this time led to increased demand for contraceptive services, and Tucson's Planned Parenthood served 2,800 in 1969.

Planned Parenthood employees and volunteers owed their success in part to Margaret Sanger, who aided the clinic's early organizers and volunteers. In 1965, in recognition of Sanger's pioneering work for birth control, the University of Arizona awarded her an honorary doctorate. When Margaret Sanger died in a Tucson nursing home on September 6, 1966 at the age of 83, local newspapers marked her passing with complimentary articles and editorials.

During the last thirteen years of her life, Sanger lived at 65 N. Sierra Vista Dr. in Tucson, which is a private residence and drive-by site on the AWHT.

For more information, see Mary Melcher, Pregnancy, Motherhood and Choice in Twentieth-Century Arizona (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012).

Photo Credits:
Margaret Sanger - Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

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