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Roots of the Pill: Early Influences

[Margaret Sanger's] mother was pregnant eighteen times: eleven children, seven miscarriages, and was dead at age forty-nine. This is not an uncommon story in nineteenth-century America. [Sanger] became an obstetrical nurse... on the Lower East Side of New York, where birth control was simply not available for the poor immigrant women there, and she saw one too many women go to the back alley for an abortion or self-abort with a knitting needle or a shoe hook or undiluted Lysol, and woman after woman literally died in my grandmother's arms and she said enough, there's got to be something better we can do.

Alex Sanger
Margaret Sanger's grandson


I looked out my window and down upon the dimly lighted city. Its pains and griefs crowded in upon me, a moving picture rolled before my eyes with photographic clearness: women writhing in travail to bring forth little babies; the babies themselves naked and hungry, wrapped in newspapers to keep them from the cold; six-year-old children with pinched, pale, wrinkled faces, old in concentrated wretchedness, pushed into gray and fetid cellars, crouching on stone floors, their small scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lamp shades, artificial flowers; white coffins, black coffins, coffins, coffins interminably passing in never-ending succession. The sense piled one upon another on another. I could bear it no longer... I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky."

Margaret Sanger
recalling the death of a New York City woman who begged Sanger for the "secret" of preventing pregnancy


I shall never cease to be grateful to the "romance of destiny" that enabled me to be born and bred in what was then, though it is less so now, the west of this country. The life there is crude in many ways -- it is bleak and uncultured in many ways, but its strength and force, its lack of prejudice, its heartiness, are wonderfully stimulating to the individual and force an invigorating commencement to his life. Moreover, the point of view gained by the association with a new and striving community is valuable. This, from its lack of prejudice, is generally broad and tolerant - must be so in fact if the individual is to become one with such a diversity of persons and interests, and to this many sided toleration is due the resulting freedom of thought and action. Thus it is that in an account, however brief, of my life I do not feel it to be a digression to refer, comparatively at length, to the influences that came from my surroundings. However little I may have profited by them in many ways, yet I know that to them I owe much that is fundamentally important. They are, as it were, the skeleton about which the body of my life has grown.

Katharine McCormick
"A brief account of my life," written for her M.I.T. English Composition class in 1899

It was very uncommon for women to go to a university at the turn of the century. [Katherine] McCormick ends up going to one of the most prestigious scientific institutes in the country and gets a degree in biology, which was such a rarity for women... And I think her background in science kindled in her an interest in looking at the possibility of a scientific answer to women's suffering and also to the larger problem of worldwide population. She married Stanley McCormick, the youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, the founder International Harvester. And he is a very wealthy man. And shortly after their marriage Stanley is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which could not be treated as well then as it can be today. And this devastates Katherine and also forges in her mind a resolve to stay childless. And I think it probably made her an early convert to the larger issues involved with the birth control movement. She recognized that there were times when it was important for personal reasons but also larger medical reasons not to have children.

Andrea Tone

> Early Influences
Early Activism
First-Wave Feminism
Conceiving the Pill

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