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Margaret Sanger

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Margaret Sanger is a historical figure referenced in the show Boardwalk Empire, where she is a major influence to main character Margaret Schroeder. She is an American nurse established in New York City, a Socialist author and the most prominent advocate of sex education and birth control in the United States of the early 20th century.

Biography Edit

Background Edit

Margaret Higgins Sanger was born in Corning, New York, to a couple of Irish immigrants who had come to America fleeing the Potato Famine, Michael Hennessey Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins. Anne went through 18 pregnancies before dying at age 50; of the 11 children that lived Margaret was the sixth, and she spent much of her youth taking care of her younger siblings. In 1900 she became a probation nurse and in 1902 she married architect William Sanger. In 1911 the couple moved to New York City with their three children. Once there, Margaret worked as a visiting nurse in the slums of the East Side, infused herself in the radical politics of the vibrant modernist community in Greenwich Village and joined the socialist Industrial Workers of the World.

In the East Side Sanger treated many women suffering the effects of several pregnancies, miscarriages and self-induced abortions who didn't know how to avoid unwanted pregnancies (information on birth control being illegal on grounds of obscenity as per a federal law of 1873). In one occasion Sanger and a male doctor visited a married woman who had performed a self-induced abortion, Sadie Sachs. Sachs begged the doctor for a method to avoid pregnancy but he would only tell her to remain abstinence. A few months later they were called again to the Sachs' apartment, only to find Sadie dead from performing yet another abortion. After that Sanger renounced her job and vowed to devote her life to inform women about contraceptives so they wouldn't have to pursue dangerous and illegal abortions.


The cover of the 1917 edition of Family Limitation.

In 1914 Sanger challenged the anti-obscenity laws by publishing a pro-birth control newsletter, The Woman Rebel, for which she was arrested. Instead of standing trial, she jumped bail and fled to Canada before boarding a ship bound for Britain. While en route, she ordered the release of an even more subversive pamphlet that she had been preparing, Family Limitation. Although her (by then) estranged husband was arrested and imprisoned for 30 days for distributing Family Limitation, Sanger's exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise for her cause, putting her into contact with Malthusianists and proponents of sexual liberation from whom she adopted socioeconomic justifications for birth control and the idea that sex shouldn't just be safe, but pleasurable for the woman that became central to her idearium. A 1915 visit to a birth control clinic in the Netherlands also informed her of the existence of diaphragms, a far more reliable method than the suppositories and douches that she had been promoting at home, and she began to import them to the US in defiance of American law.

Back in New York, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic of the United States in Brooklyn in 1916. This was closed down by the authorities and Sanger arrested for selling contraceptives mere 9 days after. At the trial, the judge ruled that women did not have "the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception" and sentenced Sanger to 30 days in a workhouse after she refused to promise that she wouldn't break the law again. Instead, Sanger immediately began publishing the monthly periodical Birth Control Review.

Her sensationalized trial and the supports gained through the nation were vital for the 1918 court of appeals that allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives and information to women, as long as it was for medical reasons. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, and the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923, the first birth control clinic in the United States, which was entirely staffed by women. In 1922 Sanger visited Japan, Korea and China; the widespread female infanticide she witnessed there encouraged her to establish a second family planning clinic in Shanghai.

Season 1 Edit

Margaret Schroeder first learns of Sanger's ideas on April 1920 when Mrs. McGarry shares a copy of Family Limitation with her, after Margaret confesses her relationship with "a powerful man" that has promised to provide for her and her children, but won't marry her. The pamphlet discusses contraceptives including post coital vaginal washes (douching) with spermicides like lysol. It also covers barrier methods. Margaret opts to use vaginal douching after sex because it affords her the opportunity to conceal her contraceptive use from her partner, as she just needs to claim a need to use the toilet to do it. ("Family Limitation")

While Nucky Thompson eventually discovers the lysol bottle and tells her that he can't believe she would douche herself with that "poison" like a prostitute, she remains adamant in her decision to not have another child. ("Paris Green")

Season 3 Edit

Margaret, now Mrs Thompson, is a subscriber to Sanger's monthly Birth Control Review. ("Ging Gang Goolie")

When Margaret finds herself pregnant with Owen's child, she visits an abortion clinic in Brooklyn, probably belonging to Sanger's organization. ("Margate Sands")

Mentions Edit

Season one appearances
Boardwalk Empire The Ivory Tower Broadway Limited Anastasia
Nights in Ballygran Family Limitation Home Hold Me in Paradise
Belle Femme The Emerald City Paris Green A Return to Normalcy
Season three appearances
"Resolution" "Spaghetti and Coffee" "Bone for Tuna" "Blue Bell Boy"
"You'd Be Surprised" "Ging Gang Goolie" "Sunday Best" "The Pony"
"The Milkmaid's Lot" "A Man, A Plan..." "Two Imposters" "Margate Sands"

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