Dream Journals: Margaret Sanger, a Poodle, and a Pack of Wolves

The practice of dream interpretation has been carried out for centuries as part of countless cultures around the world.  Whether the images people see in their dreams hold any deep meaning or are simply the random meanderings of one’s subconscious is entirely a matter of personal opinion.  Some individuals keep meticulous dream journals, methodically writing down their dreams from each night immediately upon waking, while others forget the events of their dreams almost immediately upon rising to begin their day. It is hard to say where Margaret Sanger stood on the subject of dream meanings, but we do know that on at least a few occasions, she felt that the contents of her dreams were worthy of being recorded.  Between February 1938 and January 1944, Sanger wrote about the happenings in her dreams on five separate occasions.  The dream journal entries do not make any attempts at interpretation; they are all straightforward explanations of the dreams’ events.  Why Sanger chose to write down these particular dreams is hard to know, but when each dream is examined alongside the events taking place in her own life and in the world at the time, some surprising possible interpretations arise.

poodlesThe first dream MS decided to record in one of her journals was written down on February 3, 1938.  Inside this morbid dream, Sanger comes across a man walking his black poodle.  The man and his dog are met by a pack of wolves, and the man proceeds to let his dog off its leash as they walk towards the other animals.  The dog fights with the wolves for a while, and then leaps away from them.  Sanger describes in gruesome detail how, “He ran round & round in circles howling bleading with part of his fur & flesh torn off. He came in front of me lay down vomited & cascaded both exits until he died–The pack came forward & devoured the carcus. I awakened.” This brutal story may very well have been nothing more than a common nightmare. Perhaps on the day before the dream occurred, Sanger absentmindedly observed a man walking his dog on the street as she passed, and from this image the gory dream was produced later in her mind.  To those interested in the possibility of dream meanings, however, a few factors from Sanger’s own life around this time, paired with a look at potential symbolism behind the various figures from the dream in question, may lead to a different interpretation. When a dog is featured in one’s dream, it may serve as a symbol for loyalty, intuition, and protection.  A vicious dog might represent an internal conflict, while dogs fighting may signify a conflict of interest between the dreamer and someone close to them.  Wolves in dreams can symbolize hostility or an all-consuming force in one’s life.


Margaret Sanger and Edith How-Martyn

The potential meanings of these dreams are especially intriguing when one considers the contents of a letter Margaret Sanger wrote to her close friend and fellow birth control advocate, Edith How-Martyn, just two days before the dream journal was written, and one day before the dream itself took place.  In the letter, Sanger expressed her frustrations to How-Martyn over the current state of the international birth control movement.  Sanger wrote, “The whole international movement needs shaking up and reorganization. There is too much grabbing and snatching at the laurels and the victories and too little recognition of the hard work done for the same.” Perhaps the gruesome images produced in Sanger’s dream a few nights later were a reflection upon her feelings toward the international movement.  Could it be that Sanger herself was represented by the dog in the dream, overwhelmed by the all-consuming force in her life, the birth control movement?  Were the wolves a manifestation of members of the international movement, “grabbing and snatching,” at the work of others?

Margaret Sanger with J. Noah Slee in 1927, image courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

On a more personal note, a common motif found in Sanger’s journal entries in the weeks leading up to the dream could serve as another potential explanation of its meaning.  Beginning in January of 1938, Sanger made several entries in her journal alluding to her growing disdain for her husband, J. Noah Slee.  In these entries, MS affectionately refers to Slee as, “the Sadist,” and describes his jealousy, possessiveness over her, and rude and offensive treatment of friends.  In this case, the wolves in Sanger’s dream could very easily be interpreted as a symbol of her husband, as he attempted to position himself as the all-encompassing force in her life, while the dog represented her own internal conflict over the issue. The journal entry written about this particular dream is only the first in a series spanning six years.

To read the dream journal entry in full, as well as the letter and other journal entries mentioned, see The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2: Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939.

The Language of Birth Control

At the Fourth International Conference on Planned Parenthood in 1953, Margaret Sanger spoke of the importance of names. Specifically, she provides a brief history of the term “birth control.” Before Sanger coined the term birth control, contraception was referred to as “family limitation.” However, as Sanger explains, this did not adequately represent what she was fighting for. She says, “a few of us got together and thought of ‘family control’, well, that wasn’t it; ‘conception control’, and finally, out of the blue came ‘birth control.’” The evolution of the term birth control, as Sanger describes it, begs us to look at the term birth control in a new light. As a college student in 2015, the term family limitation struck me as archaic in its presumptions. It conditions us to think of contraception as something that is solely for married women. In the early 1920s, women did not have a language to talk about contraception without turning the focus away from themselves. It was not about the woman; it was about the family.

Sanger's first edition of "Family Limitation" was published in 1914. Later on, she began to publish "The Birth Control Review."

Sanger’s pamphlet, “Family Limitation,” was published in 1914. Later on, she began to publish “The Birth Control Review.”

Although Sanger fought and advocated for women’s health via birth control, this concept of women being autonomous through contraception did not seem to be on her mind when she first changed family limitation to birth control. Sanger preferred the term birth control because it was more straightforward. The purpose was to control, not limit, the amount of children one had. In her words, the name change added “the conscious.” She believed that this new terminology would encourage the public to be more aware of what they were doing. By changing the name to birth control, Sanger ultimately hoped to change the way in which people thought about birth control.

This graph (taken via Google Books) tracks the usage of family limitation vs. birth control.

This graph tracks the usage of family limitation vs. birth control. (Google Books)

Sanger was certainly successful in getting people to change their thinking by changing the language. Her actions have had effects that she could not have predicted back in the 1920s. Birth control continues to be our terminology of choice for contraception, despite the introduction of terms such as “planned parenthood” and “family planning.” The fight for reproductive rights is far from over, but now, we talk about a woman’s right to her own body. This line of thinking is in part made possible by how the language of birth control shapes our thoughts. Now, access to birth control is a women’s issue, not a family issue. In fact, Sanger’s coining of the term birth control was so successful in changing our thinking, that family limitation is now an outdated term. In many ways, we have been able to get to this point because Margaret Sanger understood that “it’s very important to have a proper name for a good idea.”

More Mapping Margaret Sanger



Margaret Sanger, ca. 1916.

Sanger traveled by train on her 1916 national tour. (Library of Congress)

We always knew that Margaret Sanger was a busy woman, but now we are beginning to see just how active she was.  We had first started thinking about the idea in 2012, when we started the “Margaret Sanger Slept Here” series of blog posts, which aimed to show the breadth of her travels and highlight some of the more interesting places where she stayed.  Robin Pokorski blogged about a map she created of Margaret Sanger’s New York that highlighted the places she lived, spoke, and worked.

With the help of interns Yvonne Garrett and Tori Sciancalepore, who helped design the project, and Jackie Collens, Kaitlin Hackbarth, Madeline Moran, Allie Strickland, Vidhi Vakharia, and Laura Filion, who continued inputting data, we used Google Fusion tables to create a geographic representations of Sanger’s public appearances. We began by using an existing Microsoft Access database used to track documents in the digital edition. We excluded articles, which had no place associated with them, and focused on speeches, press statements, and interviews. We exported relevant records into a spreadsheet and imported that into a Google Fusion Table.  We added a field for Location, and a URL. Yvonne and Tori went through the speeches and other public statements, adding places to the table when possible. We tried to get specific addresses when possible, but in some cases had to just input a city name. The URL entered matched the item in the Fusion Table to that speech in the digital edition.

A sample of the spreadsheet that underlies the map.

A sample of the spreadsheet that underlies the map.

Once all the documents were added, we decided to go back and enter all the events that we knew of, whether or not we had a copy of the speech that was given. We keep an extensive Chronology, also in Microsoft Access, which has almost 5,000 entries, culled from clippings, correspondence and other research. We did not want to dump this database into the Fusion table because it would duplicate the records we already had in the Fusion table, an it has many entries that don’t have a location associated with them. Also, many of our chronology entries just indicate what Sanger was in, but have no other details. So we began entering only those entries that discussed specific events. These come from correspondence and diary entries, as well as discussions of Sanger’s doings in the press, the Birth Control Review, and other journals, and from scrapbooks. This work is still continuing but we are starting to see the results.

We wanted users to be able to distinguish between the speeches that they could read–in the Speeches and Articles Digital Edition–and those that were just map points. We added the field “Pin Color” to the spreadsheet, selecting the ever imaginative green dots for speeches that we have, and red ones for those that we do not.

When a reader clicks on a dot, it opens up a label which provides the title of the speech, the date, the location, and our notes. If we have the speech you can click through to see it.


As it is filling in, the map provides a interesting sense of the range of Sanger’s travels. You can see that her northern-most speech was in Stockholm, while the most southerly was in Singapore.  As you might expect, the United States is liberally dotted with entries, with emphasis on the Northeast and Midwest, where birth control organizing was most advanced. We can see her three-month tour or India, and her groundbreaking tour of Japan, Korea, and China in 1922. We can also see that she never spoke in the Southern Hemisphere.


The breadth of Sanger’s travels. (Click on image to go to the Fusion Map)

What also makes this map special is that it is interactive.  You can zoom in and out, and by using filters, you can determine which entries are mapped.  By focusing in on Manhattan, for example, we see exactly where Sanger spoke in the city.


Here are Sanger’s Manhattan speeches (Click on the image to get to the Fusion Map)

By limiting the map to the dates April through August 1916, we can see her first national speaking tour taking shape.

Sanger traveled to the West Coast and back in 1916, following rail lines.

Sanger traveled to the West Coast and back in 1916. (Click on the image to get to the Fusion Map)

Sanger disembarking in California in 1937. (American Airlines)

As we continue to vicariously travel the globe, adding Margaret Sanger’s travels to the map, we hope that you will find it a useful resource.

If you know of any Sanger speeches in your neighborhood, and they are not on the map– please let us know by sending a clipping or other report to the Project.

Go to the MAP!



Melodramatic Margaret: Her Crazy Fiction


Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Margaret Sanger did plenty of writing over the span of her approximately fifty-year career as a birth control activist. In 1912 she began writing her sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know” in the New York Call, and just two years later published the first issue of The Woman Rebel. Right around this time, however, she was also doing some writing of a very different kind.

Between 1911 and 1913 she made at least three attempts at fiction-writing, producing the short stories, “Does Youth Win the Race?”, “The Unrecorded Battle”, and “The Soul-less Maid.” These stories deal with common themes of love, betrayal, purity, and deception, and, while certainly not autobiographical by any means, may be inspired to some degree by Sanger’s own experiences and feelings.

“Does Youth Win the Race?”, the first of the three pieces to be written, tells the story of a man named George who is torn between his love for two women- a music teacher, Helen, and her beautiful but lazy adopted daughter, Dorothy. George, a composer, falls in love with Helen’s mind, and is inspired by her musical knowledge and abilities. At the same time, he is struck by Dora’s incredible physical beauty. At first, he has no need to choose between the two, as he is already married to someone else. When news arrives that his wife has passed away, however, George is overcome by his physical desires and rushes to marry Dora. Their marriage is kept a secret until Dora becomes pregnant, and Helen, furious, rejects the pair. The marriage ultimately falls apart within a year and George is left with the realization that, “only brains make for real & lasting Beauty.”


Sanger as a nursing student ca. 1900 (Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

The next story, “The Unrecorded Battle,” features Peggy Taylor, a young nurse working in New York City during a particularly slow summer season. Peggy is overjoyed when she is called to the home of a doctor who claims to need an assistant nurse and offers her generous pay in exchange for her help. Despite warnings from others that the arrangement proposed to her by this stranger may be too good to be true, she quickly gathers her things, writes to both her mother and a suitor back home to tell them the news of her good fortune, and makes her way to the doctor’s residence for her first day on the job. Not long after she arrives, however, it becomes clear that the warnings she received had been correct; the doctor has brought her into his home under false pretenses. The doctor tells Peggy that she is to be the mistress of his home, but the young nurse resists his advances. A verbal and physical battle ensues between the two. The doctor, realizing Peggy is “not the ordinary girl,” lets her leave, but only after questioning her purity and making her swear out loud to him that she is a virgin. Peggy quickly flees to her hometown, defeated and ashamed, and is consoled by her mother, who praises her as the victor in this “unrecorded battle.” The story ends with Peggy’s father pacing through their house at night, until he retrieves his rifle and reveals to her mother, “I’m going to New York wife to take that man’s blood.”

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

The third and last of Sanger’s attempts at fiction that we know of is “The Soul-less Maid.” This piece, written in 1913, opens with a description of a nameless girl in a flower shop, purchasing an arrangement of peonies which she hopes will help her to win the forgiveness of her lover, Juan. Sanger discusses the girl’s beauty in great detail, from, “her golden hair… coiled about her head like a halo,” to her “soft clinging cream white silk gown,” showing off the “faintest outline of two perfectly formed limbs.” In her head the girl recalls her past successes in using her beauty to win back her lover’s affection, although the nature of her transgressions is never revealed. She arrives at the man’s room, where she presents him with the flowers and asks that he forgive her. Juan is drawn in by her beauty and the smell of the peonies. However, when he looks into her eyes, he realizes that she has no soul. The pair engage in an embrace, until the man sends, “one thrust of the dagger through the peony which lay upon her heart,” and “she lay quite still—and was forgiven.”

The above stories are the only of their kind written by Sanger, and all three went unpublished during her lifetime. The stories are peculiar, and Sanger’s intentions in writing them are difficult to decipher. We know that she herself was working as a nurse around the time that they were created and also that she was engaged in an affair with the Greek anarchist writer, John Rompapas, on whom Juan’s character in “The Soul-less Maid,” may be loosely based. Aside from these minor links between Sanger’s life and her stories, however, it would appear that their plotlines are almost entirely invented. Why Margaret Sanger never pursued her fiction writing further is a mystery. The most likely explanation might be that not long after these three stories were written, her time was entirely consumed by the birth control movement. Regardless of what her reasons were for neglecting this type of writing later on, the hectic and often melodramatic manner in which these stories were written leads one to believe the literary world likely not suffer too terribly for their loss.

To read these stories, visit the digital edition of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project: Does Youth Win the Race?, The Unrecorded Battle, and The Soul-less Maid.

Margaret Sanger’s Banned Film

A still from Birth Control

A still from Birth Control

What could Scarface, Monty Python and the Life of Brian, and Margaret Sanger’s 1917 film Birth Control possibly have in common? I’ll give you a minute to think…

The answer is that all three have been censored to some extent in the United States. While we might not think of an informative film about the benefits of birth control as particularly inflammatory today, the censorship of Sanger’s film represents a culmination of the government’s opinion on public discourse of birth control and women’s rights, as well as the proclivity to censor “unsavory” topics. Since March is Women’s History month, let’s look at yet another moment in which Sanger’s passion for educating women and promoting the safe use of birth control was met with censorship and opposition.

1917 can be considered a tumultuous year for Margaret Sanger by anyone’s account. In February, Sanger was sent to jail after opening and running an illegal birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The Brownsville clinic was only open for ten days before the police raided and shut it down, justifying their actions through New York’s Comstock Law which prohibited circulation of obscene literature. Since birth control was considered obscene, the Brownsville clinic was illegal. Sanger served 30 days, and on March 6th was released from the Queens County Penitentiary.

releaseSanger’s stint in jail was only a brief break from her work to promote birth control. She had already begun work on a feature film on the subject of birth control before her imprisonment, and continued work on it directly afterward. Sanger had always been very interested in art, and even dabbled in painting and fiction throughout her life. It was certainly no surprise that she decided to try to combine her work in birth control with a new type of art–film.

The premise of the film, entitled alternatively Birth Control, or The New World, depending on the prospective audience, was rather simple. It dramatized Margaret Sanger’s work, her birth control clinics, and her arrest, as well as Sanger’s hopes for the future with birth control. Birth Control was to be part documentary and part narrative story, starring Sanger as the leading role. An advertisement for the film claimed it to be, “An Honest Birth Control Film At Last!”. Sanger planned to tour the country with the film, donating a large part of the profits directly to the birth control movement.


The New York Times, May 7, 1917

These plans were cut short even more swiftly than the Brownstone clinic was closed. The film was banned by license commissioner George Bell immediately before the New York City screening because he deemed the subject matter to be, “immoral, indecent, and contrary to public welfare”.  Crowds already lined up to see the film at the Park Theatre had to be turned away, unaware of the last-minute decision. Instead, the film was shown at a private screening for roughly 200 members of press and those affiliated with the birth control movement. This was the first and last screening of Birth Control.

Following the confusion surrounding the “premiere”, there was an argument in the New York State Appellate Supreme Court about whether the ban should be lifted. Supreme Court Judge Nathan Bijur defended Sanger’s film, but was met with adverse opinions. Ultimately, Birth Control was the first film to be banned under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision, which ruled that protection of freedom of speech through the First Amendment did not apply to film because they classified it as purely a business, not

art. The court ruled that the film was contrary to, “the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare”, thus it was in society’s best interest to censor it. It is also notable that Birth Control was the first woman-produced film to be banned in the United States. The Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission was eventually overturned in 1952, legally granting film protection as an artistic medium. Despite this, Birth Control was never shown again to the public, and despite many efforts to locate a copy of it, it has not been found.


For More Information of the 1917 Birth Control film, check out:

For legal proceedings, that include some of the screenplay of the film, consult: MESSAGE PHOTO-PLAY CO., INC. v. BELL, 179 App. Div. 13 (N.Y. App. Div. 1917) (Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Collected Documents Series C15:486-490).

 Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990)

Larry Langman, American Film Cycles: The Silent Era (1998)

Manon Parry, Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning (2013)


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