Here at the Sanger Papers, every day is International Women’s Day! We are deep into our research on Sanger’s many international activities for ‘Round the World for Birth Control, 1920-1966, the fourth and final volume of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger. Here’s just an overview of some of her international accomplishments.
Almost from the start, Sanger perceived birth control as a global issue that affected all women. Her first trip abroad for birth control was in 1914, when she fled prosecution for publishing The Woman Rebel and Family Limitation. During her almost year-long stay, she learned about the Dutch diaphragm and visited the birth control clinics that provided them to women. She then proceeded to made a number of trips for birth control, including a ground-breaking trip to Japan in 1922, a 1934 tour of the Soviet Union, and India in 1935-36.
Sanger helped form the Birth Control International Information Centre with her British colleague Edith How-Martyn, who did much of the leg work for Sanger’sin the late 1920s and 1930s. She organized the first World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927, international birth control conferences in New York in 1925 and in Zurich in 1930, where she met leading birth control figures from around the world. After World War II, she took a leading role in the reestablishment of the international planned parenthood movement.
Sanger’s best known international accomplishment is the International Planned Parenthood Federation was officially formed in 1952, which is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary later this year. At the founding meeting in Bombay (Mumbai), Sanger was named its first president, serving until 1959. Already 73 years old when she took on the IPPF, Sanger was, as German associate Lotte Fink recalled, “the outstanding figure from abroad at the Conference. She still can keep large audiences spellbound. Her energy while being in the chair or addressing the Indian people over the radio or discussing any point or organizational importance in incredible.” Her last major public appearance was at the 1959 International Conference on Planned Parenthood, in New Delhi. Sanger had not been expected to attend because of illness, but determined to be present. Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, the president of the Family Planning Association of India recalled the excitement of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when she told him that Sanger had indeed arrived. “On hearing my news, he ran up the steps like a schoolboy, put his arms around Margaret in greeting, and gently led her into the hall where the great gathering was waiting for him. It was a most touching and unforgettable scene: the Prime Minister ignoring all formality, Mrs. Sanger glowing with pride, and the huge audience standing up, cheering and applauding.”
For Margaret Sanger, every day was International Women’s Day. From the 1920s through the 1950s she balanced the responsibilities of leading the American movement while spurring the organization of birth control and family planning leagues around the world. Her vision, that every women should be able to own and control her body, was one that extended far beyond the borders of the United States.