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From July 7th to the 21st of 1937, Margaret Sanger made a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Where did she stay?

Well, her five-day travels had her resting in the Bishop’s Lodge Inn, known today as the Bishop’s Lodge Resort and Spa. The resort is located in the Tesuque Valley of New Mexico and surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  One look at this photo of the mountains makes me understand.


Sanger was vacationing in Santa Fe to experience that beautiful landscape! I mean seriously, it looks like a setting pulled out of Middle Earth. I can totally imagine Mithrandir and Pippin riding from Rohan to Gondor.

Okay, there was another more legitimate reason for Sanger to travel to Santa Fe. Yes, it had to do with the birth control movement and no, it didn’t have to do with experiencing J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece.

My research took me to the Santa Fe Maternal Health Center. The SFMHC opened on October 27, 1937.[1]


MS in the 1940’s (Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College).

Who encouraged the founders to go through with their plans to build a center?

None other than Margaret Sanger.

Earlier that summer, Sanger met with prominent women from Santa Fe to discuss the importance of birth control.  Throughout the late 1930’s, Santa Fe was still suffering the hardship of the Great Depression. New Mexico ranked the fifth-highest in the nation for infant and maternal deaths.[2]  One of the reasons that mortality was so high was the inadequate provision of health care. But even where there were health facilities, the Catholic Church owned most of them. It refused to use its clinics for contraceptive education or provision. If the women of Santa Fe wanted to make birth control available, they would need to do it themselves. The SFMHC was created to provide better child and maternal health care while also distributing birth control.

Now, the second part of this was more difficult.  At this time a majority of the New Mexico population was Catholic. Even more importantly, Florence Davenport, one of the women who had invited Sanger to Santa Fe in the first place, reported that “8 out of 9 members of the City Council are Catholic.”[3]  With such a significant Catholic population among the city’s leaders, getting the clinic open would not be easy.

However, those that managed the clinic attempted to get around this issue.Children

Children at the Santa Fe Maternal Health Center.

They recognized that the women of Santa Fe, and of New Mexico, not only needed access to birth control, but also to other medical services. This meant that their operation would not only include birth control, but also pre-natal, post-natal and infant care. Six months after the clinic opened in 1937, Cecil Damon, Sanger’s secretary at the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, contacted Davenport. Damon wrote that Sanger planned to cancel funding to the SFMHC explaining that sponsors felt that the funds being sent to the SFMHC were being used for other services other than the provision of birth control. Though the sponsors supported the provision of general medical services to poor women and children, they felt as if finding sponsors for such causes was much less difficult than  finding sponsors to support the provision of birth control. The sponsors felt that all their funds should be focused on providing access to contraceptives.

Davenport responded by stressing the Catholic authorities in New Mexico. She would reiterate that the “State, County and City Health officials [could] not help [them] as long as [they] have affiliations with Birth Control Group.”[4]  In the end, Sanger did stop funding the SFMHC. But this didn’t hinder the service of the Center, which continuing providing health and contraceptive services to women and children in New Mexico. Eventually the Center would expand its services to include eye, teeth, circumcision and operative diagnosis clinics. These services even included providing poor families with food, clothing and work for the patients’ husbands.[5]

So maybe Sanger might not have spent her whole visit in Santa Fe horseback riding and cooking out by a BBQ pit. More likely she was there, meeting with women, like Davenport, ensuring the establishment of the Santa Fe Maternal Health Center in order to provide access to contraceptives to the women of New Mexico.

Click here for our map of Sanger’s travels.

[1] Sullivan, Michael A, “Opening of the Santa Fe Maternal Health Clinic, 1937,” New Mexico Office of the State Historian, http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=455, Accessed July 2, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Santa Fe Maternal and Child Health Center Papers, Center for Southwest Research, General Library, University of New Mexico.

[5] Sullivan, Michael A, “Opening of the Santa Fe Maternal Health Clinic, 1937,” New Mexico Office of the State Historian, http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=455, Accessed July 2, 2013.