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Margaret Sanger papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00138

Scope and Contents

The Margaret Sanger Papers are divided into two distinct portions: those papers that were microfilmed by the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, consisting of 39.5 linear feet (95 boxes; 83 reels); and the unfilmed portion of the papers consisting of 73.5 linear feet (131 boxes). The unfilmed records and papers were, with few exceptions, not created or authored by Sanger. Material authored by Sanger (including her complete writings), and core organizational records as well as many legal and miscellaneous materials were extracted and included in Microfilm Edition. The unfilmed portion of the Margaret Sanger Papers has been arranged and described to be used in tandem with the microfilm edition. Many of the records are overlapping and interrelated, and some duplication exists between the collections.

The published microfilm edition of the Smith College Collections consists of nearly 45,000 documents drawn from the Margaret Sanger Papers and nineteen other collections of manuscript material and archival records located in the Sophia Smith Collection and Smith College Archives at Smith College. Included are all of Sanger's correspondence and writings, along with a large selection of organizational, conference, and legal materials documenting her leadership of the American and international birth control movements, and other records of activities and events related to Sanger's personal life, awards, tributes, travels, art work, and family. Records were included in the microfilm edition only if created by Sanger, prepared under her supervision, or if they pertained directly to Sanger and her activities. The microfilm edition also includes Sanger documents from twenty other archival and manuscript collections, primarily in the Sophia Smith Collection, but also including several from the Smith College Archives. The published guide is entitled The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series (1996). In addition, University Publications has published the Collected Documents, a series of Sanger's papers collected by the Margaret Sanger Papers Project from repositories around the world (guide and microfilm are available in the SSC reading room). The Sanger collection at the Library of Congress, the largest collection of her papers, was microfilmed in 1977.

The unfilmed portion of the Sanger Papers and consists of 73.25 linear feet of materials in the original Sanger papers at Smith College that were excluded from the 1995 microfilm edition. It includes a wide range of records that are essential to understanding the roots of the American birth control movement and the work of Margaret Sanger, and that highlight many of the other individuals who led in the pioneering effort to legalize and disseminate contraception in America and abroad. It contains materials documenting the American and international birth control movements from the 1910s to circa 1966 and to a lesser extent, the life of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Included are correspondence and biographical material of Sanger friends and family, and individuals participating in the birth control movement; limited organization and conference records; informational files on countries and states; subject files covering issues and topics related to birth control, population and sexuality; biographical materials, including some of Sanger's financial records, address books, some family material, and obituaries; research on Sanger, including book manuscripts, biographical work, and theses; printed material, including both foreign and domestic periodicals related to birth control, sexuality and population, and clippings spanning Sanger's lifetime; audio and video recordings; and photographs.

The unfilmed portion documents the American and international birth control movements, particularly between the years 1920 and 1962, but includes records spanning the mid- 19th century to 1970 related to the history of contraception, malthusianism, eugenics, sex education, and other topics related to birth control and population planning. In particular, the correspondence and biographical material serve as an essential supplement to the microfilmed portion, as well as providing substantive information on many of Sanger's closest friends and principal supporters. The collection includes significant documentation of many international organizations and clinics particularly in Europe and Asia, and records of many regional organizations and clinics in the U. S. This collection also provides material on the 19th century English and American roots of the Sanger-led birth control movement. In addition, the Unfilmed Collection offers extensive information on Sanger's family, in particular her second husband, J. Noah Slee, and her sons Grant and Stuart Sanger.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1761 - 1995
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1900-1966


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that Margaret Sanger owned copyright, Alexander Sanger, as representative of the Sanger family, has retained copyright in her unpublished works donated to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators.

For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by Margaret Sanger, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Margaret Louise Higgins was born in Corning, New York, on September 15, 1879, the sixth of eleven children and the third of four daughters born to Anne Purcell Higgins and Michael Hennessey Higgins, a stone mason. Her two elder sisters worked to supplement the family income, and financed her education at Claverack College, a private coeducational preparatory school in the Catskills. After leaving Claverack, Higgins took a job teaching first grade to immigrant children, but decided after a short time that the work did not suit her temperament. She returned to Corning where her mother, then only forty-nine years old, was dying of tuberculosis. Margaret Higgins blamed her mother's untimely death, as well as her sisters' need to sacrifice their own ambitions to support the family, on her parents' high fertility. Though she loved and admired her father, she resented his demand that she take her mother's place managing the household. Shortly after her Anne Higgins's death, Margaret Higgins left Corning for White Plains, New York, where she entered nursing school.

In 1902, after completing two years of practical nursing training and gaining acceptance to a three-year degree program, Higgins met and married William Sanger, an architect and aspiring artist. By 1910 Margaret Sanger had survived her own bout with tuberculosis and given birth to three children (Stuart, 1903; Grant, 1908; and Peggy, 1910), but was chafing inside her role as a traditional housewife and mother in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Later that year the family moved to Manhattan where, through her work as a home nurse on the Lower East Side and her political involvements with the International Workers of the World and anarchist Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger was drawn into the burgeoning struggle for women's right to control their sexuality and fertility. By 1912 Sanger was widely recognized as a writer and speaker about sex reform. Later that year she became a regular contributor to the socialist newspaper The Call, where she published a series of articles on sexual hygiene. One of these, an article about syphilis published in February 1913, was targeted by the U.S. Post Office under the Comstock Act of 1873, which banned the distribution of sexually-related material through the U.S. mail. This repression of her writings, combined with her exposure to the damages done to women by repeated childbirths and self-induced abortions, led to Sanger's decision to devote herself entirely to the birth control movement. By 1914 she had separated from her husband, written a pamphlet entitled Family Limitation which coined the term "birth control," traveled to Europe to research new contraceptive methods, and set out to establish a system of advice centers where women throughout the U.S. could obtain reliable birth control information.

Sanger's use of radical tactics to educate women about birth control, especially her publication of the radical journal The Woman Rebel, brought her once again to the attention of the U.S. Postal Service. When the U.S. government brought charges against her, Sanger fled to Europe where she befriended the sex reformer Havelock Ellis, who encouraged her to avoid radical political rhetoric and reframe her writings in the language of the social sciences. The pneumonia death of five-year-old Peggy Sanger, which occurred shortly after her mother's return to the New York in October 1915, devastated Margaret Sanger. But Peggy's death, in tandem with William Sanger's arrest for distributing a copy of Family Limitation, aroused considerable public sympathy for Sanger, which, in turn, led the U.S. government to drop its earlier charges against her. More convinced than ever of the need to legalize birth control, Sanger and her younger sister Ethel Byrne opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn in October 1916 and, for ten days before the police closed it down, the two dispensed contraceptive advice to 488 women. Tried and imprisoned for her work, Margaret Sanger became a national figure. On appeal, Sanger won a clarification of the New York law forbidding the dissemination of contraceptive information. The Judge, Frederick Crane, rejected Sanger's argument that, because it forced women to risk death in pregnancy, the law was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Crane did establish doctors' right to provide women with contraceptive advice for "the cure and prevention of disease."

Interpreting Crane's decision broadly as a mandate for birth control clinics staffed by doctors, Sanger completed the strategic and tactical transformation she had begun at Havelock Ellis's suggestion. Sanger minimized her radical past and began to stress eugenic arguments for birth control over feminist ones. In doing so, she gained increasing support from both medical professionals and philanthropists; in 1921 such backing allowed her to organize the American Birth Control League, which would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. In 1923, aided by her second husband, millionaire J. Noah Slee, Sanger opened the first doctor-staffed contraceptive clinic in the U.S., the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City, under the direction of Dr. Hannah Stone. In addition to dispensing birth control information and devices, the Bureau trained hundreds of physicians in contraceptive techniques and served as a model for the national network of 300 clinics Sanger and her supporters would establish over the next fifteen years. In 1925 Sanger convinced her old friend Herbert Simonds to found the Holland Rantos Company, which became the first American company to produce the diaphragm. Between 1929 and 1936 Sanger and her lobbying group, the Committee on Federation legislation for Birth Control, waged a series of court battles which culminated in United States v. One Package, which overturned the old statutes by permitting the mailing of contraceptive devices intended for physicians. Sanger's victory in this case led the American Medical Association to endorse contraception as a legitimate medical service and a vital component of medical education in 1937.

After the U.S. v. One Package Victory Sanger retired to Tucson, Arizona determined to play less central role in the birth control movement, yet her influence continued. In 1952 Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as the organization's first president. Also in the 1950s she won philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick's financial support for Gregory Pincus's work on the development of the birth control pill. Margaret Sanger died of congestive heart failure in Tucson on September 6, 1966.


112.75 linear feet (226 boxes)

Language of Materials



Birth control advocate and nurse. Sanger, a sex reform activist, fought for women's rights to use contraceptives and founded both the national and international Planned Parenthood Federations. Papers include correspondence, writings, organizational and conference materials documenting her leadership of the American and international birth control movements. Also included are records of activities and events related to Sanger's personal life, tributes, travels, art work, family materials, audio and video recordings, and dozens of photographs.


The unfilmed portion of the collection is organized into ten series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Writings and Speeches
  3. III. Third Party Correspondence and Related Material
  4. IV. Organization and Conference Files
  5. V. Countries and Regions
  6. VI. Subject Files
  7. VII. Printed Material
  8. VIII. Audiovisual Material
  9. IX. Photographs
  10. X. Oversize


This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Other Finding Aids

The Sophia Smith Microfilm Edition of the Margaret Sanger Papers, a reel guide and index to the microfilm from Smith College.

Margaret Sanger: A Register of Her Papers, a reel guide of the microfilm from Smith College, the Library of Congress, and other repositories.

Other Finding Aids

One or more content listings to individual accessions in this collection are available for download. Links can be found in the description of the individual accessions.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Margaret Sanger donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1946 and continued to add to them until her death in 1966. Since then additional material has been given to the SSC by family members, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, and others.

Since 1998, donations have been made by Alexander C. Sanger (1998 and 2009-2011), Virginia H. Suhey (1998), Norma Kernes (1999), Jane Fleishman (2003), and Araxie Dunn (2006).

Additional Formats

Series IX was microfilmed by the Margaret Sangers Papers Project and the digitized microfilm is available online via ProQuest (subscription may be required).

Related Material

Related material is in the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Records; Margaret Sanger Research Bureau Records; Dorothy Brush Papers; and Florence Rose Papers.

Additional papers of Margaret Sanger are at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (also available on microfilm in the SSC).

Processing Information

Collection processed in 1995 and reprocessed in 1998 by Peter Engleman. Photographs processed by Margaret Jessup.

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. A full crosswalk of old to new numbers is available.

Finding Aid to the Margaret Sanger papers
Peter Engleman
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss43 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:18-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2021-07-06: Added content description from accession inventories
  • 2021-07-20: Added content description from accession inventories
  • 2023-11-15: Added link to digitized microfilm, corrected a few notes

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063