Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

by Jean H. Baker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809094981
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/08/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Jean H. Baker is the author of many books on nineteenth-century American history. She is a currently a professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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I hate all these biographies that go back and forth over your childhood, dragging out this and that, that has nothing to do with your recent life.

— Margaret Sanger to Mildred Gilman, February 11, 1953

In the fall of 1879, when Anne Purcell Higgins's time came, she called for neither midwife nor nurse. There was no hospital in Corning, New York, where the Higgins family lived in a tiny ramshackle cottage on the western edge of town. Instead, it was her husband, Michael Hennessy Higgins, who eased her labor pains with his inimitable charm and a little whiskey from his flask. To save money and because he believed himself to be as knowledgeable about medicine as any expert, Michael often doctored his family. By this time both parents were experienced in matters of childbirth and took great pride in the size and health of their blemish-free, ten-pound babies. "They had a eugenic pride of race," wrote their famous daughter Margaret Sanger, who later held her own views on that subject.

These Catholic-born parents never considered the number of their offspring, for they believed it was the purpose of marriage and the nature of sex for women to bear children. According to the injunction from the family Bible where the names and birth dates of all the Higgins offspring were conscientiously recorded, "Lo, children are the heritage of the Lord." This new blessing — promptly named (but not baptized) Margaret Elizabeth after a Purcell relative and a Catholic saint — was the couple's sixth child in eleven years of marriage, and she remained their youngest for an unusual four years of special attention before another daughter replaced her.

Usually, the Higgins babies arrived every two years and sometimes more frequently, in lockstep fashion after their mother stopped nursing, and thereby lost a natural means of preventing ovulation. After one of the longest hiatuses from childbirth in her married life (though the period included one nearly deathly miscarriage), Anne Higgins delivered another five children in eleven years. Eventually, the ravages of disease and the deliverance of menopause ended her childbearing years, but not before she had given birth to eleven children in twenty-two years and suffered seven miscarriages. She had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage. Six years after her last child was born in 1892, Anne Higgins succumbed to the tuberculosis that had made her last years an agony of fitful coughing, bloody expectoration, and persistent enervation. "My mother died at 48," wrote Margaret Sanger in sentences that needed no further explanation to make her point. "My father lived to be 80."

Born in 1845 in Cork County with an archetypal Irish name, personality, and, eventually, drinking habits, Sanger's father had come to Canada as a six-year-old with his mother and his younger brother, part of a massive exodus that began in the 1840s. Throughout Ireland, a strange fungus had shriveled dependable potatoes into inedible roots, and the pressures of English landlords with their demands for rent had become intolerable. With uncertain prospects for a better existence across the seas, but nothing to gain from staying, over a million and a half Irish immigrated to the United States from 1846 to 1852. Many left from Cork, the seaport on the Irish coast in the county where Michael and Anne Higgins were both born.

The Irish mostly settled in the coastal cities of the United States, but some, as much because of the shipping routes as for any other reason, came to Canada, where Toronto, with its access to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence River, emerged as the favored port of entry. But the Higgins family had another reason to choose Canada: they were following relatives, including Michael's older brother, who tended sheep, cattle, and horses on a stock ranch, probably in the southern part of Quebec province. Here Michael Higgins grew up.

By 1861 the American Civil War offered exciting prospects for a bored and restless teenager. In 1863 Michael Higgins crossed the border and came to New York City. There, offering his experience with animals to eager recruiting officers who needed to fill President Abraham Lincoln's call for 300,000 additional Union troops, he volunteered for service in the elite Twelfth Regiment of the New York Cavalry, lying about his age and his name (he is listed as Michael Hennessy in the rosters) in order to join as an underage drummer. As many as 150,000 Irish fought in the American Civil War, some drafted, others bought for three hundred dollars as substitutes for draftees, and still more, especially in the famous Irish Brigade, served as volunteers.

Unlike the soldiers in that brigade, Michael Higgins saw little of either the glory or the gore of battle that his daughter later claimed he had. In fact, he was sick with tonsillitis for his unit's first muster, and eventually ended up in Union-controlled North Carolina, where he undertook an exciting reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines at Bachelor Creek. An inspiring storyteller, Higgins spun this incident and others into heroic and often mythical tales of military adventures that delighted his children: the time he captured a Confederate soldier on a mule, his unlikely journey across Georgia with Sherman's Union army, and the episode when someone tried to steal the gold coins that were his paternal inheritance.

The Civil War made Michael Hennessy Higgins into an American, though a persistently critical one. He never returned to Canada, a colonial possession despised by many Irish for its devotion to the detested English monarchy. He lost all contact with his mother and brothers. Instead, with great expectations, Higgins settled first in New York City, and then on Long Island, where he was apprenticed to a stone cutter. Perhaps he hoped for a career as a sculptor, for he could craft the most exquisite roses out of obdurate stone with his tools.

What Michael Higgins found in America was a lifetime as a graveyard stone and marble cutter, usually of monuments for children's graves, fashioning lifelike angels and saints and meticulously wrought flowers. For adults, he adorned handsome slabs of marble and granite, with the resurrectionist hopes of the survivors (which he considered absurd) chiseled below family names into epigraphs such as "May you rest in Heaven" and "Dwell with Christ in paradise." When it came time to decorate the graves of his own wife and child in Corning's St. Mary's Cemetery, he used no churchly sentiments, only their names and dates under the surname Higgins, on polished granite topped with a rough, unfinished rock. Perhaps the latter was a testament to the challenges of his own life as Corning's best-known iconoclast.

In Flemington, New Jersey, where he had gone to stay with friends from his regiment, Michael Higgins met and in 1869 married Anne Purcell, the Irish-born daughter of an ambitious day laborer. The Purcells, like Michael Higgins, had emigrated from Cork County during the Great Famine. After working for a time as potters in New Jersey, Anne's brothers had been apprenticed to a lawyer in Flemington and been admitted to the bar; they then headed west for successful careers in North Dakota. In time both were wealthy ranchers who remembered their more impecunious Higgins nieces and nephews in their wills. After amassing a fortune, William Purcell ran for the state legislature and subsequently filled a vacancy in the United States Senate, where he lobbied successfully for an increase in his brother-in-law Michael Higgins's veteran's disability pension, claimed on the basis of failing eyesight. The pension, awarded first in 1896 as an annuity of six dollars a month, was raised in 1911 to thirty dollars a month.

The first four children of the notably fecund Anne and Michael were born in four different towns in New Jersey, Ohio, and New York, before the fifth child, Thomas, arrived in 1877 in Corning, New York. There, in a town that had prospects of becoming the largest inland city in the United States, Anne and Michael Higgins settled in a community of nearly six thousand, over a thousand of whom were foreign-born, mostly from Ireland and, in fewer numbers, Italy.

The specific reasons for their final destination are unclear. But surely an itinerant life with four children and a perpetually pregnant wife had become impossible, and there may have been Purcell cousins in the community. So many emigrants from Michael Higgins's native county in Ireland had gathered in Corning that one small section of shanties was nicknamed "Corktown." Besides, in a practical test often undertaken by artisans like Michael Higgins, the smoke, soot, and noise of this small industrial city meant jobs and prosperity. Soon, because there were twelve other families with the surname Higgins, Michael became known as "Marble" Higgins.

* * *

Corning took its name from its founder, the merchant capitalist and land speculator Erastus Corning. Impressed with the village's location as a port on the Chemung River and anxious to incorporate southeastern New York, with its resources of coal and lumber, into a commercial nexus that he controlled, Corning had bought more than a thousand acres in Steuben County along the river in the 1830s and 1840s. By the time of America's market revolution and capitalist expansion, the land was profitable investment property, eventually returning Erastus Corning's speculative capital many times over. The business blocks on Market Street and the clock tower in Corning's center were located on his land, as were the new railroad tracks that crisscrossed each other along the river flats.

At first, feeder canals to Lake Seneca and then to the Erie Canal transformed the village of Corning into a significant transportation center, as tobacco from the farms in Steuben County, marble and granite from nearby quarries, and coal from the mines near Blossburg in Pennsylvania's Tioga County were transshipped east and south. But even before the Civil War, faster, more dependable railroads had begun replacing river commerce. Again, Erastus Corning, intent on creating a central New York railroad system connecting the west (he had already bought land in Michigan) to New York City, emerged as a financial leader, consolidating the lines in the Gilded Age, a time when, as in Marxist prediction, one capitalist's mergers often killed off many others' businesses. But in time this centralization — and particularly Erastus Corning's giant industrial creation, the New York Central Railroad — condemned the town that bore his name to second-rate status. No longer even a large inland city or hub station on any main railroad line, as town fathers had hoped, instead Corning would forever be associated with another industry — glassmaking. By the 1890s Corning had earned its permanent nickname, Crystal City.

In 1868 the Houghton family had accepted a subsidy of fifty thousand dollars from the ambitious town fathers to move their glassworks from Brooklyn to Corning, where there were promises of excellent transportation, abundant coal and water, appropriate sand, and cheap Irish workers, the latter the human detritus left over from canal and railroad building. After the firm created a means of mass producing the tubes for Thomas Edison's new electric lightbulbs, its factories employed half the workers in town. Smoke belched from the local marvel of hundred-foot brick smokestacks.

Children as young as twelve labored in the glassworks, where the eldest Higgins sons — Joseph, John, and Thomas — at various times supplemented the family income with their wages. In a system widely accepted in the community, the Higgins boys went to school for a few hours and then spent the rest of the day and part of the evening in the glassworks. There they worked as laborers sweeping up and, more dangerously, carrying on long poles the molten globs, the result of silicates fused with sand, soda, lime, and wood ash, from furnaces heated to fifteen hundred degrees, to be fashioned into glassware by the more skilled and higher-paid gaffers.

As in other communities in the United States, the distribution of wealth in Corning's version of the Gilded Age became more skewed: education, wealth, family size, even clothing and leisure activities separated the residents. The local newspaper the Corning Daily Democrat under the heading "Town Talk" featured news and gossip of the smart set — trips to Florida and New Orleans during the cold months by the Houghtons of the glassworks and the Drakes of the banking family, social events organized by "the Club," weddings, railroad outings to nearby Elmira, and presentations by the girls studying in the privately funded Corning Academy.

Among the latter was Katharine Houghton, daughter of Amory Houghton, who had founded the Corning Glass Works. A year older than Maggie Higgins, these two never knew each other as girls growing up in stratified Corning. But later, as a fervent supporter of suffrage, the now married Katharine Houghton Hepburn served as a lieutenant in Sanger's birth control movement, though she was best known as the mother of the movie star Katharine Hepburn.

Corning's striking geographical feature, its steep southside hill rising from the river valley, symbolized these differences. The wealthy few who had lived in substantial houses on First Street now moved up the hill on the south side of town, building grand stone and brick homes with turrets, music rooms, and libraries. Young Maggie Higgins did not need any instruction from her father to recognize the contrasts between an existence she later characterized as "strange, hard, and barren, materially speaking" and the softer, gentler life of the wealthy. As she later described the town that along with her father had taught her lessons in America's class structure:

The people who lived on the hilltops owned their homes, had few children, dressed them well, and kept their homes and yard clean and tidy. Mothers of the hills played croquet and tennis with their husbands in the evening. They walked hand in hand with their children through the streets to shop for suitable clothing. They were young looking mothers, with pretty, clean dresses and they smelled of perfume. I often watched them at play as I looked through the gates in passing.

Meanwhile, the workers lived at the bottom of the hill, in shacks on the fringe of the town or squeezed into the congested area between the river and the railroads. Corning had its share of the late-nineteenth-century version of today's homeless in the itinerant tramps who had no permanent homes and who occasionally slept in the Higgins home. There seemed to be no middle class, though as a skilled worker Michael Higgins might have joined the cobblers, clerks, and grocers who resided along First Street.

Despite this stratification, Corning's opinion makers held to democratic ideals. The Corning Daily Democrat's masthead proclaimed, "We go where Democratic principles point their way; when they cease may we cease to follow." Its proprietors also asserted that "part of the village may be built on the hill, but her citizens do not look down upon those living on flats at their feet. Corning is a homely looking village and in some parts decidedly sloppy but she is attractive to those who know her best and [is] full of business."

In the early 1880s Michael Higgins endured some devastating bad luck: within months a partner ran off with profits from his business and his shop burned down. Still, there was opportunity. Rural country graveyards in garden settings with substantial plots had created a growth industry for sculptors in the late nineteenth century, and every year nearly one hundred residents of Corning died. But Higgins's commissions became increasingly sporadic, and his large family was consigned to the category of poor — never even lace curtain — Irish. Consequently, Maggie spent her childhood as an outsider, classified as a redheaded southside Irish girl. Of course, looking back, she knew why: "Very early in my childhood I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, and jails with large families."

* * *

After the Civil War, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church — located on Corning Hill, midway between the rich and the poor — replaced its former wooden structure with a stone building, complete with an organ and stained glass windows, to accommodate the city's Catholic population of two thousand, most of whom were Irish. By 1880, the church, with the financial help of poor but generous parishioners, had added a brick schoolhouse. In an unusual, surely unconstitutional, and soon challenged arrangement, St. Mary's School received public funds from the state of New York and Steuben County, serving for a time as both a parochial and a public "free" school. Here Maggie Higgins and her seven brothers and three sisters attended school for varying lengths of time with differing amounts of attention, sitting obediently in long, crowded rows along a wooden planked bench, careful to avoid the wrath of the Sisters of Mercy and Father Colgan, who was known to use the strap on unruly pupils.


Excerpted from "Margaret Sanger"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Jean H. Baker.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
1. Maggie Higgins: Daughter of Corning,
2. Mrs. William Sanger of Hastings-on-Hudson,
3. Comrade Sanger,
4. Creating Margaret Sanger,
5. On Trial,
6. The Birth Control Review,
7. Voyages,
8. Spreading the Word,
9. All Things Fade,
10. World Leader,
Epilogue: Last Years,
Photo Section,
Also by Jean H. Baker,

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Margaret Sanger 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
MarthaHuntley on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This book is more a history of the battle to develop and legalize safe contraceptive methods than it is a biography of Margaret Sanger, which makes it dry and boring in many long passages, but it left me with a greater understanding of how we got the pill, and why, and to wonder at the continuing effort of the Roman Catholic church against virtually any form of contraception. So I'm glad I read the book, as this is, amazingly enough, once again a timely political issue in an election year.
Beverly_D More than 1 year ago
Margaret Sanger was arguably one of, if not THE, most influential women of the twentieth century. Birth control and family planning would never be the same, due to her strong force of personality and calculated efforts to raise awareness of the issue of birth control. She got America: 1) to talk about it openly for the first time, and 2) agree that spacing children within marriage was actually a good idea. Then she built coalitions to support clinics, to form national frameworks of supporters, then international networks, AND served as matchmaker/fairy godmother to the researchers who developed The Pill, after she introduced an interested sponsor with deep pockets. What I liked about this book is that Sanger's warmth, vibrancy comes through, but also, the author herself does not seem 100% sold on "Saint Margaret." Her flaws and strengths are clearly depicted, along with a good feel for the times when she was born, when she was a teen, and each succeeding social transition. America - and the world was changing rapidly, from rural, agricultural nations to cities with automobiles and telephones. Women got to vote! This is an engaging look both at how one woman changed the world, but also a fascinating look at the history of 20th century America.