Margaret Sanger

A Life of Passion

Jean H. Baker

Hill and Wang

Undoubtedly the most influential advocate for birth control even before the term existed, Margaret Sanger ignited a movement that has shaped our society to this day. Her views on reproductive rights have made her a frequent target of conservatives and so-called family values activists. Yet lately even progressives have shied away from her, citing socialist leanings and a purported belief in eugenics as a blight on her accomplishments. In this captivating new biography, the renowned feminist historian Jean H. Baker rescues Sanger from such critiques and restores her to the vaunted place in history she once held.
Trained as a nurse and midwife in the gritty tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger grew increasingly aware of the dangers of unplanned pregnancy—both physical and psychological. A botched abortion resulting in the death of a poor young mother catalyzed Sanger, and she quickly became one of the loudest voices in favor of sex education and contraception. The movement she started spread across the country, eventually becoming a vast international organization with her as its spokeswoman.
Sanger’s staunch advocacy for women’s privacy and freedom extended to her personal life as well. After becoming a wife and mother at a relatively early age, she abandoned the trappings of home and family for a globe-trotting life as a women’s rights activist. Notorious for the sheer number of her romantic entanglements, Sanger epitomized the type of “free love” that would become mainstream only at the very end of her life. That she lived long enough to see the creation of the birth control pill—which finally made planned pregnancy a reality—is only fitting.


Read an Excerpt

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


Praise for Margaret Sanger

“Baker doesn’t rose-tint when it comes to Sanger’s difficult personality . . . and she remains an engaging writer even in her subject’s later years, where many biographies wilt . . . [Baker] has a knack for the well-chosen detail[.]” —The Wall Street Journal

“Baker’s biography succeeds in taking readers on a fascinating journey into the world of the 1920s and ’30s, when the Comstock laws made even the act of distributing information about birth control a crime. The strength of Baker’s book is in her ability to contextualize Sanger within her own time, which may prompt even her harshest critics to reassess her legacy. Baker makes it clear that Sanger believed, above all else, that every woman should have the right to control all aspects of her reproductive life through the diligent use of birth control.” —City Paper

“Baker accepts her subject, warts and all, and believes that by situating her in the context of her own times, Sanger emerges as a far more complex and sympathetic figure than her latter-day critics acknowledge.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Baker mixes impressive research and her own fierce analysis into an engaging narrative.” —The Boston Globe

“Baker’s book is a thorough and engrossing portrayal of the relentless passion that drove Sanger to fight for the rights of women to access safe and easy birth control.” —The Washington Independent Review of Books

“Best known as an advocate for spearheading the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger was an often-polarizing figure whose life Baker, a historian at Goucher College, expertly parses . . . This unbiased account underscores the ferocity of the fighter and the necessity of the fight.” —Publishers Weekly

“Baker ably illuminates the time period, making clear the attitudes that Sanger confronted and the political and religious forces that were arrayed against her . . . A wealth of information about the birth-control movement and the dedicated woman who was long at the center of it.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Here is a lucid, compelling story about a long, complicated, and ultimately society-altering American life. For too long, the women’s movement has paid too little tribute to brave but difficult Margaret Sanger. Jean H. Baker has finally, firmly, and unforgettably placed her within the pantheon of feminist history.” —Harold Holzer, historian and former press secretary to Bella S. Abzug

“It is a mark of the still controversial nature of birth control that Margaret Sanger remains a controversial subject. Now, finally, she has the biography she deserves. Jean H. Baker has restored Margaret Sanger to history and history to Margaret Sanger.” —Ellen Dubois, Professor of History, UCLA

“Jean H. Baker’s fine book gives us a believable Margaret Sanger—brave, shrewd, attractive, and flawed.” —Dorothy Ross, Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor Emerita of History, Johns Hopkins University


In the Press

MARGARET SANGER by Jean H. BakerKirkus Book Reviews
Read the Kirkus Review of MARGARET SANGER A Life of Passion. A sympathetic biography that seeks to clear the noted birth-control pioneer's name of the charges of elitism and racism, which have darkened her reputation in recent years.
- Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Jean H. Baker

  • Jean H. Baker is the author of Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists (Hill and Wang, 2005) and many other books on American history. She is currently a professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Jean H. Baker Stan Rudick


Available Formats and Book Details

Margaret Sanger

A Life of Passion

Jean H. Baker



Hill and Wang