Margaret Sanger was born on September 14, 1879, in the small industrial community of Corning in upstate New York, the sixth of eleven children. The circumstances of her home life were never happy--a fact to which she later attributed much of her agitated activism and bitter bombast. If it is true that “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world,” it is equally true that “The hand that wrecks the cradle ruins the world.”
Her father, Michael Higgins, was an Irish Catholic immigrant who fancied himself a radical freethinker and a free-wheeling skeptic. As a youngster he had enlisted in General William Sherman’s notorious Twelfth New York Cavalry, and proudly participated in the nefarious campaign that ravaged and ravished the South, across Tennessee, through Atlanta, and to the sea. He achieved notable infamy among his peers when he was honored by his commander for special treachery in fiercely subduing the recalcitrant captive population. Not surprisingly that cruel and inhuman experience apparently hardened and embittered him. Triage and genocide are not easily forgotten by either victims or perpetrators. His criminal inhumanity constituted a kind of spiritual calamity from which he, like so many others of his region, never fully recovered. Forever afterward he was patheticly stunted, unable to maintain even a modicum of normalcy in his life or relations.
He worked sporadically as a stone mason and a tombstone carver but was either unwilling or unable to provide adequately for his large family. Margaret's mother, Anne Purcell, was a second generation American from a strict Irish Catholic family. She was frail and tuberculous but utterly devoted to her unstable and unpredictable husband--as well as their ever-growing brood of children.
The family suffered bitterly from cold, privation, and hunger. That was the common lot of thousands of other families in nineteenth century America. But the Higginses also suffered grievously from scorn, shame, and isolation--because of Michael's sullen improvidence. And like many a man who is proudly progressive in public, he was repressively remonstrant at home. He regularly thrashed his sons “to make men of them.” And he treated his wife and daughters as “virtual slaves.” And when he drank--which was whenever he could afford it--his volatile presence was even more oppressive than it normally was.
That is the paradox of dogmatic liberalism: though it loudly declares itself a champion of the weak, it is actually an unrelenting truncheon of the strong. Ideology inevitably resolves itself in some form of tyranny.
Sanger later described her family's existence under the unenlightened and inhuman hand of Michael’s enlightened humanism as "joyless and filled with drudgery and fear.” Even as an adult, whenever she was on a train that merely rode through Corning, she got a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. She suffered, she said, from “Corningitis.”
Clearly, the Higginses had an impoverished and isolated life. But, not only did they have to endure grave social and material lack, they were spiritually deprived as well. As a confirmed skeptic, Michael mocked the sincere religious devotion of most of his neighbors. He openly embraced radicalism, socialism, and atheism. And he had little toleration for the modicum of morality that his poor wife tried to instill in the lives of their hapless children.
One day for example, when Margaret was on her knees saying the Lord's Prayer, she came to the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread,” and her father snidely cut her off.
“Who were you talking to?” he demanded.
“To God,” she replied innocently.
“Well, tell me, is God a baker?”
With no little consternation, she said, “No, of course not. But He makes the rain, the sunshine, and all the things that make the wheat, which makes the bread.”
After a thoughtful pause her father rejoined, “Well, well, so that's the idea. Then why didn't you just say so? Always say what you mean, my daughter, it is much better.”
In spite of Michael's concerted efforts to undermine Margaret's young and fragile faith, her mother had her baptized in St. Mary's Catholic Church on March 23, 1893. A year later, on July 8, 1894, she was confirmed. Both ceremonies were held in secret--her father would have been furious had he known. For some time afterward she displayed a zealous devotion to spiritual things. She regularly attended services and observed the disciplines of the liturgical year. She demonstrated a budding and apparently authentic hunger for truth.
But gradually the smothering effects of Michael's cynicism took their toll. When her mother died under the strain of her unhappy privation, Margaret was more vulnerable than ever before to his fierce undermining. Bitter, lonely, and grief-stricken, by the time she was seventeen her passion for Christ had collapsed into a bitter hatred of the church. It was a malignant malevolence that would forever after be her spiritual hallmark.
Anxious to move away from her malignant home life as soon as she could, Margaret was practically willing to go anywhere and try anything--as long as it was far from Corning. After a quick, almost frantic search, she settled on Claverack College. A small and inexpensive co-educational a boarding school attached to the famed Hudson River Institute, Claverack was a Methodist high school housed in an imposing wooden building on twenty picturesque acres overlooking the Hudson Valley. Not known for its academic rigors, the school was essentially a finishing school for protean youth.
It was there at Claverack that Margaret got her first taste of freedom. And what a wild and intoxicating freedom it was. She plunged into radical politics, suffragette feminism, and unfettered sex. Despite her relatively light academic load, she quickly fell behind in her work. She rarely attended her classes. And she almost never completed her assignments. Worse, she neglected her part-time job--necessary to pay for the nominal tuition.
It is said that we become most like those whom we are bitter against. Despite her now obvious animosity toward him, Margaret began to unconsciously emulate her father’s erratic personality. The stronger her resistance to his influence grew, the greater her immitation of his improvidence became.
But character has consequences. When she could no longer afford the tuition at Claverack, she was forced to return home--but only long enough to gather her belongings and set her affairs in order. She had drunk from the cup of concupiscence and would never again be satisfied with the quiet responsibilities and virtues of domesticity.
And so, as soon as she could, she moved in with her older sister in White Plains, taking a job as a kindergarten teacher. A youth corrupted became a youth corruptor.
Since she herself was now a high school drop out, she was assigned to a class made up primarily of the children of new immigrants. Much to her dismay, she found that her pupils couldn't understand a word that she said. She quickly grew tired of the laborious routine of teaching day in and day out. Gratefully, she quit after just two short terms.
Next, she applied for a job as a nurse-probationer at a small local hospital. Again though, Margaret’s careless and nomadic rootlessness was telling. Hospital work proved to be even more vexing and taxing than teaching. She never finished her training.
In later years she would claim to be a trained and practiced nurse. Nearly forty pages of her Autobiography were devoted to her varied, often heroic, experiences as a seasoned veteran in professional health care. But they were little more than Margaret’s well-realized fantasies.
In fact, her actual exposure to medicine was almost non-existent: she never got beyond running errands, changing sheets, and emptying bedpans. Like so much else in the mythic fable of her rise to prominence, her career as a nurse was little more than perpetrated fraud.
Determined to escape from the harsh bondage of labor and industry, she once again began to cast about for some viable alternative. She finally resorted to the only viable course open to a poor girl in those seemingly unenlightened days when the Puritan Work Ethic was still ethical: she married into money.