Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William Sanger – the artist as health activist

Markley Boyer
Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, United States


Peggy, by William Sanger
 Courtesy of Alexander Sanger

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), birth control advocate, founder of Planned Parenthood and acknowledged leader in the quest for female reproductive freedom was one of the principal health and women’s right’s figures of the last century. Rebellious, unconventional, and with often unyielding positions on the right of a woman to have control of her own body, Sanger’s life was marked by major episodes of both personal and professional controversy. Despite continuing and vociferous arguments about the goals of Planned Parenthood, no other health-related initiative has had a greater effect on women’s decisions about reproduction and personal health.

Margaret Sanger’s life and her advocacy for women’s reproductive rights is well-documented and includes her autobiography,books,2,3 web pages,4,5 and an  extensive collection of personal and professional papers.6 However, little attention has been paid to the role that her first husband, William Sanger, played in the genesis of Margaret’s crusade, his later separation from all aspects of the movement and his virtually lost career as an artist.7,8 There is no question that Margaret Sanger was the principal force behind the evolution of Planned Parenthood and the acceptance of birth control, but William Sanger’s input—albeit often grudgingly, inadvertently, or mistakenly, provides more than a footnote to the early years of the movement.  His subsequent career as an artist, though largely ignored, indicates that he was able to create a separate, and perhaps consequential life position for himself. The inevitable failure of William and Margaret’s relationship is a classic story—a personal struggle between two people  “seeking their own quite different visions of fulfillment in life”9 and his ultimate disentanglement from his wife’s personal and professional lives set the stage for each to find their own paths.

William Sanger (1873-1961), sometime architect and social activist, recognized artist and perhaps unwilling player in the quest for women’s reproductive freedom, was born in Germany, moving to New York in 1878 where he studied architecture at Cooper Union, the Artists and Artisans League, and the Society of Beaux Arts. In 1902, following a whirlwind courtship, he married Margaret Higgins, a nursing student, moved to Westchester, fathered three children and supported his family with journeyman work designing houses, tenements, and public fountains, and acting as a contract draftsman for a major architectural firm in New York City. Outwardly conservative in outlook, Sanger had strong radical leanings; in the early years of their marriage, however, the couple appeared to be fairly conventional.

By 1910, stresses in their relationship—largely brought on by differing views of marital roles, dissatisfaction with suburban life, Margaret’s bout with tuberculosis, and financial constraints—prompted a move to New York City. Here William’s interest in both socialist politics and art took strong root. The 1900s were the heyday of new initiatives in both the creative and the social worlds. Realism, impressionism, modernism, and the so-called “Ashcan School” all spoke to shifting directions in world art. This was also the era of the new social forces. Authors like Dreiser, Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell highlighted economic and social disparities within the promise of America. The rise of the labor unions, a concern for the rights of working people, and an awareness of the social and economic factors which impacted the poor underscored a changing outlook. By 1911, William Sanger, already recognized as a leading social radical, was strongly involved in leftish causes and ran as the Socialist Party candidate as alderman for the 21st District; his friends included Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, and “Big Bill” Haywood, the leader of the International Workers of the World (IWW). Margaret, a nurse on the lower East Side, became increasingly aware of health disparities among poor women and involved herself in socialist causes. Both Sangers took roles in the outcry which followed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster,10 the Lawrence Textile Strike,11 and the Patterson Silk Workers strike.12

Gannet Lighthouse by William Sanger
 Courtesy of Alexander Sanger

Margaret’s concern about the effect of unplanned or too frequent pregnancies on a family’s health led her to author articles on “birth control” and sex education for the Socialist newspaper, The New York Call,13 and to a series of 1912 articles titled “What Every Girl Should Know.”14 The combination of socialist influences, artist friends of her husband, concerns about reproductive freedom, William’s increasing commitment to the artistic life, and his dissatisfaction with New York’s Bohemian life style were a volatile mix. The personal and professional goals of the Sangers showed an increasing divergence.

Strongly influenced by the new art directions highlighted in the 1913 Armory Show and despite a faltering marriage, William and his family moved to France. Within three months Margaret returned and became more involved in birth control issues. William remained, painting in Paris and meeting with many in the European art world. His letters indicate both an exiting commitment to the arts and a concern over Margaret’s increasing personal distance from their marriage.

In March of 1914, Margaret initiated her own publication15 called The Woman Rebel, a radical monthly which highlighted the importance of the women’s movement and birth control. In August of 1915, the United States Post Office, following the dictates of the 1873 Comstock Law—“Suppression of Trade In and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use”—indicted Margaret for sending such literature through the mail;16 under the law, “birth control” was classified as pornography. Margaret was advised that her probable conviction could result in a substantial jail sentence. Aware that the courts generally went by a strict interpretation of the law and rather than risk a jail term, Margaret fled to London under an assumed name. William, who had returned from Paris, remained in New York. Although separated from Margaret and concerned by her relationships with other men, her commitment to birth control efforts, and their differing perceptions of men and women’s roles, he continued to support her efforts and provided drawings for her articles.

With Margaret’s flight to Europe, the birth control movement was basically dormant. The government had effectively silenced its principal spokesperson and little was heard from her despite a raft of letters to international figures concerning the importance of her crusade.

At this point, Margaret’s flouting of the federal laws took an unforeseen twist with William playing a central, though serendipitous, role in the nation’s renewed attention to what had been a quiescent social movement. Anthony Comstock,17 the government’s chief anti-obscenity enforcer entrapped William Sanger into providing him with a copy of Margaret’s “Family Limitation,” a pamphlet with graphic descriptions of contraceptive devices. Under the provisions of one of the so-called “Little Comstock Laws,” New York could go beyond the federal mail restrictions and jail any one who provided “obscene material” to another person. William Sanger was offered his freedom if he revealed his wife’s whereabouts.18 He refused. At his trial, he gave a ringing defense of his actions and human rights in general.19 He was labeled “a menace to society” and sent to jail. The trial and Sanger’s commitment to his wife’s crusade initiated new national support; many were outraged that the first person jailed for advocating free speech and women’s rights was an “innocent artist not actively involved in birth control.”20 His jail sentence made him “a pivotal if unsung hero” in bringing reproductive freedom issues to the fore.

Bridge From Brooklyn by William Sanger, 1937
Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS

Not until a month later did Margaret Sanger, aware of a shift in the nation’s perceptions surrounding birth control, return. Two other factors—the death of both Comstock and of the Sangers’ daughter—reinforced the change in the public’s perception of women’s health issues; the government, fearing the creation of a martyr to the birth control cause, dropped the charges against Margaret.

Following his trial, William Sanger virtually disappeared from view. He and Margaret divorced in 1921; he painted in Spain, remarried in 1924, held a number of one-man and group shows, and was involved with various artist workshops throughout the Northeast. Always financially constrained, he supplemented his art career with architectural commissions and as a Works Projects Administration (WPA) artist. He died in 1961.

As with most artists, Sanger’s work was rarely recognized during his lifetime and even after his death. The majority of his paintings, watercolors, and etchings are lost or scattered. Overshadowed by his wife’s career, he has been described as “an adjunct figure in the world of early 20th century modern art”21 or as a “supporting figure” to better known artists. Working largely in watercolor, he chose themes of “sea, sky and shore.” Many of his paintings have a “frenetic” feeling,21 with angry images of wind and wave. His style is similar to John Marin’s and he shows the influence of El Greco. His work was once characterized as “free and modern in spirit without being aggressively modernist in method.”22  Despite recent shows,23,24 he continues as a forgotten, early modernist American painter.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the entire William/Margaret/Planned Parenthood/artist saga is the very strong and complex relationship between the Sangers and the importance of William and his artistic career to both Margaret and to the whole woman’s health movement. His influence on Margaret is undeniable and in 1919, she wrote him a letter—to be delivered at her death (it was never given to him) acknowledging his importance to her as “the lover of all the world” and the extent to which his ”great love has meant to the world and to womankind.”25 Even given that Margaret could write to create a certain effect and for posterity, there seems little question that her relationship with William helped to mold for her—and for him—differing life works for both of them. We will never know the true story of the intertwining of her women’s rights career and his artistic life but their relationship provides an important glimpse into the genesis of one of the basic health initiatives of the last century.


The author thanks Debbie Stierly for her assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.



  1. Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography: (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1938)
  2. Jean H. Baker, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011)
  3. Ellen Chesler, Margaret Sanger: A Women of Valor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992)
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger
  5. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/p_sanger.html
  6. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger
  8. http://www.williamsanger-art.com/about
  9. William Sanger, “My Grandfather at the 1913 Armory Show,” The Huffington Post, February 13, 2013, accessed http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alexander-sanger/my-grandfathers-at-the-19_b_2664145.html
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1912_Lawrence_textile_strike
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1913_Paterson_silk_strike
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Call
  14. Margaret Sanger, “What Every Girl Should Know: Sexual Impulses-Part 1” New York Call December 22, 1912
  15. Margaret Sanger, “The Women Rebel” and the Fight for Birth Control,” New York State Archives, April 1916
  16. NY Times April 4, 1914
  17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Comstock
  18. William Sanger to Margaret Sanger, January 21, 1915 Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass
  19. <catalog.hathitrst.org/record/100345591> “Jailed for Birth Control: The Trial of William Sanger.” Sept 10, 1915, Edited by William Fawcett
  20. William Sanger, Jailed for Birth Control,” The Huffington Post, October 13, 2015, accessed, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alexander-sanger/jailed-for-birth-control_b_8285982.html
  21. Alexandra C. Anderson, William Sanger, American Modernist (James Waldo Facett, 1917), 16 http://www.williamsanger-art.com/critical-essay/
  22. William Sanger, “Paintings of Spain,” The American Magazine of Art, June 1921, vol. 12, 211
  23. Tides Institute, Eastport, Maine
  24. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Portland, Maine May 2015
  25. http://www.williamsanger-art.com/about



MARKLEY BOYER graduated from Princeton University, completed his medical training at the University of Pennsylvania, Case Western Reserve University, the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, Deschapelles, Haiti and the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, England. He received a DPhil degree from Magdalen College, Oxford and a Master of Public of Health (MPH) degree from Harvard University, Boston where he was on the faculty of The Department of Tropical Public Health for many years. He is a retired Professor of Community Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine and currently lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania.


Summer 2016   |  Sections  |  Art Essays

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