The 20 most influential Americans of all time

Born into an Irish working-class family, Margaret Sanger witnessed her mother’s slow death, worn out after 18 pregnancies and 11 live births. While working as a practical nurse and midwife in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City before World War I, she saw women deprived of their health, sexuality and ability to care for children already born. Contraceptive information was suppressed by clergy-influenced, physician-accepted laws. Yet the educated had access to such information and products.

This injustice inspired Sanger to defy church and state. In a series of articles called “What Every Girl Should Know,” then in her own newspaper The Woman Rebel and through local clinics that dispensed woman-controlled forms of birth control (a phrase she coined), she put information and power into the hands of women. Her brave and joyous life included fulfilling work, three children, two husbands, many lovers and a large network of friends and colleagues. Indeed, she lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the 20th and 21st centuries.