Part of the From Margaret to Cecile: Planned Parenthood’s 100 Years of Scandals Series
Margaret Sanger’s Early Life
On September 14, 1879, Margaret Higgins was born into a large family in Corning, New York. Her parents, Michael and Anne Higgins, both immigrated to the United States from their native Ireland. Although Anne was a devout Catholic, Michael was an atheist. As a result of his beliefs the family was largely ostracized from their community and struggled financially. The Sanger children were even known as “children of the devil,” a title that likely influenced Margaret’s disdain for Catholicism and Christianity later in life.
Her mother, Anne, had 18 pregnancies producing 11 surviving children. Although not unusual for the time, Margaret blames her mother’s multiple pregnancies with weakening her health and causing her death at age 48. It’s her mother’s early death that Margaret cites as influencing her eventual decision to become involved in the birth control movement.
Due to her mother’s death, Margaret was determined to live differently: she only wanted a few children and to concentrate on a career. She married William Sanger, a man of some wealth who was able to bring Margaret out of what she viewed as a “grim class and family heritage.” The Sangers had three children, two boys and a daughter who died when she was five. They eventually settled in New York City.
As a young adult, Margaret initially wanted to become a doctor but her family did not have enough money to send her to medical school (Birth Control in America, 1970). Instead she was trained as a nurse, and it is in the maternity wards of New York City that she first became aware that many women lacked knowledge on contraception and reproduction. These women were the catalyst for Margaret’s campaign to legalize contraceptive education.
While she lived in New York City, Margaret also became involved with radical political movements like socialism, communism, anarchy and militant labor unions. It was during these years that Margaret gained experience in political organizing that would be instrumental for Planned Parenthood’s early success. She was also exposed to ideologies like eugenics and Malthusianism that would eventually become a basis for the policies that she wove into the foundation of the organization she established.
As the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret was able to utilize the skills that she learned through working with various political organizations to her advantage in gathering support for the birth control movement. She was a controversial figure, some historians have even described her as a megalomaniac for the control she wanted to have over the cause. She also had an ability to sense that perceptions were beginning to change and pushed a liberal social agenda that established Planned Parenthood’s direction for the future.
Cecile Richards’ Early Life
Born to Ann and David Richards, Cecile grew up in a home that was steeped in socially liberal politics and advocacy. Her father was a civil rights lawyer, and her mother was a teacher who eventually became the governor of Texas. One of four children, Cecile and her siblings would often be put to work stuffing and sorting political mailers and hosting political dinner parties. As a politically active teenager, Cecile was disciplined by school officials for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing an armband in high school.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in history, Cecile became a union organizer in several states. She worked with garment workers in the Rio Grande Valley and with hotel workers in New Orleans where she met her husband, Kirk Adams. During the early years of their marriage, they worked as union campaigners for nursing-home workers in Texas and janitors in California.
Cecile eventually returned to Texas to help with her mother’s campaign for governor in 1990. Her mother, Ann Richards, was an outspoken Democratic governor of Texas and a well-known figure in politics. “One of the real gifts she gave to me and to a lot of other women was encouraging women to take risks,” Richards said of her mother. “Nothing gave her more pleasure than the success of other women.” Ann lost her 1994 reelection campaign for governor to future President George W. Bush.
After participating in her mother’s campaign, Cecile began to make a name for herself in political circles. In 1995, Cecile founded the liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network, which acted as a watch-dog for conservative “issues, organizations, money and leaders.” She launched America Votes in Washington D.C., a group that coordinates between large organizations to push a liberal political agenda. She also worked as deputy chief of staff to U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) until she became president of Planned Parenthood in 2006.
Cecile and Adams have three children, two girls and one boy. Cecile admitted in 2014 that she and her husband aborted their fourth child, stating, “It was a personal decision. And we have three children that we adore and that are the center of my life. And we decided that was as big as our family needed to be.”
As president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile has become one of the organization’s most effective leaders and a powerful lobbyist. A charismatic figure, Cecile has recruited 11 million advocates and raised $1.5 billion in revenue for the organization in 2016. She has a significant media profile and an incredible amount of influence in the progressive movement. Her decision to resign in 2018 is a significant blow to the abortion seller.