Margaret Sanger in Tucson: The Golden Years

At least since the days of the Wild West, Tucson has seen some of history’s most infamous characters. These days, the city celebrates this past with events such as Dillinger Days, which commemorates John Dillinger’s apprehension and arrest in downtown Tucson. Some controversial figures didn’t merely pass through town but instead made Tucson their home, including the namesake of the Margaret Sanger Health Center and inductee into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame: Margaret Sanger.

In the 1930s, when Sanger first came to Tucson, the town was known for its healthful climate – a reputation that drew Sanger here early in the decade when her son, Stuart, was suffering from an ear infection. “Arizona was so unlike any place I had been before; you either had to be enthralled by it or hate and dread it,” Sanger wrote in her autobiography. “But I knew there was a delight in the cool nights and the translucent, sunny days with a lovely tang in the air.” The following spring, her son in better health, “we packed our bags once more in the little car and drove away, looking back regretfully at the indescribable Catalinas, on which light and clouds played in never-ending change of pattern.”

This first stay left a favorable impression in Sanger’s mind, and in 1935 she returned with Stuart, who this time was suffering from an eye infection. His doctor wanted to operate but Sanger thought he could be cured by a fasting regimen, in which she joined him. The alternative treatment wasn’t successful – but during this time Sanger decided she liked Tucson so much that she and her husband, J. Noah Slee, thought about making it their permanent home.

In 1937 she chose Tucson as the site for recuperation from a surgery she had recently undergone. She felt the healthful atmosphere would lend itself to her recovery, not to mention alleviate her bronchitis and fear of tuberculosis. She and her husband, in poor health as well but also drawn by Arizona’s lack of an income tax, moved into an adobe house in the foothills north of Tucson city limits. Skyscrapers downtown were just being constructed; the Arizona Inn had recently opened – and was charging $100 a day; and sanatoria proliferated, courting health-conscious (or just hypochondriacal) snowbirds. When Sanger arrived, there was a tuberculosis center that later evolved into the Tucson Medical Center. Sanger was involved in this development and today is recognized as one of TMC’s founders.

Sanger’s move to Tucson represented a retirement of sorts. She remained committed to the cause of birth control and was still involved as a speaker and activist – even helping to set up Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona’s precursor, Tucson Mother’s Health Clinic (also called Clinica Para Las Madres). But compared to her earlier life back East, her life in Tucson was more mellow and anonymous – in deference to her second husband, she even agreed to be known around town as “Mrs. Slee.” She took up some hobbies, such as cooking (she especially loved experimenting with Indian food), daily letter-writing, and painting. Sanger even attempted to take flying lessons at the age of 72, but decided she was too frail to undertake such a strenuous activity. She had a beloved cockerspaniel and started to attend an Episcopal church, where she made friends with fellow congregants as well as the minister and his wife.

Much of her life centered around each day’s mail delivery, which brought messages to her from all over the world. She would wake early to write long letters while sitting in bed. Later in the day she might dictate her more formal correspondence to a secretary. From her home base in Tucson, Sanger kept up her communication with the outside world and took frequent trips to Europe and Asia, which kept her in touch with the international consequences of population growth. She predicted (correctly) that in the post-war era, people would start to make a connection between population growth and world peace, and started to immerse herself in international issues.

For fun, Sanger took frequent trips to Mexico – often Hermosillo or Nogales – to find inspiration in the landscapes of the villages she painted, and as a member of the Tucson Watercolor Guild she had her artwork displayed publicly in a show. Today many of her original watercolors can be found adorning the walls of Planned Parenthood Arizona’s administrative headquarters in Tucson – although the employees and volunteers who roam those halls can tell you that Mrs. Slee was no Paul Klee.

Sanger’s years in Tucson saw her winding down from a lifetime of activism, though the decades she spent here were not themselves bereft of accomplishment. She maintained her voice in the debate surrounding birth control, which in the years before the Pill’s debut was as relevant as ever. Future installments of this series will bring you more interesting tidbits about Margaret Sanger’s golden years in Tucson.

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