Throughout her quasi-retirement in Tucson, Margaret Sanger was still committed to the cause that propelled her into the national spotlight in the first place. In Tucson, she arranged to debate the Bishop of Arizona to address “the morality of birth control” – they spoke on different nights, however, since neither wanted to be on stage with the other.
William Mathews, editor of the Arizona Star, wrote: “Who do these women think they are to take on the Bishop of Arizona?” Apparently it was still the prevailing sentiment that a woman’s place was in the home, and despite all the socializing and entertaining Sanger did in her own life, she wasn’t shy about returning to the public sphere.
She wasn’t shy about defying authority either. One example of this facet of her personality was related by one of her biographers. Attempting to cross into the United States from Nogales, Mexico, the border inspector informed Sanger that she could not enter the country without having the required vaccination. Thinking this requirement unnecessary, she tried to refuse, but the inspector was insistent. She relented, and he administered the injection, but immediately after crossing the border, in full sight of the inspector, she sucked the vaccine from the injection site, grinning at him mischievously.
In 1949 Sanger had a heart attack and stayed at the Tucson Medical Center to recover. After two weeks at the hospital, she demanded to be released so she could supervise electricians who were installing a complicated lighting system in the house she was building on Sierra Vista Drive, in the now historic Catalina Vista neighborhood (bound by Campbell Avenue, Grant Road, Tucson Boulevard, and Elm Street). After arguing back and forth, her doctor agreed to let her be driven to her house in an ambulance, with the doctor following behind in his own car. Later he accompanied her to New York, where she insisted – against his advice – on giving a speech at a Planned Parenthood dinner.
The next year, in 1950, Planned Parenthood awarded a prize to Sanger, and her son Grant accepted the award on her behalf. In New York, he delivered a speech written by Sanger that he personally found a bit embarrassing, as it contained some then-unfashionable eugenicist sentiments. At that time, Sanger was still championing permanent sterilization as a contraceptive option, which was not held in high esteem by younger birth-control activists.
Sanger recognized that she was losing some relevance; just a few years before, she traveled to New York to voice her anger when the Birth Control Federation of America changed its name to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She felt that the phrase “birth control” was more empowering to women than “planned parenthood,” but realized that the new generation of birth-control activists was moving away from her, forging its own path.
She did not allow these concerns to put a damper on her commitment to the cause about which she still cared so deeply. In 1959, with friend and Planned Parenthood volunteer Grace Sternberg, Sanger traveled to New Delhi to speak at the Sixth International Conference on Planned Parenthood. Her doctors did not want her to go, but she defied these requests and went anyway, her friend keeping an eye on her. In India she was welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru, who introduced her at the lectern and pledged $10 million toward family planning in his country. The trip to India turned out to be her last adventure abroad.
In these later years, Sanger’s headstrong personality that had been such an asset when she rallied for access to contraception proved to be an annoyance even to those close to her. For instance, she refused to tell her doctor how old she was, insisting that she was 39, until in a rage he replied, “But Margaret, for God’s sake, I have to know. My drug dosage depends on it.” Still, she stuck to her story that she was not a day older than 39. He finally ascertained her age by locating her entry in the Dictionary of Biography, which incidentally had incorrect date-of-birth information – it reflected a younger age, surely to Sanger’s delight. Despite all this, her doctor thought that she, along with Sir Alexander Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin), was one of the “two greatest persons of the twentieth century.”