Margaret Sanger: A Rebel With A Mighty Cause

A Book Review; Review of a Life

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of catching Jean Baker, history professor at Goucher College, featured on BookTV.  Baker discussed her book ‘Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion,’ but more importantly connected the dots between the Right Wing’s attack on Sanger and the Pro-Choice, Family Planning movement.

A couple years ago while Glenn Beck hurled his diatribes, chalk boarding his twisted worldview on an unsuspecting public, he took Margaret Sanger to task.  Beck described Sanger as one of his ‘evil’ progressives, a woman dedicated to racism and the application of eugenics in America.

The attack startled me.  Why Sanger?  I knew she had spearheaded the whole idea of inexpensive, reliable contraception and that her family clinics and her own reputation had come under constant assault.  Anything and everything having to do with sexual behavior was taboo when Sanger began her work in the early, heady days of the 20th century. I also knew that Hillary Clinton had specifically mentioned Sanger as a personal hero.  At the time, I thought that was Beck’s aim—discredit Sanger, discredit Clinton.

Au contraire!

Though Hillary Clinton did, in fact, make it on the list of evil progressives [along with Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, even Lindsey Graham and John McCain], the attack on Margaret Sanger had and continues to have far broader implications.  This is particularly true in any discussion of birth control, abortion and/or family planning and in the midst of a concerted effort to push a fetal personhood amendment to the fore.

The recent dustup between the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood is a case in point.  Women’s healthcare has become politicized.  We as women are discussed in a myriad of parts—our uteruses, our vaginas, our breasts, our reproductive capabilities.  Too often, our autonomy as full-fledged human beings, adults capable of thought and decision-making about our own destiny is dismissed, made secondary to the considerations of others.  Sadly, today’s opposition to female self-determination is the same that Sanger faced throughout her lifetime: men, who were convinced they had the right to an opinion and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions that felt and continue to feel perfectly justified to chime in, making moral declarations, complete with Biblical arguments and opinions.

Young 'Maggie'

Professor Baker claims [and makes a very good argument] that the attack on Sanger’s work is also directly related to the attacks now being waged—female autonomy, the ability for women to direct their own reproductive lives.  But Sanger had an especially hard road to travel, introducing her radical vision on the heels of the Victorian era.

Whatever’s old is new again!

While reading Baker’s new biography, I was startled by the similarity of the arguments, the pitfalls, the myriad of excuses to block any and all reasonable discussion when it comes to reproductive freedom.  That being said, it’s hard to contemplate a time when the very discussion of or writing about birth control was considered perverse, pornographic and could end in jail time.  Such was the case in the early 20th century.

Sanger’s efforts were so reviled by the status quo and Catholic Church that she was forced to leave the country for a brief stay in the UK or face arrest. She faced continuous harassment and was eventually arrested for her public, relentless stands. But ironically, this woman who had a spotty formal education, no training in public speaking would become by age fifty, one of the most influential women in the world.

Why?  Because she would not stop.  Because she was totally gripped by a single, burning idea–women were entitled to information [sexual or otherwise] and had a right to be empowered when it came to their own bodies.

Her background was fertile for dissent, her family a template for radical reaction.  Born Margaret [Maggie] Higgins in 1879 in Corning, NY., she was the sixth child of 11 surviving children.  Her mother, a devout Catholic, died at the age of 48, suffering with tuberculosis, the scourge of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But here’s a factoid that Sanger’s critics rarely mention: her mother had eighteen pregnancies during her short life.


Sanger’s father, a stone carver who royally ticked off the Church with his firebrand criticisms of Rome’s dictates, found it difficult to provide for his huge, ever-growing family.  The family was poor, shanty Irish poor, with too many mouths to feed and an increasingly sick mother, made all the worse by cramped, squalid surroundings.

Though her impossible dream had been medical school, Sanger went to New York City following her mother’s death.  There she trained as a nurse and midwife and spent several years attending patients on the Lower East Side.  The living conditions in the tenements were appalling—cramped, rat-infested, devoid of anything approaching basic hygiene.  She watched scores of young immigrant women die of pregnancy-related complications and botched abortions [many self-performed].  And she listened to scores of these women beg attending physicians [when available], pleading for help to prevent back-to-back pregnancies, birthing more children than they were able to feed or care for.  To no avail.   From that experience, that massive wave of human suffering, the idea of birth control and family planning was born.

Sanger took the remedy upon herself.  Because no one else dared.

A prolific self-taught writer, Sanger traveled across America and was invited around the world to speak to the issue of contraception, sex education and reproductive services.  Her work became the basis for health clinics dedicated to the health and education of women.  She was, in fact, the mother of Planned Parenthood.

Ahhhh.  No wonder she’s on the enemies’ list.

So what are the arguments against Sanger?

Number one: She’s charged with racism, specifically working to diminish Black American populations.  What is not mentioned is she was invited into Harlem to open a first clinic, strongly encouraged by African American leaders, people like WEB Dubois and the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who recognized that poverty was linked to family size.  Allowing women to control how many children they had and when they had them, improved the quality of life for mothers, fathers and children alike.  Smaller, planned families improved the opportunity for income advancement.  Not all African American leaders agreed.  Marcus Garvey, for instance, was opposed to anything that diminished black population.

Sanger opened clinics throughout the South, first gauging the willingness and desire of black women for her services. The response was undeniably enthusiastic.  She set up guidelines for health services–The Negro Project–and it was her desire that proposed clinics be staffed by black physicians and assistants.  That wasn’t always the case but she was not on-site in a supervisory position. She expressly stated her disgust with segregation when many contemporaries believed separation of the races was perfectly normal.

Number 2: She’s charged with promoting eugenics. No argument or defense here. The very discussion of eugenics makes most reasonable people shudder.  The idea is repellant to us now and goes against our sense of ‘rightness.’  We have the advantage of looking back; we know what Hitler did with this theory and how involuntary sterilization in the US caused immense pain and damage.

But one would think from the reams of text written against Sanger that eugenics sprang from her brain alone.  It did not.  Again, what is rarely mentioned is the eugenics movement was a prevailing sensibility of early 20th century intellectuals and academics.  It was not spawned by Satan but sprang from our agrarian tradition of animal husbandry, cross-pollination of crops and a nascent, undeveloped understanding of inherited traits.  Also, the turn of the century was a moment of true optimism, the belief that new developments in science, medicine and technology could and would change the lot of the human condition.

A good deal of the eugenicist’s attitude was based on ignorance.  For instance, people believed that criminal traits could be inherited by the children of repeat offenders. The old movie, The Bad Seed, is an example of the theory.  An entertaining story but pure fiction.  Genetics itself was in its infancy and the zeal for improving the condition and quality of human life drove a good portion of the movement.  That’s not to say that racial and ethnic bigotry didn’t enter the equation.  Teddy Roosevelt spoke about ‘racial suicide’ when it came to birth control—that immigrants would breed like rabbits, while Anglo-Saxon stock and Harvard men would become extinct.

Sanger was warned of the drawbacks of the eugenic outlook.  The red flags were there.  But eugenicists of the time were men of consequence.  Ever the pragmatist, Sanger enlisted these doctors and scientists to give credence to her own movement: the legal and moral acceptance of birth control. It’s important to note that Sanger never advocated abortion.  Quite the contrary.  She believed that early education and cheap, accessible contraception would make abortions, particularly the life-threatening examples she had witnessed, rare and largely unnecessary.

But in the column of Sanger’s negative attributes, eugenics has to be acknowledged.  Sanger believed that criminal traits, feeble-mindedness, drunkenness, and life-limiting deformities, etc, could be weeded out, individually through reproductive means.  She never sanctioned group elimination and was horrified at what the Nazis regime undertook.

Number three: Sanger is criticized as an unfaithful wife and less than admirable mother.  Guilty on both counts.  Sanger was married twice and had countless sexual liasons.  She preached that one’s sexual desires and marital life/reproduction could be a separate part of a person’s life, a scandalous attitude for a woman.  Open marriages R Us.  She lived the philosophy, as discreetly as possible.  One of her comments sums it up, thusly:

If you are strongly sexed, you are richly endowed.

As for mothering skills?  Jean Baker has said that Margaret Sanger would never be awarded a medal for mothering.  I agree.  This was a woman obsessed with her work and often left her children to the care of others.  But the death of her youngest child, her daughter Peggy at age five, haunted her throughout her lifetime, even enticed her into the popular spiritualist movement of the era.  This was not a woman who was without feeling or a sense of loss and regret, and her relationship with her grown sons was strong and motherly.  Both sons became physicians, living out her own early dream.

Number 4: Early feminists criticized Sanger for putting birth control under the aegis of the medical profession, rather than leaving the decision and application to women themselves.  For instance, a doctor’s visit and fee was necessary to be fitted for and obtain a pessary or cervical cap [Sanger’s preferred birth control method, later replaced with the diaphragm].

It’s a worthy argument but overlooks the enormous difficulty Sanger had in gaining a foothold in the early days, to be taken seriously.  The medical profession, socially conservative as a group, was by-and-large against the whole notion of female contraception.  Except for men, that is, in the prevention of venereal disease, a huge public health concern.  Gaining the approval of doctors was a huge coup for Sanger’s movement and managed to slip around existing law, which only permitted contraception afforded to women for medical reasons.

While reading Baker’s book and doing some background research, I stumbled over a remarkable piece of vintage TV film.  Mike Wallace conducted an interview with Margaret Sanger in 1957 [she died in 1966].  Here is Sanger in her late seventies.  She has spent 50 years, working towards one aim: the acceptance of birth control and the hope that a cheap, legal, safe and convenient mode of contraception would one day be available to all women.  The Pill had not yet been introduced to the public [although Sanger and her foundation had encouraged and sought funding for that very research].

Pro-life activists have used this film to further diminish Sanger’s work and importance.  She is not warm and fuzzy.  She looks uncomfortable and sounds evasive at moments.  But listen to the questions.  Note Wallace’s tone as he questions Sanger, while nearly making love to his Pall Mall cigarette.  These are the same questions and attitudes that Margaret Sanger had been battling throughout her long, exhausting career. And here she was again, right back in the same spot.  This time on TV.

Jean Baker did not set out to write a hagiography.  Nor did she.  This biography reveals warts and all.  On the plus side Sanger introduced the revolutionary idea of a woman’s self-determination, that sex and reproduction could and should be considered separate functions of a woman and man’s sexual life and that women fully own their lives and bodies.  On the minus side, she fell into the trap of easy answers with her support of the eugenics movement.  Her life as a wife and mother are hardly beyond reproach.

In the end, Sanger fits into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly category of human nature.  A philosophy, which if we’re truly honest, applies to us all to varying degrees.  Margaret Sanger was without question an American rebel and she deserves her place in American history.  She was relentless.  She was untiring.  Her mission was singular—to usher women [and the men who love them] into the modern world.

Jean Baker has reintroduced this remarkable woman to times of high controversy and long-suffering debates.  For that, we should thank her.  Because a woman’s mind + a woman’s body, still = free choice.

11 Comments on “Margaret Sanger: A Rebel With A Mighty Cause”

  1. dakinikat says:

    International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

    Press Statement
    Hillary Rodham Clinton
    Secretary of State
    Washington, DC

    February 6, 2012

    Another Rebel with a Cause

    • northwestrain says:

      So true.

      Genital Mutilation also called female castration by some. At least there is one committed feminist in a position of power!

      Margaret Sanger — a hero rebel with warts.

      Someone had to do something to help the women of her era. wise women/healers had been all but exterminated. Males had taken over medicine. Women of the pre Sanger era had lots of babies until the died very young. It was shocking to research my family history and see the long list of children. In Census reports the head of family — generally male or widow — is listed first. Males were fathering lots of kids — one wife died and she’d be replace with the next brood mare.

      Thank you for this review — IF the right wing religious twits get their way — we know exactly what sort of future women will have. There is no way that women can bow down and let the misogynists win this battle

      Right now we do NOT have a friend in the white house — not even Mrs. Prez — she has made it clear that she is not a feminist and she does not stand with women. If she were a strong committed feminist then I would vote for her husband. But she is not and never will be.

      The current GOP front runner isn’t women’s friend either. Woman’s duty is to pop out kids.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    This is a fascinating post, Peg. I never knew much about Margaret Sanger, except that she pioneered birth control for women. Imagine living through 18 pregnancies? Sanger’s mother probably spent her entire married life pregnant. And this is what people like Rick Santorum and Ron Paul want to condemn women to again.

  3. peggysue22 says:

    Thanks, BB. And you’re exactly right. I was absolutely stunned by that number. It means the poor women was pregnant her entire adult life. Incredible. Medicine was improved but still primitive by our standards. Particularly for the poor. She was pregnant, infected with TB and the family lived along the railroad with all the soot and dirt.

    It’s a wonder she lasted as long as she did.

    Sanger herself had TB infected tonsils and lymph nodes and had periods of real listlessness, fevers and night sweats. She was in her 30s before she found a doctor who took the infected tonsils out. But the woman rarely stopped working.

    In that way she reminds me a lot of Hillary Clinton–total workhorses.

  4. SophieCT says:

    Excellent post. Funny, the disclaimer at the beginning about these views not being his, the station’s, or thoise of Phillip Morris. Fast forward to now where Phillip Morris is practically outlawed and birth control is (so far) not!

  5. Minkoff Minx says:

    Oh Peggy, Brava!