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? Read the rest of this entry »