Awakenings: On Margaret Sanger

Awakenings: On Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger’s legacy continues to haunt debates about abortion and family planning.


Her origins were grimly ordinary. Born in 1879, the sixth child of eleven, Margaret Higgins saw her middle-aged mother die in 1899, debilitated by childbearing and the struggles of caring for a large family on the meager income of an irresponsible husband. Though she longed to be a doctor, she settled for a career in nursing, which proved to be an education in the suffering caused by unsafe abortion. She married young, to the Jewish architect and aspiring artist William Sanger, got pregnant quickly and endured a difficult delivery while suffering from tuberculosis. For a while, Margaret Sanger played the housewife in upstate New York, a role she found stultifying. She began to thrive in 1910, when she and her husband moved to New York City, throwing themselves into the exhilarating ferment of radical politics. Working part time with Lillian Wald’s Visiting Nurses Association in the immigrant ghettos of the Lower East Side, Sanger was “exposed to the social pathos of a poverty hauntingly familiar to her from her own youth in its victimization of women and children,” as Ellen Chesler explained two decades ago in her landmark biography Woman of Valor.

It was in 1912 in these ghettos that Sanger supposedly encountered Sadie Sachs, a Jewish immigrant who sparked her “awakening” to the necessity of birth control. In speeches and books, Sanger later described nursing Sachs, a 28-year-old mother of three, through the complications of a botched abortion. Sachs had begged the doctor who initially treated her for advice about preventing another pregnancy, saying, “Another baby will finish me.” The doctor’s response was callous: “You want your cake while you eat it too, do you? Well it can’t be done. I’ll tell you the only sure thing to do….Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” Months later, Sanger returned to the apartment and found Sachs suffering from septicemia, the result of a self-induced abortion.

“I was now finished with superficial cures, with doctors and nurses and social workers who were brought face to face with this overwhelming truth of women’s needs and yet turned to pass on the other side,” wrote Sanger, promising, “I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. I would be heard.” As Chesler noted, the portrait of Sachs may have been apocryphal, a composite of many women Sanger had encountered. Even so, its account of the widespread maternal misery that Sachs represented was indisputable.

Speaking publicly about such matters was not easy. Federal and state obscenity laws essentially prohibited the public discussion of contraception. Physicians would quietly counsel their patients about birth control, but poor women without private doctors were left in the dark, forced to depend on back-alley abortions or patent medicines sold under euphemisms like “feminine hygiene.” In 1912 Sanger broke the silence by writing “What Every Girl Should Know,” a series of sex-education articles published in the Sunday supplement of the New York Call, a popular Socialist daily. In 1913 the column was censored by the Post Office, and in response the paper ran the “What Every Girl Should Know” headline over a black box with the word Nothing beneath it.

In 1916 Sanger opened a birth control clinic—the nation’s first—in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, offering sex education and counseling about contraception, which it stressed as an alternative to widely available illegal abortion. “Mothers!” shouted handbills printed in English, Yiddish and Italian. “Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them? Do not kill, do not take a life, but prevent.” Demand for the clinic’s services was huge—on its first day, more than 100 women and twenty men lined up for consultations. After a week and a half, though, it was raided by the NYPD vice squad, which arrested Sanger and one of her employees, impounded the clinic’s supplies and confiscated its case histories. Later, Sanger’s sister Ethel, who worked in the clinic, was also arrested. Sentenced to one month’s imprisonment, Ethel went on a hunger strike and was force-fed; Sanger later served a month in prison as well. Undeterred, she went on to found a magazine, The Birth Control Review, and two organizations, the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which in 1942 would merge to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

* * *

More than four decades after her death, and still a heroine to feminists, Margaret Sanger continues to shape the debate over abortion and family planning. Receiving Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award in March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “When I think about what she did all those years ago in Brooklyn, taking on archetypes, taking on attitudes and accusations flowing from all directions, I am really in awe of her.” Clinton’s words appalled the right, where Sanger has been painted as a proto-Nazi, bent on extinguishing minorities and the disabled. When Clinton appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee the next month, she was attacked by Congressman Chris Smith for having praised Sanger, whom Smith called “an unapologetic eugenicist and racist who said, ‘The most merciful thing a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it.’”

This misinterpretation of Sanger’s work is essential to an escalating campaign to paint abortion as a plot against African-Americans. Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, a 2009 documentary that has been shown at black churches, colleges and other organizations nationwide, purports to trace the connections between slavery, birth control, abortion and Nazi-style eugenics. Directed by Mark Crutcher, a white antiabortion activist from Texas, it quotes a letter Sanger wrote to one of her patrons, the heiress Katharine McCormick, calling for a “simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people…. I believe that now, immediately there should be national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.”

There’s no denying it: Sanger’s opinion of “dysgenic types” is horrifying, and segments of the pro-choice movement have distanced themselves from their founder. As Jean Baker writes in the introduction to her new biography, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, “So intense and pervasive is this campaign to repudiate Sanger that even a staff member at Planned Parenthood of New York admitted that he did not talk much about Sanger—though a clinic named in her honor was on the floor below—because, after all, she was a racist and eugenicist, those lazy ‘ist’ labels that obscure and, in this case, defile.”

Forsaking Sanger might be politically convenient in the near term, but it means letting her enemies define her and, worse, her movement’s history, which is far more complicated and inspiring than her worst statements suggest. Baker understands the stakes, and seems to have sought to put Sanger’s work and ideas in much-needed context. “I hold no expectation that the angry defilers of Sanger will revise their misinformation, nor do I believe that Sanger deserves sanctification,” she writes. “But I do hope that a new generation of Americans will consider the life of an important American from her perspective and on its own terms.” Chesler has already written the definitive Sanger biography, but a shorter book devoted to correcting the record on Sanger would have been a great contribution.

Baker, unfortunately, has not written that book. By the time I finished A Life of Passion, I was a bit confused as to why she’d bothered to write it in the first place. A dry and often clunky recitation of the key moments in Sanger’s life, the book is less than half the length of Chesler’s but feels much longer. There are some interesting details, but overall it adds little to our understanding of its subject’s dynamic, pathbreaking and often maddening ideas and life.

Some of the fault lies with the editor, who allowed sentences like the following one, about how Sanger expected her first husband to react to her decision to divorce him: “As mistaken in her self-appraisal as in her reading of Bill, she decided that her husband would not be surprised, but this judgment proved inaccurate.” Elsewhere, Cooper Union is described as “the inexpensive People’s Institute college where New Yorkers earned professional degrees at little cost.” Of a strike that Sanger supported early in her life, Baker writes that “within weeks the mill owners offered the workers a small raise and the Lawrence strike ended with a victory for the workers in the form of increased wages.” The redundancies are grating and distracting.

Several times, Baker makes dubious offhand assertions that call her authority, or at least her precision, into question. Describing “What Every Girl Should Know,” she writes that Sanger “referred to sex glands, though at first she did not use the term ‘penis,’ a word largely closeted from the American sex vocabulary until the 1980s.” A glance at the work of Alfred Kinsey or the early novels of Philip Roth, not to mention a Google Ngram search, shows that the popular use of “penis” did predate the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Elsewhere, Baker writes that during World War I “no reform leader faced as many challenges as did Sanger and her nascent, but still unsavory, birth control movement.” She must know this is a misleading claim, because a few pages later she writes that “unlike some labor leaders and peace activists, Sanger was never arrested for espionage and sedition, only for the violation of obscenity laws.”

The bigger problem is that Baker largely fails to offer the context promised in the book’s introduction or, for that matter, much analysis at all. To understand some of Sanger’s most shocking statements, one must first understand why eugenic thinking was widespread on all sides of the birth control debate. As Chesler explained, “As had happened briefly before World War I, eugenics became a popular craze in this country—promoted in newspapers and magazines as a kind of secular religion…. The great majority of American colleges and universities introduced formal courses in the subject, and sociologists who embraced it took on what one historian has called a ‘priestly role.’ Even a man as far to the left as Norman Thomas…had no qualms about adding his voice to the chorus of concern over the ‘alarming high birthrate of definitely inferior stock.’”

To point out the popularity of eugenic thinking is not to excuse or vindicate some of Sanger’s truly detestable remarks. Yet to comprehend her ideas and undertakings, one has to carefully measure the ways she transcended her era against the ways she failed to do so. Baker handles these subtleties poorly. Writing of eugenics, she says,

Today its atrocities have no justification, though Sanger’s acceptance must be put into the context of her times. Her offhand support of sterilization at this point (though she did not specify that it would be state-sponsored and involuntary) is indefensible. But what does remain of race regeneration in the twenty-first century are individual efforts to improve mankind through advances in molecular biology: whether to abort a fetus with a miserable painful physical condition, whether to avoid pregnancy because of some familial inheritable condition such as Huntington’s chorea, and whether to chose voluntary sterilization as a means of birth control in order to prevent pregnancy.

This explanation confuses more than it illuminates, and not just because of its awkward phrasings. (All means of birth control, after all, are used “in order to prevent pregnancy.”) Choosing to be sterilized, or to have an abortion in cases of fetal anomaly, has nothing to do with “race regeneration.” People make these decisions for the sake of their lives, not the gene pool. By conflating the issues, Baker inadvertently echoes Sanger’s fiercest critics, who see eugenics at work in all attempts to provide women with reproductive autonomy.

* * *

Reproductive autonomy, not eugenics, was Sanger’s driving passion. As she wrote in The Woman Rebel, the magazine she started in 1914, in words that still seem radical, “A woman’s body belongs to herself alone.” It “does not belong to the United States of America or any other government on the face of the earth…. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.”

It is against this background that Sanger’s alliances with the eugenics movement should be understood. Eugenics offered respectability to a cause seen as scandalous and marginal. Its assumptions undergirded almost all discussions of birth control, pro and con. “Eugenicists had long criticized the indiscriminate promotion of birth control for reducing the fertility only of those who were educated enough to use it,” wrote the historian Matthew Connolly in Fatal Misconceptions: The Struggle to Control World Population (2008), a book hostile to Sanger because of her eugenic work. The Catholic Church, Sanger’s bête noire, made its pro-natalist arguments in eugenic terms. As Connolly explains, “Debating Sanger, one bishop warned that ‘the races from northern Europe,’ which he deemed the ‘finest type of people,’ were ‘doomed to extinction, unless each family produces at least four children.’”

Eugenics was an elitist philosophy but not necessarily a racist one, and Sanger, an opponent of segregation, was no bigot. As Baker emphasizes, “Sanger never applied the term ‘unfit’ to entire races and religions, only individuals.” Like Chesler, Baker touches on Sanger’s close work with W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, a “eugenicist as well as an elitist with his ideas about the ‘talented tenth.’” But Baker doesn’t bother delving into Du Bois’s ideas, which help one understand how he could reconcile eugenic ideas with a commitment to racial justice. Given current claims that Sanger’s views prove Planned Parenthood’s racism, it’s an unfortunate omission.

In “The Talented Tenth,” Du Bois wrote that “from the very first it has been the educated and intelligent of the Negro people that have led and elevated the mass, and the sole obstacles that nullified and retarded their efforts were slavery and race prejudice; for what is slavery but the legalized survival of the unfit and the nullification of the work of natural internal leadership? Negro leadership therefore sought from the first to rid the race of this awful incubus that it might make way for natural selection and the survival of the fittest.” Today we might frown at Du Bois’s social Darwinism, but no one argues that it was genocidal, or that it negates his accomplishments.

Sanger opened clinics in African-American neighborhoods; contrary to the slanders of today’s antiabortion movement, she was motivated by humanitarianism, not prejudice. As Baker explains, by the time Sanger inaugurated her clinic in Harlem, she was well-known in the community. “Following a Sanger lecture in his church, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church endorsed birth control,” she writes. “Support came as well from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, along with a few ministers and many social workers. By 1926 Sanger had received a formal request from the New York Urban League to open a clinic in the Columbus Hill area.” In a recent article in The New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore points out that as a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr. joined a Planned Parenthood committee, a fact that really ought to be in Baker’s book.

Sanger’s modern detractors often point to her sinister-sounding Negro Project, an initiative to bring birth control to the black South. (Pastor Clenard Childress, an African-American antiabortion activist, described it as part of a “eugenic racist plan” designed “to control the birth of ‘human weeds.’”) But as Chesler wrote, the project’s advisory council included Du Bois; Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women; and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “Featured in national magazines such as Life and Look, the spotless facilities were staffed by black physicians and nurses, overseen by headquarters in New York,” writes Baker. Sanger and her African-American allies saw them as steps toward social justice. As Baker writes, her “efforts to establish birth control services for blacks were inclusive, not neglectful and exclusive, as was standard in this generation’s nonviolent discriminations.”

Chesler, a more subtle writer than Baker, was harder on Sanger, acknowledging that while the Negro Project wasn’t racist, aspects of it were troubling: “There was simply no way to avoid the fact of endemic racism among many activists in the birth control movement, let alone among the white public health officials in the South on whom the success of any voluntary effort ultimately depended.” In her single-minded devotion to birth control, Sanger was willing to work with deeply illiberal people, and some of their ideas became her own.

One of the grim ironies of Sanger’s story is that this great champion of women’s reproductive freedom could be cruel and cavalier about denying that same freedom to those she regarded as disabled. Nevertheless, both Baker and Chesler demonstrate that in this regard, Sanger was largely a product of her era. As Baker points out, in the 1927 decision Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court voted 8 to 1 to approve compulsory sterilization. In a majority opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes and signed by Louis Brandeis and William Howard Taft, the Court ruled, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute the degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” This certainly seems appalling today, but it hasn’t been allowed to define any of these men’s reputations. Most of us understand that it’s unfair to condemn people in the past for failing to meet the moral standards of the present.

If Sanger had been an unregenerate racist, the leaders of the civil rights movement might be expected to have noticed. Instead, in 1966, the year Sanger died, Martin Luther King accepted Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award. In the speech he wrote, delivered by his wife, Coretta Scott King, he described a “striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.” Sanger, he explained, “was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.” I’ve never understood why this speech isn’t better known, especially among pro-choice advocates. If Sanger’s moral failures are worth remembering, surely her triumphs are as well.

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