Sanger vs. Sanger

Sanger vs. Sanger

Demonized for decades by ideological foes on the right and left, the mother of the birth control movement is finally able to speak for herself.


On January 17, 1916, the eve of her scheduled obscenity trial, Margaret Sanger addressed a gathering of supporters. A political radical and former nurse who would go on to found Planned Parenthood, Sanger had been indicted for the distribution of her fiery paper “The Woman Rebel,” which advocated contraception. More than a hundred guests attended a dinner to listen to the comely wife and mother who had caused such a stir. The prepared text of her speech proclaimed–with typographical fervor presumably matched in her delivery–“THERE is nothing new, nothing radical in birth control. Aristotle advocated it; Plato advocated it; all our great and modern thinkers have advocated it!”

It was true that contraception–Sanger and her comrades coined the term “birth control” in 1914–had been practiced, or attempted, for millennia; ancient Egyptians had blocked sperm with a paste made of crocodile dung. But in the United States at the time, birth control was legally restricted and widely inaccessible, especially for the poor. In the previous century, a thriving market in prophylactics had provoked a conservative crackdown. The federal Comstock Act, passed in 1873, made it illegal to send “obscene” materials, including contraceptive devices and information, through the mail. Although the manufacture and sale of the devices were generally allowed, various state laws prohibited advertisements, doctors’ prescriptions and use. These legal constraints, combined with the expense and taboo, meant, for many couples, coitus interruptus or pregnancy–or, frequently, both.

Birth control’s enemies worried that it would encourage fornication and subvert traditional gender roles. (Their fears were, of course, not unfounded.) According to the Catholic Church, sex, even in marriage, was for procreation alone, and contraception would debase conjugal relations. Some called it “child murder.” Essentially, all of the objections to birth control anticipated those more familiar today in reference to abortion.

On behalf of fertility control, several distinct cases were beginning to emerge in Europe and the United States. In economies that no longer relied on farm labor, ordinary couples sought to limit their families for financial reasons. Emma Goldman, the American feminist and anarchist, perceived birth control’s promise for sexual freedom. Neo-Malthusians warned of explosive population growth, while eugenicists aspired to halt the reproduction of the “unfit.” In her speech that winter night, Sanger, for her part, focused on the wretched conditions of the poor, forced by lack of contraception to multiply their hungry offspring. But she never met a rationale for birth control she didn’t like, and over the course of her career she invoked them all.

The mother of the birth control movement took an unorthodox approach to activism. Rather than seeking solutions to a given problem, she found a solution–she called birth control her religion–and continually identified ills she thought it could remedy. In part this was sheer political calculation. At the time, eugenics, for instance, was considered progressive, and she hoped it would lend credibility to her suspect cause. But if Sanger was pragmatic to a fault, she wasn’t a cynic; she seems to have truly believed in birth control’s eclectic applications.

Today, of course, the most controversial of these is the disgraced philosophy of eugenics, which attempted to apply the principles of horse and dog breeding to human reproduction in order to improve the human race. By the 1920s, eugenics courses were taught at American universities, and fairs sponsored “fitter families” contests. Sanger was never a bona fide eugenicist: She always disdained a key component of the eugenics program–encouraging the “fit” to breed prolifically–and eugenicists for the most part shunned her. But she accepted their premises regarding the “unfit,” and she borrowed their metaphors. In 1924 she compared ideal childbearing to the careful strategizing of the gardener: “How are we to breed a race of human thoroughbreds unless we follow the same plan? We must make this country into a garden of children instead of a disorderly back lot overrun with human weeds.”

Remarks like these are a gift to today’s reactionaries, whose websites feature Sanger’s more embarrassing quotes, as well as misattributed and fabricated ones. Reading certain extremist “prolife” literature, you would think Sanger was a genocidal racist and a proponent of infanticide. More responsible antiabortion sources, such as the National Right to Life Coalition and Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy, a 2005 book by Catholic scholar Angela Franks, make an effort to be factually accurate and attack her for her problematic beliefs, such as her advocacy of sterilization of the “unfit.” Still, their opposition to reproductive rights opens them to charges of historical selectivity, since Sanger’s positions were mainstream at the time. Harder to dismiss are the critiques of black feminists like Angela Davis, who points out that minority women’s longstanding alienation from mainstream white feminism has roots in Sanger’s association with eugenics. What is more, some of Sanger’s contemporary defenders, notably those at Planned Parenthood, have themselves quoted her out of context, downplaying her offensive views. Between the sanitizing and the smearing, it’s difficult to discern who Margaret Sanger really was.

Against this polarized backdrop, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger is a refreshing antidote. (The first volume, The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, was released in 2003; the second, Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939 has just been published. Two more volumes are planned, to cover the last third of Sanger’s life and her international work.) The editors have burrowed through an archive of more than 120,000 documents to select speeches, diary entries and, mostly, letters. The papers they’ve chosen reflect the commendable as well as the unsavory in Sanger’s political views and personal life. This fidelity extends to scrupulously transcribed misspellings and heroically comprehensive footnotes. Altogether, the two completed volumes offer a singular record of her life and times. (Ellen Chesler’s 1992 biography, which likewise avoids the common biases, makes an excellent companion.)

Born Margaret Louise Higgins in 1879, in Corning, New York, Sanger was the sixth of eleven children of two Irish-Americans. Her father, Michael, had socialist, anticlerical politics that, along with his alcohol-fueled boisterousness, antagonized the community and hastened the failure of his stonecutting business. Margaret, her father’s favorite, inherited his freethinking convictions. Her mother, Anne, a forbearing Catholic, had less obvious influence on her, but Anne’s life of perpetual pregnancy was Margaret’s first exposure to the burdens of motherhood. Her mother gave her another inadvertent bequest as well: At 50 she died of tuberculosis, leaving Margaret, who tended to her on her deathbed, with recurring bouts of the illness, although she seems scarcely to have complained of this and comes across as the very reverse of a fragile consumptive.

Caring for her dying mother confirmed Margaret’s interest in medicine, and at 20 she entered nursing school in White Plains, New York. But before graduating she met William Sanger, a handsome young Jewish draftsman and painter, at a dance, and he lobbied hard to win her hand. As she wrote to her sister Nan, “That man of mine simply carried me off–he made me marry him ‘now or never’ he said I had only two hours off duty–and we drove around the Park arguing on the subject until four oclock–then he turned in and made me get out–and we were married at ten minutes past–and I was due here at four thirty.” Her husband was one of the first of a long series of men who would love her with such urgency.

Sanger’s beauty and magnetism served her cause as well as her love life. The press frequently marveled at the ostensible disjunction between the militant message and the feminine messenger. Photographs capture her delicate features–widely spaced, liquid hazel eyes, a luminous, freckled complexion–but not her charm or sensuality. Nor are these qualities particularly apparent in her writing, even, for the most part, in her personal correspondence. More reflective of her charisma than the letters she sent are the letters she received. “I want you. I need you. Already our friendship has been the greatest thing that has ever come into my life,” wrote one paramour, sounding indistinguishable from numerous others. As for her marriage, her allure probably expedited both the wedding and the eventual divorce.

In the beginning, the Sangers’ union was happy. They had three children–Grant, Stuart and Peggy–and moved from the suburbs to the city. In Manhattan, they were active in the Socialist Party and mingled with the likes of Mabel Dodge and Emma Goldman. Sanger went to work as a visiting nurse in the tenements on the Lower East Side, where many of her patients suffered from repeated unwanted pregnancies. (State law allowed physicians to prescribe prophylactics to prevent venereal disease but not conception.) Later, in speeches, Sanger would tell the story of Sadie Sachs, probably a composite, a poor, ill Jewish immigrant who begged her doctor to help her avoid another pregnancy. His advice, according to Sanger: “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” The tale of woe ended with Sadie Sachs’s death from a self-induced abortion. Sanger became convinced that there had to be a better way than “continence,” a more realistic solution that honored married love. She began to investigate the options–at the time the most sophisticated method was a pessary (diaphragm) with spermicide–and promote their use.

In March 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly produced out of her apartment. At this stage she advocated contraception for feminist reasons but also as part of an anticapitalist agenda: Workers, in her view, were multiplying too fruitfully, thus cheapening their labor; birth control offered a weapon for the revolution. In the first issue she wrote, “Woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child-rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions.” She was indicted after seven issues of this.

Rather than face trial, she fled to Europe, where she took notes on contraceptive devices and distribution in the comparatively open continent, and had an affair with a Spanish anarchist. She returned to the States after almost a year, and the charges were eventually dropped. Still, it was a time of turmoil for Sanger. Her marriage was deteriorating, thanks to her infidelities and ultimately her wish to separate despite her husband’s abject resistance. Tragically aggravating this hardship, the couple’s 5-year-old daughter, Peggy, died suddenly of pneumonia. Margaret’s guilt over her absence for a significant fraction of the child’s life would haunt her in dreams.

Her grief, though, couldn’t keep her away from work for long. In October 1916 Sanger opened a clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, again testing the law. Hundreds of women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, flocked there to receive birth control information and instruction. In a newspaper interview, Sanger boasted, “You can hear them calling from house to house in the congested district, ‘Oh, Mrs. Rosenbaum, you ought to see this; this is something fine!'” But after ten days, the police shut the clinic down and arrested Sanger and her colleagues. Sanger spent several weeks in prison, but the sacrifice paid off: The case resulted in a court decision that contraception could be prescribed by doctors in New York State for general health reasons, not just for the prevention of venereal disease.

This court decision, and the tremendous national attention generated through Sanger’s sensational tactics, were major victories. Sanger’s radicalism advanced her cause at this stage, although as she shifted to a more moderate approach, she tried to distance herself from these roots. (She denied any association with Emma Goldman–“Emma Goldman hated me,” she sniffed disingenuously in one letter–even though the anarchist’s vision of free love aided by birth control had in fact inspired her.) Social progress often results from the dovetailing efforts of radicals, who draw attention to a cause, and reformists, who make a more measured case and benefit from comparisons with their extremist counterparts. The primary occupant of both of these roles in the birth control movement was Sanger.

In 1922, the year after William Sanger finally granted Margaret a divorce, she married J. Noah Slee, a rich, rather dull South African-born businessman almost twenty years her senior. It was, the editors note, a marriage of convenience. From that time on, his wealth largely bankrolled the movement as well as her increasingly luxurious lifestyle, although the couple spent amazingly little time together over the years, as Sanger traveled, worked and carried on discreet affairs.

As she turned to more conventional advocacy, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, eventually renamed Planned Parenthood, and the Birth Control Review, which she edited. In 1923 she established and ran the Clinical Research Bureau, which conducted studies and offered contraceptive services–legally, thanks to the court decision her Brownsville clinic had won. (At Sanger’s clinic, the health provision was interpreted liberally to include “child spacing.”) The birth control movement, however, was rife with infighting, as others resented her dominance and her unsystematic administrative style. In 1929 Sanger resigned from both the league and the journal she had founded. (The movement was “more like a group of Billingsgate fishwives than intelligent, responsible women championing a great cause,” she complained in a letter.) But she would move on unflappably to found, that same year, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, devoted to lobbying Congress.

Sanger made her case for birth control with compelling logic. She had a gift for confronting her opponents on their own terms, the better to expose their inconsistencies. In 1915, she wrote, “Tolstoy was opposed to the use of preventives because they liberate men from the cares and sorrows of having children, which he thought must be regarded as the penance to be paid for sensual love. One might naturally ask why the children should be made to suffer; and if sensual love is a degraded love, why not prevent children being born in it?” But of course, Sanger disagreed with that take on sexuality, and–boldly for a woman then–she promoted erotic harmony as key to a healthy marriage. Her arguments against her nemesis, the Catholic Church, were particularly piercing. In a 1932 piece for this magazine, she asked of Jesus, “Did He ever say anything that by any twist of argument can be interpreted to mean that He disapproved of contraception? If He did, why does not the Pope cite chapter and verse?”

Although Sanger’s arguments centered on the rights of women to be emancipated from conscripted motherhood, broader social ideologies were always present as well. Initially anticapitalist, she later adopted eugenic reasoning; later still, during the Depression, she insisted that birth control for the poor would solve the economy’s problems. The common thread was that fewer children were better than more–a reasonable opinion with problematic implications.

Her primary exposure was to the masses of women who desperately wanted to control their family size. She received a constant stream of letters thanking her and soliciting advice, and answered many of them personally and with care. “You must not look upon this relationship as if you were a bad girl,” she wrote to one young woman distraught over the premarital loss of her virginity. But presumably Sanger never received letters from the “unfit” reporting the tragedies that resulted from eugenic policies of forced sterilization. Her own views on the “dysgenic” are chilling. In a speech called “My Way to Peace” (she considered birth control the antidote to war, to boot), she advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization” in order to control the reproduction of “morons, mental defectives, epileptics.”

She did not regard the poor as inherently “unfit”–after all, she herself came from a poor family. She believed access to birth control would enable the working classes to provide for and nurture their children; lower quantity would mean higher quality. And in a milieu where racism was common, she frowned on prejudice in her clients and won the admiration of W.E.B. Du Bois for her work with the black community. But she believed that certain traits, such as epilepsy, mental retardation and physical disabilities, should disqualify people from reproducing. In 1934, in response to a questionnaire for the Yale News, she wrote of the new Nazi sterilization laws for the “unfit” (which were based on the proposals of American eugenicists): “If by ‘unfit’ is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture but if ‘unfit’ refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore.” (Sanger later helped a number of Jews escape from Europe by promising them work in the States.)

Sanger’s concept of worthwhile life, then, was ruthlessly narrow, and she readily disregarded the rights of certain people. Also, she naïvely failed to see that oppression easily leaks beyond porous barriers. In Nazi Germany, the sterilization laws she admired–explicitly directed at the mentally retarded, schizophrenic and comparable classes–were, of course, soon turned against the Jews and other ethnic groups.

In the United States, involuntary sterilization was also scandalously widespread. In 1927 the practice received the blessing of the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell, which upheld the compulsory sterilization of a poor young mother, Carrie Buck, who was deemed “feeble-minded.” The laws technically applied to the “feeble-minded” and other pseudo-scientifically designated “dysgenic” sorts. But in practice, the victims of involuntary sterilization–and there were tens of thousands of them, over the course of decades–were simply poor women and girls, disproportionately black, Puerto Rican and Native American.

What lessons can be taken from Sanger today? In the thorny domain of reproductive politics, widely divergent ideologies can coincide in some of the same conclusions. Sanger’s heirs can be sure to disentangle true reproductive freedom from related doctrines and policies that actually jeopardize it. A given tool is not an intrinsic good. Abortion, for example, is a tremendous relief for one woman; for another, it’s a heartbreaking choice made out of economic necessity; for a third, it’s the result of coercive population policies in a country like China. Sanger’s tendency to advocate her tool as a panacea is understandable, especially when the fight for access is uphill. But the real good is more abstract and complex: the ability of all women to make their own reproductive decisions.

The women’s movement has already come a long way in learning these lessons. In recent decades, many feminists, especially minorities familiar with sterilization abuse or coerced contraception, have expanded the concept of reproductive rights to include the right to have children as well as the right not to. This contingent also takes issue with the notion of birth control as a solution to poverty. From this perspective, in a society of true reproductive justice, support would be available to help women bear and raise healthy children. Today, the dangers of coercive reproductive politics have not entirely vanished, but the voices of marginalized women ignored in Sanger’s time are now more audible within the American movement.

The conflation of eugenics and reproductive rights has resurfaced, however, in a different context. New genetic technologies herald the arrival of a “new eugenics,” allowing the creation of “designer babies.” The original eugenics was a misguided utopian scheme gone disastrously awry, all too typical of its time; the sequel, appropriately for ours, is about consumer choice. In both cases, threats lurk among the apparent promises: This time, unfettered use of enhancement technologies could lead to starkly deepened inequalities and disconcerting control over human evolution. Whatever Sanger would have made of this new eugenics, she likely would have been surprised to see its cheerleaders appropriate the language of “reproductive choice.” John Robertson, for example, a law professor and bioethicist at the University of Texas, advocates access to some of these technologies on the grounds of “procreative liberty.” Reproductive rights advocates today are rightly wary of this association.

But Sanger’s most important legacy is her advocacy on behalf of women’s rights and health. Her movement revolutionized mainstream society’s ideas of contraception, bringing the subject “out of the gutter” and reframing it as essential to women’s health and well-being. The push for abortion rights by feminists later in the century was an extension of that logic. (Although Sanger endorsed abortion in her early years, for most of her life she publicly disavowed it for political reasons.)

In 1929 Sanger began lobbying Congress and testifying about birth control; talk of such matters was unprecedented in those solemn halls. As she wrote to a colleague, “Their faces were scarlet! Poor darlings they wanted to escape but they had to sit & listen to what women endure.” Although this legislative effort bore no direct fruit, Sanger got her victory, once again, from the courts, in the 1936 U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries case. Her clinic’s staff doctor, Hannah Stone, was the recipient of this package, which was confiscated on a tip from Sanger, who wanted the chance to argue the point before the court. The ensuing case resulted in a decision in the US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that contraceptives could no longer be classified as obscene. Shortly before her death, Sanger witnessed another triumph: the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned Connecticut’s law against contraception for married couples. The decision articulated the right to privacy and paved the way for Roe v. Wade eight years later.

Sanger’s lobbying coincided with Prohibition and the Depression, and most lawmakers didn’t want to touch her issue. As she wrote ruefully in a letter, “One Senator told me that prohibition was a greater peril than any harm that could be done by lack of knowledge of birth control. This was quite logical from his point of view. He never had to bear a child and for him to do without a drink is a great hardship.” The judicial branch, in her lifetime and afterward, has been a more reliable friend to reproductive rights.

But that has begun to change. Since Roe, several cases have chipped away at the constitutional right it guaranteed. And the erosion is accelerating. The Supreme Court’s decision in April upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, ruling against Planned Parenthood and Dr. LeRoy Carhart, is, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “alarming.” For the first time since Roe, the Court upheld a law that lacks an exception for the woman’s health, overriding the testimony of physicians that the procedure–known medically as intact dilation and evacuation–is sometimes the safest option. The five Justices in the majority betrayed the same attitude as Sanger’s solipsistic senator. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s poorly argued opinion appears to be based far more on antiabortion propaganda than on precedent.

This ruling is only one example of the resurgence of Sanger’s opponents. Today, fundamentalist pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills; some health plans cover Viagra but not contraception; Fox News recently rejected a Trojan ad because “advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.” Sanger must be rolling over in her grave, while Comstock laughs somewhere. Still, against much greater odds, Sanger never lost faith that the last laugh would go to the side of reason.

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