Thursday, February 23, 2012

Margaret Sanger - Saint or Sinner?

“No woman can call herself free who doesn’t own and control her own body” – Margaret Sanger.


Almost 40 years after her death, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) is still a subject of controversy in the United States. While some people see her as a savior, the woman who created the first women’s birth control clinic in the U.S., others see her as a racist, a promoter of promiscuity and a killer of unborn babies. Given the political climate in the U.S. where the far right seeks to dismantle her entire life’s work, I thought it was a good time to take a look back at her legacy. Type Margaret Sanger’s name into “Google” and you will find just as many web-sites that revile Sanger as you will those that admire her. The clinic that bears her name on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is picketed daily by anti-abortion activists who completely ignore the good that Planned Parenthood has done in its 80 years of existence, providing free and low-cost healthcare to women who either don’t have health insurance or cannot afford it. From a personal standpoint, when I was unemployed and had no health insurance, Planned Parenthood provided me with a freely yearly gynecological exam, plus they steered me to a clinic where I could receive a free mammogram.

For Margaret Sanger the cause of birth control was a personal crusade. At the age of twenty, Margaret watched her mother Anne die of tuberculosis at the age of 50, worn out after 18 pregnancies in 22 years of which 11 children survived. During her work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side in New York, Sanger was asked repeatedly for help by the poor immigrant women she was treating for any way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Lacking any means of contraception, many of these women, when faced with yet another mouth to feed, resorted to back-alley abortions. After one of her patients died due to a self-induced abortion, Sanger made it her life’s mission to making reliable contraception information available to women.

But there was a huge obstacle to her mission, namely the Comstock Act, a federal statute that made it a criminal offense to send information about contraceptives through the mail, labeling it obscene. In these early years, Sanger considered birth control a free-speech issue. She believed that the only way to change what she considered an unjust law was to break it. In 1914, she started publishing a monthly newsletter The Woman Rebel. She came by her rebellious nature honestly. Her father Michael, an Irish Catholic immigrant turned atheist, was a supporter of unions and education for women. Sanger coined the term "birth control" and began to provide women with information and contraceptives. She was arrested over 8 times during her career, starting in 1915 when she was arrested in 1915 for sending diaphragms through the mail and again in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the country for which she spent 30 days in prison. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, and spent the next three decades campaigning to bring safe and effective birth control into the American mainstream.

But there was still more work to be done as far as Sanger was concerned. She had been dreaming of a "magic pill" for contraception. Tired of waiting for science to turn its attention to the problem, Margaret Sanger found Gregory Pincus in 1951, a medical expert in human reproduction who was willing to take on the project. Their collaboration would lead to Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, in 1960. When Sanger passed away in 1966, after more than 50 years of fighting for the right of women to control their own fertility, she died knowing she had won the battle.

Margaret Sanger is a classic example of an admired public figure who is also a flawed human being. She would probably be the first person to admit it. Sanger devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally available for women. At the same time, her crusade took her away from her children and contributed to the end of her first marriage. No one denies that Sanger had a prickly personality, that she was impatient, and that she often didn’t given credit to women such as Emma Goldman, who were advocating for birth control long before Margaret took up the cause. However, there are several issues that people find hard to overcome when it comes to Sanger.

Problem number one for Sanger admirers: Her support of Eugenics which is nothing short of appalling. Eugenics believed in the survival of the fittest to a certain extent, meaning that the deaf, the mentally or physically handicapped shouldn’t be allowed to breed. This concept got interpreted as a justification for racism, and eugenics was incorporated into the Nazi regime. Sanger believed in what was called “negative eugenics” including compulsory segregation or sterilization for the profoundly retarded, advocating coercion to prevent from procreating. However, Sanger wasn’t an advocate for euthanasia for the unfit. She denounced the lethal Nazi eugenics program.

Then there is the idea that Sanger was an advocate for abortion. From the beginning she advocated contraception rather than abortion. Sanger had seen the damage done to women by back-alley abortions. She believed that birth control should be available to all women; particularly the poor, because limiting the number of children would help mothers provide a better quality of life for their families, especially when resources were limited. She also opposed abortion because she felt that it was the taking of life. In her autobiography she clearly wrote, “We explained what contraception was, that abortion was the wrong way no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way.” She also wrote in her book, Woman and the New Race, “While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.” It wasn’t until the after her death, that the reproductive rights movement expanded its scope to include abortion rights as well as contraception.

Was Margaret Sanger a racist? Her critics say a big fat YES. They point to a letter that Sanger wrote a letter to a supporter named Clarence Gamble in the 1930’s when The Birth Control Federation played a supervisory role the Negro Project, which sought to deliver birth control to poor African-Americans. The letter stated “we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” This single quote has been used by her detractors to prove that she was a racist. Last year, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, claimed that Planned Parenthood, the visionary global movement she founded nearly a century ago, is really about one thing only: “preventing black babies from being born.” Sanger wasn’t immune to the criticism that birth control would pose a threat to the African American community. From the beginning, she wanted to involve the African American community in the formation of birth control clinics in the South, to make sure the black community didn’t associate The Negro Project with racist sterilization campaigns. In 1930, she had opened a clinic in Harlem where both the staff and the board was made up entirely by African-Americans. The clinic received the approval of many prominent African-American leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP. Her critics also point out that she gave several speeches to women of the Klu Klux Klan (I have no explanation for that one). Does this mean that she was a racist? Only Sanger could tell us for sure.

Did Sanger promote promiscuity? Her work promoting birth control certainly meant that sex was no longer just for pro-creation purposes. Sanger for a time believed in ‘free love’ as did many of the bohemians that she hung around with in Greenwich Village during the pre-World War I period. Sanger adopted the view that sex was a powerful, liberating force. Of course this doesn’t mean that Sanger expected everyone to go out and shag their hearts out. She also believed that both sex and birth control should be discussed openly.

Despite her flaws, Sanger still remains an iconic figure in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights.

For more information on Sanger, take a look at the NYU Margaret Sanger Papers Project

8 comments:

Caroline said...

Very interesting post. Despite her dubious thoughts on eugenics and other races, she accomplished so much. I say that as a member of the "far right." I'm enough of a social historian to know what conditions were like for poor women (and in some cases, even rich women)--they didn't have much of a say when it came to reproduction. It's sad that her name goes hand-in-hand with Planned Parenthood--which now provides information on the very practice she was so firmly against. I wonder what she would think of that?

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm not sure whether she would have been appalled. I suspect though she would be. The whole point of birth control was so that women didn't have to have abortions. Unfortunately, even today, people are not given the right information about birth control, or they are afraid to ask, or it's left as the woman's responsibility solely.

Lostmybeer said...

Very interesting post. I never read about Sanger before. I've done countless readings on American History (accurate American history with OLD books), the Constitution and EVEN quite a bit of British history and Global history too, BUT not so much on Sociology Historical accounts as Sanger's story, but none the less very interesting.

Isn't that really how it is with everyone out there whether we admit it or not? We're all "unique" individuals and really none of us is completely perfect? But I think the post was well written from a 3rd Party "observing" position though, I do...

http://taxmemore.blogspot.com

KeriLynn Engel said...

Thanks for writing such an excellent summary. I read a bit about Sanger when researching my latest post on Katharine McCormick who funded Pincus in his invention of the birth control pill. It's especially important to examine claims of Sanger's racism because of the problems of intersectionality in the feminist movement today, and you've really done an excellent job in this post. Though it's hard to draw any conclusions when we weren't there and didn't personally know her, it's still so important not to gloss over the problematic aspects of her activism.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks KeriLyn,

I think it's important to remember that Sanger was human, with very real flaws. It doesn't negate the very real good that she did, but especially today, I think that it's vital to seperate the myths about her from the truth.

Tingy said...

Hello, nice blog, I read it all the time. May I ask permission to use some pictures? :)

erialcp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sanger.papers said...

Just came across this post! I admire this thoughtful reflection on Margaret Sanger's life and legacy. I think you do a wonderful job of laying out the various questions that emerge from her career.

Sanger only spoke once at a ladies auxiliary KKK group. While there is no record of what she said while she was there, at the time she was campaigning all over NJ for the passage of a BC law and meeting with many women's groups. It is probable that this meeting was part of that campaign. You can read her thoughts on the visit in her book Autobiography.

Again, great post! If you want to learn more about Sanger, I hope you will visit our blog, http://sangerpapers.wordpress.com