The Woman Rebel
Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
By Jean H. Baker
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 368 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Sarah Blustain
In 1914, the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger founded a magazine called The Woman Rebel as a forum to fight for legal contraception. It was the first major activist effort she would make on her own, and the reaction was fast and fierce. There was, of course, a crackdown from the postal system under the repressive Comstock Laws, which labeled her material obscene and illegal and led to her arrest within six months. But perhaps the more telling feedback came from Sanger’s intimates. “To friends and family who connected female rebellion to madness,” writes Jean H. Baker in her insightful new biography, “the Margaret Sanger of the 1914 Woman Rebel was disorderly and dangerous, too often seeking the public attention that ‘normal women’ avoided.” Her sisters thought she had a nervous disorder and needed rest; her father suggested a sanitarium; a civil liberties lawyer named Theodore Schroeder pointed to a Freudian diagnosis of “low-grade hysteria, with its dramatic histrionic symptoms apparent in her attention seeking,” and recommended six weeks of analysis after which he hoped she would stop publishing.
Reading Baker’s evocative version of those unenlightened times, the scope of Sanger’s success becomes all the more breathtaking. While Sanger was not the first to work to free women from perpetual pregnancy, she became the effort’s most prominent public voice: she was the first to open clinics to educate women about birth control; she founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1942 would be renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA); in her later years she became the major promoter of hormonal contraception research; and she traveled the world doing research and bringing the message of contraception to other countries.
But Baker’s retelling aims not only to celebrate but also to redeem. Despite her accomplishments, Sanger today holds a relatively minor place in feminist history; in the Pantheon of female heroes, her marble statue would hold no pride of place. There are reasons for this omission, some of them better than others. To start with, Sanger was a difficult person. (In an account from no less than PPFA: “She could be cranky, vain, and scandalously unconventional in her personal life. In her professional life, she could be single-minded to a fault, territorial, fanatical, patronizing, and rhetorically overblown.”) More detrimental to her place in history, however, were the unseemly bedfellows whom Sanger chose in her fight. In her search for allies, she repeatedly watered down her concern for the wellbeing and sexual liberation of individual women in order to join forces with eugenicists, whose ideas would prove both antithetical and hateful to the larger feminist project. Baker argues that Sanger embraced both eugenics and involuntary sterilization of the “feeble-minded” mostly in the hope that the powerful men who promoted those notions—doctors, lawyers, Supreme Court judges, politicians—would return the favor and lend some support to the birth control movement.
As a result of the muddle Sanger made of her original arguments for birth control, her legacy—and the legacy of the movement for birth control in the US—has become tainted, perhaps irreparably so. Although she worked for birth control explicitly to reduce the illegal abortions she saw all around her, her personal history is now Exhibit A in right-wing arguments for overturning Roe v. Wade. Baker launches into the controversy on the very first page of her book, placing it right at the center of debates over Sanger’s legacy, Planned Parenthood, and birth control and abortion in the US, writing:
By distorting Sanger’s views, by attaching the label “racist” to her name, and by, in the most ridiculous, hateful of … demonizations picturing her as the woman who inspired Adolf Hitler, critics of reproductive rights seek to challenge not just legal abortion but access to contraception.
Broadly speaking, much of the history in Baker’s book is not new. Sanger herself made several attempts at telling her own story, through two autobiographical accounts and one commissioned biography—all of which ended up largely as self-congratulatory toasts. A very complete biography was published by the feminist historian Ellen Chesler in 1992 (Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America), and it remains the most comprehensive version of Sanger’s life to date, including not just original research but a thorough attempt to situate her work in the various political and ideological streams that were dominant in her lifetime. Read side by side with these previous accounts, the facts in Baker’s version can seem quite familiar. But her writing is more elegant and, more significantly, she has subtly managed to turn her narrative into a redemptive argument, reframing Sanger as an intensely feminist—if politically opportunistic—reformer.
Sanger was born in 1879 to an Irish Catholic family in industrial Corning, New York. At least, her mother was Catholic; her hard-headed father radically rejected religion for the his own brand of prolabor, anti-Catholic, socialist, agnostic ideology. The couple had eleven children (Sanger’s mother was pregnant eighteen times), and Sanger’s father, who worked as a gravestone engraver, never found supporting his family an easy task. The family was poor and moved frequently, their lives “strange, hard, and barren, materially speaking,” Sanger wrote in one of her memoirs.
In Baker’s account, Sanger comes alive as a feminist from her earliest days, her concern for the wellbeing of poor women developing in those hard and barren times. There are no click moments here, but rather a steady internal drumbeat, like a heartbeat, against the constraints that she experienced for herself and observed among the women around her. Baker also cites Sanger’s recollection of the rich who lived in the hills of Corning: They
had few children, dressed them well, and kept their homes and yard clean and tidy. Mothers of the hills played croquet and tennis with their husbands in the evening. They walked hand in hand with their children through the streets. … They were young looking mothers, with pretty, clean dresses, and they smelled of perfume.
Though Sanger rarely referenced these early influences, they clearly contributed to her most crucial insight. As she wrote pointedly later on, “Very early in my childhood I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, and jails with large families.” More poignantly, she noted in one of her autobiographies, “My mother died at 48. My father lived to be 80.” The mothers on the hill would not, as a rule, have suffered so.
Sanger, helped by her own fierce will and the financial support of her sisters, finished her high school education and began nursing school in New York. During this period, she married a Jewish socialist architect named Bill Sanger, with whom she felt a passion such as she would experience many times, with many men, throughout her life. In Baker’s telling, the marriage quickly grated against Sanger’s need for independence; suburban motherhood—she had two boys and then a girl, Peggy—quickly bored her. In 1910, the family returned to New York, where the couple quickly became enmeshed in both Greenwich Village bohemia and labor organizing through the Socialist Party.
Then Peggy died, at age five, an event that haunted Sanger ever after. After Sanger’s first arrest under the Comstock laws, she fled before her trial for England, and Peggy and one brother were sent off to a Ferrer boarding school in New Jersey, an institution embraced by the socialist and anarchist left. The Modern School embraced radical educational principles including communal child-rearing and a Spartan lifestyle—freezing conditions in winter, and not enough food—by which they hoped to inspire compassion for the poor. It was at school that Peggy contracted a lethal form of pneumonia. Her mother returned to the States after Comstock’s death, and four weeks later the girl died in her mother’s arms.
It is within this Socialist crucible that, Baker suggests, Sanger’s feminist politics crystalized: “Margaret Sanger’s early radicalism … led directly to observations on the plight of the female poor, and from there to a birth control agenda grounded in feminism.” She cites Sanger’s own writing about the deficiencies of the labor movement: Sanger felt it was “based on man’s economic need of supporting his family and that this was a shallow principle upon which to found a new civilization … woman and her requirements were not being taken into account.” Sanger’s woman-centered radicalism caused her to split from the progressive movements of her time and led her down the lonely path of birth control.
What is remarkable in this account is how contemporary Sanger sounds. Baker highlights Sanger’s prescience at a time when woman suffrage and temperance were the dominant feminist causes, decades before the second wave would widen the agenda. In her only known piece of fiction, a short story called “The Unrecorded Battle,” Sanger describes the near-rape of a young nurse by a doctor who locks the door after his last patient has left and tells her, “You knew what you were getting into.” As Baker writes, “the plot testified to Sanger’s view that rape, often blamed on women or overlooked entirely, was a woman’s issue demanding attention.” Sanger was similarly concerned with prostitution, viewing prostitutes not as “the fallen women of an earlier age, but rather the victims of economic hardship.” (Unsurprisingly, Sanger believed their plight could be curtailed “if married couples employed birth control.”)
Most striking, in this complex agenda, is Sanger’s willingness to decouple sex from reproduction—a heresy according to the powerful Catholic Church and an obscenity according to the culture at large and in particular the puritanical Anthony Comstock (and the laws he inspired). A frequenter of Mabel Dodge’s Greenwich Village salons, Sanger “observed the behavior of men and women who intended to be free from the restraints of bourgeois monogamy,” Baker writes. This was, in part, a personal quest, her own sexual passion inspiring numerous, and quite public, affairs during her life. But her frankness about sexuality and her determination to popularize birth control to permit freer sexual pleasure were eye-opening to those around her—and touched a social nerve that reverberated well beyond the bohemian community she had joined. Baker cites Dodge’s reflection: “Margaret Sanger was the first person I ever knew who set out to rehabilitate sex and [she] was openly an ardent propagandist for the joys of the flesh … who set out to make it a scientific, wholly dignified and proper part of life.”
Alas, Sanger’s women-centered vision was soon to be adulterated by politics, her “genius,” as Baker writes, not in the originality of her arguments but “in the tactical promotion of contraception.” Her search for allies was never easy—she alienated potential friends, such as Emma Goldman, with her fierce competitiveness—and her cause was so far ahead of its times that opposition was near unanimous in mainstream political circles. Among those who fought her was the “positive eugenics” establishment, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt. The hand-wringing of this crowd about “race suicide” led it to oppose birth control for those white, middle-class women who were the most likely to use it. “Positive eugenicists” wanted white, educated “all-American” women to procreate. Sanger fought this view vigorously, writing that, as Baker cites, “Every attempt women make ‘to strike off the shackles of slavery’—whether suffrage, higher education, and now birth control—has been met with the argument that such an act would result in the downfall of her morality and the breakup of the home.”
But between 1917 and 1920, Sanger would begin to embrace “negative eugenics,” which aimed to discourage breeding among the less-eminent members of society. The idea, however, wasn’t racial. It was a scientific-establishment tenet that by reducing births and even sterilizing the feebleminded, the insane, the epileptic, the alcoholic, the deaf, and the blind, humanity as a whole could be improved. “Tentatively” at first, and then “wholeheartedly in the 1920s,” writes Baker, “Sanger adopted these views.” Baker’s defense of Sanger’s decision is twofold: first, Sanger learned these views “from the most distinguished scientists in the nation.” Second, and more importantly, Sanger’s “acceptance of the movement was a calculated, pragmatic tactic,” Baker explains. “She needed allies, and eugenics … represented an opportunity to find friends and join a popular movement. If she could make her case and gain the support of scientists, it would enhance not just the legitimacy but the application of her still marginal reform.”
Sanger seems to have believed that if she lent her support to the “negative eugenics” movement, it would, in turn, support her. That was not to be. Instead, over the long term, her embrace of eugenics would place her legacy into the hands of her opponents, who today who regularly distort her words to portray her as a monster. They invoke her eugenics language as proof of her racist agenda, claiming, among other things, that she was antiblack because she opened a Harlem-based birth-control clinic. As Baker ably demonstrates, the comments about controlling black births that are often attributed to Sanger are either wildly misinterpreted or entirely misattributed. Citing statistics from the time, Baker shows the dire necessity of Sanger’s outreach, and citing W.E.B. Dubois, she demonstrates that there was strong establishment black support for the effort. Sanger, she writes, “despised segregation”; her efforts to offer birth-control services to blacks were “inclusive, not neglectful and exclusive,” aiming, as Sanger wrote, “to create better opportunities for those who will be born.”
Baker testifies powerfully to the good intentions of one of the feminist movement’s most reviled foremothers. In her telling, even the astonishing amount Sanger that accomplished pales next to the importance of what she perceived: that women—of all races, nationalities, and economic backgrounds—faced the same handicap as long as men controlled how many children they had and when they had them. Sanger’s was a cry for individual liberty, and Baker has helped to filter out the massive amount of noise that surrounds her legacy, so that her cry can be heard clearly again.
Sarah Blustain is a writer living in Montclair, New Jersey. She writes frequently about women’s reproductive health and is a part-time editor at Newsweek.