The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time,” predicted futurist and historian H.G. Wells in 1931. “When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.”
Though this prophecy of nearly 70 years ago credited one woman with the power that actually came from a wide and deep movement of women, no one person deserves it more. Now that reproductive freedom is becoming accepted and conservative groups are fighting to maintain control over women’s bodies as the means of reproduction, Sanger’s revolution may be even more controversial than during her 50-year career of national and international battles. Her experience can teach us many lessons.
She taught us, first, to look at the world as if women mattered. Born into an Irish working-class family, Margaret witnessed her mother’s slow death, worn out after 18 pregnancies and 11 live births. While working as a practical nurse and midwife in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City in the years before World War I, she saw women deprived of their health, sexuality and ability to care for children already born. Contraceptive information was so suppressed by clergy-influenced, physician-accepted laws that it was a criminal offense to send it through the mail. Yet the educated had access to such information and could use subterfuge to buy “French” products, which were really condoms and other barrier methods, and “feminine hygiene” products, which were really spermicides.
It was this injustice that inspired Sanger to defy church and state. In a series of articles called “What Every Girl Should Know,” then in her own newspaper The Woman Rebel and finally through neighborhood clinics that dispensed woman-controlled forms of birth control (a phrase she coined), Sanger put information and power into the hands of women.
While in Europe for a year to avoid severe criminal penalties, partly due to her political radicalism, partly for violating postal obscenity laws, she learned more about contraception, the politics of sexuality and the commonality of women’s experience. Her case was dismissed after her return to the States. Sanger continued to push legal and social boundaries by initiating sex counseling, founding the American Birth Control League (which became, in 1942, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and organizing the first international population conference. Eventually her work would extend as far as Japan and India, where organizations she helped start still flourish.
Sanger was past 80 when she saw the first marketing of a contraceptive pill, which she had helped develop. But legal change was slow. It took until 1965, a year before her death, for the Supreme Court to strike down a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraception, even by married couples. Extended to unmarried couples only in 1972, this constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy would become as important to women’s equality as the vote. In 1973 the right to privacy was extended to the abortion decision of a woman and her physician, thus making abortion a safe and legal alternative – unlike the $5 illegal butcheries of Sanger’s day.
One can imagine Sanger’s response to the current anti-choice lobby and congressional leadership that opposes abortion, sex education in schools, and federally funded contraceptive programs that would make abortion less necessary; that supports ownership of young women’s bodies through parental-consent laws; that limits poor women’s choices by denying Medicaid funding; and that holds hostage the entire U.S. billion-dollar debt to the United Nations in the hope of attaching an antiabortion rider. As in her day, the question seems to be less about what gets decided than who has the power to make the decision.
One can also imagine her response to pro-life rhetoric being used to justify an average of one clinic bombing or arson per month – sometimes the same clinics Sanger helped found – and the murder of six clinic staff members, the attempted murder of 15 others, and assault and battery against 104 more. In each case, the justification is that potential fetal life is more important than a living woman’s health or freedom.
What are mistakes in our era that parallel those of Sanger’s? There is still an effort to distort her goal of giving women control over their bodies by attributing such quotes to Sanger as “More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.” Sanger didn’t say those words; in fact, she condemned them as a eugenicist argument for “cradle competition.” To her, poor mental development was largely the result of poverty, overpopulation and the lack of attention to children. She correctly foresaw racism as the nation’s major challenge, conducted surveys that countered stereotypes regarding the black community and birth control, and established clinics in the rural South with the help of such African-American leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Nonetheless, expediency caused Sanger to distance herself from her radical past; for instance, she used soft phrases such as “family planning” instead of her original, more pointed argument that the poor were being manipulated into producing an endless supply of cheap labor. She also adopted the mainstream eugenics language of the day, partly as a tactic, since many eugenicists opposed birth control on the grounds that the educated would use it more. Though her own work was directed toward voluntary birth control and public health programs, her use of eugenics language probably helped justify sterilization abuse. Her misjudgments should cause us to wonder what parallel errors we are making now and to question any tactics that fail to embody the ends we hope to achieve. Sanger led by example. Her brave and joyous life included fulfilling work, three children, two husbands, many lovers and an international network of friends and colleagues. She was charismatic and sometimes quixotic, but she never abandoned her focus on women’s freedom and its larger implications for social justice (an inspiration that continues through Ellen Chesler’s excellent biography, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America). Indeed, she lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the century.