Margaret Sanger (A two part series. Part 1: Sanger, Part 2: Planned Parenthood
“I have learned more about Margaret Sanger while writing this commentary that I could have gone the rest of my days not knowing. I respect her for her understanding of the value of unleashing the “free spirit of women”. I also respect her for fighting for what she believed in. No matter how controversial her life and purpose she fought her good fight.”
Margaret Sanger is a complicated and a most controversial woman. Her life’s work has evoked passion. She was credited as the founder of Planned Parenthood Federation of America–1921. Her intensity for the need for safe and effective family planning led her down a most unfortunate and controversial path. This path has been the fuel for not only the Pro-Life movement but as well the black activist in the progressive/socialist movement of our time and as well theologians.
This commentary is a difficult task for me to write. I am trying to write in a pragmatic way and be as honest that sources I am privy to allow. I will surely be found guilty of interjecting some of my own bias views. I am also certain that folks will offer their own beliefs and point out the ‘what about this?’. I am not a scholarly writer nor a good writer and I can only state that ‘I have done my best’.
The only thing I wish you as the reader would consider and that is to slush through this lengthy commentary and to follow links which I believe would give context.
In this commentary I include
- some well known facts
- a bulleted list that gives an insight of the conditions of most mainstream Americans during the first half of the 1900’s. Sanger’s views, I think, was formed from what she witnessed in the life found in the high populated cities
- I will cover only that part of Sanger’s history that I feel set the course for her activist calling. There exist plenty of history sources on the web. Wikipedia offers a good history summary.
- I will add a timeline that spearheaded the birth control movement. Some may view this as Sanger accomplishments and others will not
- was a member of the Socialist party (SP) having joined in 1912
- wrote articles for The Call published 1908 through 1923 and was the rag for the Socialist party
- participated in recruitment for the party
- actively participated in workers issues, causes and strikes most notable participation in labor activism was the labor actions led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), including the 1912 strike at Lawrence, MA and the 1913 strike at Paterson, NJ
- was influenced by the ideas of anarchist Emma Goldman, although I do not believe deep down that Sanger was an anarchist herself but as with all that is Sanger she has been charged as guilty by association
- was a member of the Liberal Club and a supporter of the anarchist-run Ferrer Center and Modern School
- did sever ties with the Socialist party when she began to devote all her efforts to the issue of family planning, safe prevention of pregnancy. Best I can tell it was 1916
- spearheaded what is known as the birth control movement
- opened her first family planning and birth control clinic, October 16, 1916
- had to have been influenced by Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus published works in 1798, An Essay on the Principle of Population,
- can be said to be a Neo-Malthusianism
- can be said to be a negative eugenicist meaning not in the purest sense of the Nazi’s. Sanger’s books were among the very first burned by the Nazis in their campaign against family planning
- pushed for study and research in dysgenic
- did give speeches before the KKK Womens Auxiliary
- founded The Woman Rebel
- published the Birth Control Review, a few editions are made available at Life Dynamics.com
- wrote Women and the New Race available free in pdf form from Google Books
- wrote her own autobiography however other biographies have been written the most notable an award-winning biography published in 1970 by David Kennedy
- authored Pivot of Civilization, 1922 (the link is to an html version, free online)
- was a prolific writer and lecturer her selected papers available in a number of volumes at Barnes and Noble (pricey)
- was not an atheist although many have reported she was. Sanger herself identified as Episcopalian in a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace. She was raised Catholic, married a Jewish man, and eventually joined her second husband, J. Noah Slee, in the Episcopalian Church. She had both of her sons baptized in the Episcopalian faith. It is true that Sanger’s Father became an avowed atheist some time after the death of his wife. Mr Sanger was a former Irish Catholic
- was not a deep down in her heart Marxist. In her own words Sanger said “No thorough understanding of Birth Control, its aims and purposes, is possible until this confusion has been cleared away and we come to a realization that Birth Control is not merely independent of, but even antagonistic to the Marxist dogma.” and another quote “Critics have often been puzzled by the tremendous vitality of [Marx’s] work. Its predictions have never, despite the claims of the faithful, been fulfilled. Instead of diminishing, the spirit of nationalism has been intensified tenfold.” From all I have read I think this to be true. Perhaps her involvement in the SP altered her Marxist beliefs.
I am going to stop here with the facts. As I said earlier Sanger was a complicated woman, controversial and a mass of contradictions. Many sources, quite a few on the net, have written their take on Sanger. Some I would consider more complementary from their perspective. While others with a different agenda quite the opposite. For example UK Apologetics Margaret Sanger Page has a different take than Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. I think that one must judge for oneself after employing critical thinking and a dose of researching from both sides of the fence. That seems the most fairest way to look at who was this woman, Margaret Sanger.
One of her publication is Women and the New Race it is FREE as a pdf version on Google Books. It is insightful no matter your views. I urge the reading of because not only does this put in context, in her own words, what drove her thoughts, analysis it can be said to also be a source of much angst among the black progressive/socialist movement of today and as well the Pro-life movement. Truth is much of Sanger’s writing laid open wounds felt by many.
The Eugenics issue is a source of her history that most people, including me, difficult or outright unable to come to grips with. Again the one source available to me in an attempt to understand a possible context was Women and the New Race (again available FREE in pdf form at Google Books). While I now have some understanding given her life before founding the first clinic and after the reading of Women and the New Race eugenics is and remains a concept that is difficult at best to put one’s arms around. Wikipedia offers a quick study of eugenics. The practice of any form perceived as eugenics is now considered a human rights issue. Although the United Nations can be said to encourage eugenics while careful not to use the term in many resolutions and Agenda 21.
A history of Eugenics from the American Bioethics Association
I will add to degrees eugenics is still practiced (doctors and researchers do attempt to disassociate themselves from the term eugenics) in the United States voluntarily by expecting or wannabe parents. What I mean is through in vitro fertilization for the wannabe’s it is picking the best match traits, race, gender etc. and for the flip side it may be expecting parents choosing to end pregnancies when the fetus is thought to be defective i.e. has a congenital abnormality or has the possibility of having or contracting a parents venereal disease, HIV/Aids or a fetus that might be in a major way drug affected. I am sure you can come up with your own examples.
I will however take the liberty of quoting in Sanger’s own words showing contrast with eugenicists who advocated euthanasia for the unfit. Sanger wrote, “we [do not] believe that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.” In this quote Sanger made an effort to remove and denounce the aggressive and lethal Nazi eugenics program. In addition, Sanger believed the responsibility for birth control “should remain in the hands of able-minded individual parents rather than the state, and that self-determining motherhood was the only unshakable foundation for racial betterment.” While this statement contained “racial betterment” all too often people jump to the conclusion that racial equates to black or brown. From my reading thus far while she certainly wrote about various racial groups whites were not excluded from the target of her analysis theories.
Sanger did not mince words, she did not hold back, she did not avoid controversial speech nor actions. In fact Sanger left enough ‘turd quotes’ from her speeches and publications that they can be used by a variety of different ideological stripes to extrapolate and form their own unique opinions.
I was unsuccessful finding the complete text of 1926 lecture that Sanger gave to the Women’s Auxiliary of the Klu Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey. I did find a quote of Sangers describing her lecture experience as “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing,” and added that she had to use only “the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand.”. After her lecture from this group she received requests from other groups of this type. Without free access to her papers I can not offer any more insight. Someday I may purchase some of the volumes of her papers, speeches and lectures available at Barnes and Noble and will add my .02 cents to this commentary.
You can search extensive Public Writings and Speeches of Margaret Sanger if you know more specifics as search criteria.
This is a Mike Wallace video interview with Margaret Sanger in 1957. It is a bit grainy.
The times in which Sanger lived are different than how we live today and as well there are similarities that can be drawn.
Today most folks would hold judgement against a family that attempted to bring eighteen children into the world. However the reality is that the Sanger parents did just that. There was eighteen pregnancies in twenty-two years. Sanger was the sixth child born, there was eleven live births which means seven children were presumably dead at birth. Sanger’s Mother died at age fifty as a sufferer of tuberculosis and the final straw was cervical cancer.
Sanger and her father after the death of Sangers Mother moved to NYC and immersed themselves into the socialist movement that permeated the times. The abject poverty that existed then was a breeding ground for the socialist movement to flourish.
Not only the fact of personal experience relating to her Mother, Sanger’s experience as a nurse and as well what she learned under the socialist movement sealed her resolve to change the condition of women and problems relating to their health. It was obvious to Sanger that the obstacles to women’s lot in life was connected to a family’s inability to have adequate control of family planning.
Sanger was born in 1879 and died in 1966 in Arizona.
- Women did not secure the right to vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920
- poverty was rampant
- the long depression was at play
- a time of great migration of peoples. It has been reported that 3.5 million Irish migrated to America between 1820 and 1880. Immigration to the New World occurred in large numbers from diverse homelands before 1820 and after the Civil War and degrees of immigration continued
- the potato famine in Ireland pushed many impoverished and starving families to endure the long journey to the New World, they landed impoverished and many remained in poverty
- an average salary in the 1900’s for the mainstream American was less than $500/year in the early years of the 1900’s and improved to an average of around $5000/year for some in the mid 1900’s
- for many the Civil War had not faded from memory
- migration of blacks freed after the Civil War migrated North, they too left their prior life of servitude and poverty only to experience continued poverty
- the so-called last Indian war occurred in 1898, Battle of Leech Lake
- Spanish American war was fresh in people’s memory
- WWI, WWII in Europe and the Pacific saw many American males those impoverished, working class , middle class and upper middle class enlisting leaving wives and kids to fend for themselves
- Total U.S. population in 1900 was 76 million people, less than a third the population we have now
- The U.S. was the wealthiest economy in the world. Per capita income was on a level with Britain and Australia, was twice that of France and Germany, and was quadruple the standard of living in Japan and Mexico
- Only three percent of American homes were lit by electricity
- Only about a third of American homes had running water; only 15% had flush toilets; and half of farm households did not even have an outhouse
- Half of all people lived in spaces where they averaged more than one person per room, taking in lodgers was common
- Life expectancy at birth was 47 years, and infant mortality rates were high. Of every 1000 babies born, 140 died in their first year
- 10% of the American population was completely illiterate, and the average adult had an 8th grade education. Only 7% of students would ever complete high school.
The above is just an example of the economic and living standards that many Americans lived through and Sanger was not immuned. The great depression starting in the later part of 1929 and lasting for many Americans until WWII when war manufacturing helped to alleviate the high unemployment is also a monumental event. I believe all of this shaped Sangers life long ambitions to promote sensible,safe and responsible family planning.
I will cover a very condensed history of Margaret Sanger through the lens of my own eyes taken from the historical writings.
I told you this small number of facts to stress the times that helped to form Sanger’s resolve to change the lot of women, the family and the lives of men and children in the family. Life for many women was unkind, not meaning to imply that life for men was not also harsh.The degree of harshness is not without differences. The fact is life for the mainstream family was a most difficult one.
Along with her [Sanger’s] formative years and later with her Father in the involvement with the socialist movement Sanger became a “gutsy” tenacious woman advocating for family planning and use of safe contraceptive methods.
It is important to recognize that the Sanger’s were Irish and Catholic. Being Catholic meant the Sanger’s options were quite limited in controlling the numbers of children during their marriage. Lot of mouths to feed. The rhythm method and suggested long periods of abstinence was their options. Obviously eighteen pregnancies in twenty-two years the Sanger’s can not be said to have practiced the options the church afforded them.
As a nurse Sanger was privy to the horrific back room abortions as well abortions performed by desperate women at home. Botched abortions were common. Many women died from both back room abortions and personal attempts at aborting at home. Lack of antibiotics contributed to many women dying.
Having witnessed the abortion aftermath and families living condition Sanger geared up to try and make a difference her way.
Ms Sanger handed out literature on available safe contraception options.
In her book Woman and the New Race (available FREE in pdf at Google Books), she wrote, “while there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.” In this same book Sanger talked of the horrors of infanticide, child abandonment and abortion. This is an example of the contradictions that is evident in her writings.
An aside. Between 70,000 and 80,000 women die annually from unsafe abortions. The abortions range from self induced to being performed by doctors or others. Not having access to antibiotics contributes to the death rate. The world wide estimate of the number of abortions per year (numbers of successful ones done in the privacy of a home would not be included) is difficult to discern but the number is probably in the range of thirty to forty million annually. Note my information my be subject to error, the situation could be much worse.
Sanger envisioned a birth control pill and pushed towards that goal. In 1950—while in her 80s, Sanger underwrote the research necessary to create the first human birth control pill. She raised $150,000 for the project, and in 1960 the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was marketed in the United States as invented by Frank Colton.
Sanger paid a heavy price for passing and sending out literature relating to safe contraception. The Comstock Act had been passed in 1873 to amend the Postal Act “which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information.” Sanger had her run ends with authorities, she was subjected to incarcerations and once felt leaving for England was her only option.
The following was taken from Generation On and although this group is rooted in progressive/liberal ideology the timeline I found useful. As I stated at the beginning of this commentary some may view this as Sanger’s accomplishments and others will definitely not see the timeline as accomplishments. No doubt some will fall in the middle.
1916 Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic paving the way for extensive dissemination of sexuality and family planning information. This clinic was the earliest forerunner of modern family planning clinics such as state health departments and Planned Parenthood.
1921 Sanger initiated the American Birth Control League (ABCL), which, in 1942, became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America-1921. The ABCL disseminated birth control information to healthcare providers and social workers and lobbied for family planning reforms.
1936 Federal courts re-interpreted the Comstock Laws to permit doctors to prescribe birth control. The downside was that this took power away from nurses who were often the primary health care providers for poor women.
1950 Margaret Sanger convinces the heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick, to finance research on The Pill (oral contraceptives).
1960 The Food and Drug Administration approved the Birth Control Pill. The Pill is the most frequently used form of birth control in the world and is more than 99% effective in the prevention of pregnancy.
1965 The Supreme Court’s decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut declared contraception a constitutional right for married couples (later, it was extended to unmarried women). This case helped define a constitutional right to privacy.
1970 Title X provides federal funding for family planning services.
1971 Comstock Laws were repealed.
1973 Roe vs. Wade determined that right to privacy extends to abortion, thus making it legal for the first time since 1830.
2000 The Food and Drug Administration approved RU-486 (cost of ranges between $300 – $800) , or mifepristone, as a non-surgical means of abortion thus expanding a woman’s options and access to abortion.
I am for a woman’s right to control her own body and health decisions including the right to chose. The decisions she makes is hers to own. In the case of abortion the responsibilities of the decision is not only hers but is often a responsibility that in many cases one that should be shared by her male cohort as well a family or church that may have placed undue judgements.
I decided to write this piece in a straightforward way. There are many sites that exist to illicit passion one way or the other. I did not want to repeat their efforts. I hope I met my mark.