Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

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by Jean H. Baker
     
 

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Undoubtedly the most influential advocate for birth control even before the term existed, Margaret Sanger ignited a movement that has shaped our society to this day. Her views on reproductive rights have made her a frequent target of conservatives and so-called family values activists. Yet lately even progressives have shied away from her, citing socialist leanings

Overview

Undoubtedly the most influential advocate for birth control even before the term existed, Margaret Sanger ignited a movement that has shaped our society to this day. Her views on reproductive rights have made her a frequent target of conservatives and so-called family values activists. Yet lately even progressives have shied away from her, citing socialist leanings and a purported belief in eugenics as a blight on her accomplishments. In this captivating new biography, the renowned feminist historian Jean H. Baker rescues Sanger from such critiques and restores her to the vaunted place in history she once held.

 

Trained as a nurse and midwife in the gritty tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger grew increasingly aware of the dangers of unplanned pregnancy—both physical and psychological. A botched abortion resulting in the death of a poor young mother catalyzed Sanger, and she quickly became one of the loudest voices in favor of sex education and contraception. The movement she started spread across the country, eventually becoming a vast international organization with her as its spokeswoman.

 

Sanger’s staunch advocacy for women’s privacy and freedom extended to her personal life as well. After becoming a wife and mother at a relatively early age, she abandoned the trappings of home and family for a globe-trotting life as a women’s rights activist. Notorious for the sheer number of her romantic entanglements, Sanger epitomized the type of “free love” that would become mainstream only at the very end of her life. That she lived long enough to see the creation of the birth control pill—which finally made planned pregnancy a reality—is only fitting.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Best known as an advocate for spearheading the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was an often-polarizing figure whose life Baker (Mary Todd Lincoln), a historian at Goucher College, expertly parses. Margaret Higgins was one of 11 children born to poor Irish immigrants in Corning, N.Y.; unable to fulfill her dream of going to medical school, she turned to nursing. Moving to New York City with her husband, Bill Sanger, and children, Sanger had her birth control epiphany in 1912 after watching a young mother of three. who'd begged for something to prevent another pregnancy, die after a botched home abortion. Sanger, who had multiple relationships throughout her life, including during her two marriages, threw herself into promoting a new sexual culture for women. Most shocking to many was the separation of sex and reproduction; she was arrested numerous times for violating antiobscenity laws. Sanger and her various birth control leagues—the precursors to Planned Parenthood—built clinics and strived to make contraception available and legal. Baker is open about Sanger's less savory traits, particularly her support of certain aspects of eugenics, and this unbiased account underscores the ferocity of the fighter and the necessity of the fight. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Nov.)
Library Journal
It is fitting to see a new biography of Margaret Sanger, the birth-control activist whose Brooklyn clinic evolved into Planned Parenthood, now when the earth's population reaches seven billion—and Planned Parenthood itself is under attack from the Right. Baker (history, Goucher Coll.; Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists) examines Sanger's commitment to unhindered birth-control access as a means to improve women's and children's lives, eradicate poverty, and address overpopulation. While many have accused Sanger of espousing eugenics, and she has been blamed for setting the stage for doctors (then predominantly male) to be the gate-keepers of women's reproductive health, Baker is careful to analyze the ways in which Sanger's tactics were dictated by the political realities of the time. The book fairly balances Sanger's personal faults and political miscalculations against her successes in changing the national discourse, influencing laws on family planning, and educating tens of thousands of women on the tools needed to control their own reproductive lives. VERDICT This book, offering a decent synthesis of Sanger's life, is good for undergraduates and general readers, though there's nothing new here for specialists.—Laura Ruttum Senturia, Denver, CO
From the Publisher

“Breathtaking . . . [Baker's] writing is . . . 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.” —Women's Review of Books

“Baker doesn't rose-tint when it comes to Sanger's difficult personality . . . and she remains an engaging writer even in her subject's later years, where many biographies wilt . . . [Baker] has a knack for the well-chosen detail[.]” —The Wall Street Journal

“Baker's biography succeeds in taking readers on a fascinating journey into the world of the 1920s and '30s, when the Comstock laws made even the act of distributing information about birth control a crime. The strength of Baker's book is in her ability to contextualize Sanger within her own time, which may prompt even her harshest critics to reassess her legacy. Baker makes it clear that Sanger believed, above all else, that every woman should have the right to control all aspects of her reproductive life through the diligent use of birth control.” —City Paper

“Baker accepts her subject, warts and all, and believes that by situating her in the context of her own times, Sanger emerges as a far more complex and sympathetic figure than her latter-day critics acknowledge.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Baker mixes impressive research and her own fierce analysis into an engaging narrative.” —The Boston Globe

“Baker's book is a thorough and engrossing portrayal of the relentless passion that drove Sanger to fight for the rights of women to access safe and easy birth control.” —The Washington Independent Review of Books

“Best known as an advocate for spearheading the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger was an often-polarizing figure whose life Baker, a historian at Goucher College, expertly parses . . . This unbiased account underscores the ferocity of the fighter and the necessity of the fight.” —Publishers Weekly

“Baker ably illuminates the time period, making clear the attitudes that Sanger confronted and the political and religious forces that were arrayed against her . . . A wealth of information about the birth-control movement and the dedicated woman who was long at the center of it.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Here is a lucid, compelling story about a long, complicated, and ultimately society-altering American life. For too long, the women's movement has paid too little tribute to brave but difficult Margaret Sanger. Jean H. Baker has finally, firmly, and unforgettably placed her within the pantheon of feminist history.” —Harold Holzer, historian and former press secretary to Bella S. Abzug

“It is a mark of the still controversial nature of birth control that Margaret Sanger remains a controversial subject. Now, finally, she has the biography she deserves. Jean H. Baker has restored Margaret Sanger to history and history to Margaret Sanger.” —Ellen Dubois, Professor of History, UCLA

“Jean H. Baker's fine book gives us a believable Margaret Sanger--brave, shrewd, attractive, and flawed.” —Dorothy Ross, Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor Emerita of History, Johns Hopkins University

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780809094981
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
11/08/2011
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Jean H. Baker is the author of many books on nineteenth-century American history. She is a currently a professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Margaret Sanger 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Beverly_D More than 1 year ago
Margaret Sanger was arguably one of, if not THE, most influential women of the twentieth century. Birth control and family planning would never be the same, due to her strong force of personality and calculated efforts to raise awareness of the issue of birth control. She got America: 1) to talk about it openly for the first time, and 2) agree that spacing children within marriage was actually a good idea. Then she built coalitions to support clinics, to form national frameworks of supporters, then international networks, AND served as matchmaker/fairy godmother to the researchers who developed The Pill, after she introduced an interested sponsor with deep pockets. What I liked about this book is that Sanger's warmth, vibrancy comes through, but also, the author herself does not seem 100% sold on "Saint Margaret." Her flaws and strengths are clearly depicted, along with a good feel for the times when she was born, when she was a teen, and each succeeding social transition. America - and the world was changing rapidly, from rural, agricultural nations to cities with automobiles and telephones. Women got to vote! This is an engaging look both at how one woman changed the world, but also a fascinating look at the history of 20th century America.