Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

Now is a fitting time to reconsider the life of Margaret Sanger. The United Nations marked October 31st as the day the global population reached 7 billion, a milestone greeted with both celebration and consternation around the world. Sanger would have no doubt felt the latter: after World War II, the activist who worked for decades to make contraception legal and available for women in the United States and around the globe condemned “the worldwide congestion of population which cannot continue without worldwide misery, famine, and wars.” She was, as historian Jean H. Baker demonstrates in Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, tenaciously single-minded, adept at linking any social problem to the need for birth control.

Though she’s been dead for forty-five years, Sanger herself made it into the headlines around the time of the UN announcement, after Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that Sanger’s aim in founding the forerunner to Planned Parenthood was “preventing black babies from being born.” Cain’s ill-considered assertion demonstrates the extent to which Sanger’s legacy has been distorted, but one need only turn to the first page of Baker’s fine biography to discover the pervasiveness of such beliefs. Sanger, in addition to sounding prescient early warnings against overpopulation, was a visionary in her advocacy for female sexual autonomy, driving scientific research on a “magic pill” to prevent women from conceiving and exhorting women to enjoy sex whether or not its aim was reproduction. Yet Baker opens the book not with a summary of her accomplishments but with a rebuttal aimed at those who have, since Sanger’s 1966 death, dismissed her as a eugenicist and a racist. Bemoaning the “inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and sound-bite misquotations that now encrust her historical reputation,” the author marvels that even a staffer at a New York branch of Planned Parenthood — which grew out of Sanger’s American Birth Control League — admitted that he avoids any mention of Sanger.

Without giving Sanger a complete pass — Baker acknowledges that her subject’s backing of involuntary sterilization is “indefensible” — she constructs a vigorous defense of Sanger’s career as a whole, assessing Sanger’s positions on eugenics in the context of her time and noting that her support for eliminating the unfit never focused on “a specific race or religion, only genetic or behavioral unfortunates.” Baker argues that Sanger allied herself with the eugenics movement for pragmatic reasons. Up until the late 1930s eugenics enjoyed widespread approval; associating herself with what was seen as a progressive, scientific field offered increased legitimacy to her own program, which was then both marginal and shocking.

The author concludes that Sanger’s support of eugenics reveals “her passion for the cause of birth control” — indeed, that passion is never in doubt. Sanger, born in 1879, grew up poor in a large family in Corning, New York, and she saw her mother ravaged by the effects of a whopping eighteen pregnancies (eleven births and seven miscarriages) during a thirty-year marriage. Later, working as a nurse on New York’s impoverished Lower East Side, Sanger claimed to have been moved by a young mother — possibly a composite of several women — who, unable to care for any more children, died after a self-inflicted abortion; Sanger turned this episode into the “creation story of her movement.” (One quibble: despite calling Sanger an “adroit fabulist” and her 1938 Autobiography “at best incomplete propaganda,” Baker relies heavily on that book, as well as another memoir, 1931’s My Fight for Birth Control, to flesh out Sanger’s early life.)

From that point on Sanger worked tirelessly to promote birth control, pounding out books, periodicals, and pamphlets, giving speeches around the country and then the world, organizing conferences, and opening the nation’s first free family-planning clinics for women. In 1914, she was arrested for violating the Comstock Act, which defined birth control as obscenity, for sending her journal The Woman Rebel through the mail. She was arrested again in 1916 for violating New York’s obscenity laws by discussing birth control methods at her Brooklyn clinic; that case, on appeal, resulted in a ruling allowing doctors to discuss contraception with any married person who required the information for health reasons, part of the slow chipping away at birth control’s illegal status.

Sanger’s all-encompassing activism left her little time to raise her three children. The book’s most heartbreaking passages quote letters from her two young sons, desperate to see the mother who had passed them off onto relatives and boarding schools; worse yet, her five-year-old daughter died after contracting pneumonia at a radical socialist boarding school where children endured harsh conditions, including insufficient food and a lack of heat. But somehow she found time for a fascinating and tumultuous private life. In addition to being a political cause, birth control was, in Baker’s words, “a personal necessity” for Sanger, who, throughout two marriages, conducted sexual relationships with a wide variety of men. Though Sanger was not a remarkable beauty, Baker says she had a “seductive presence,” evidenced by the many ardent letters she received from smitten lovers, including H. G. Wells, whom Sanger, confiding to her diary, called a “naughty little boy man.”

Late in her career, in addition to spearheading funding and research for the Pill, Sanger adopted an increasingly internationalist approach, forming the International Planned Parenthood Federation and organizing conferences on overpopulation in Stockholm, Bombay, Tokyo, and New Delhi. She had always been loath to share control of her movement or credit for its accomplishments, and she became increasingly demanding and imperious. But there were some things she couldn’t control: Sanger apparently grew irritated as her son Grant’s family expanded to include six children born within ten years. It’s difficult to resist theorizing that Grant kept procreating as payback for years of maternal neglect. One of those grandchildren, Alexander Sanger, now chairs the International Planned Parenthood Council. The debate over Herman Cain’s remarks shows that Sanger’s legacy is still contested, but her cause, in Baker’s words, “lives on.”