Life Sunday Stuff — Margaret Sanger Part II

January 8th, 2014 Post by

Life12WeeksFor Part I click here.

Margaret and her husband Bill arrived in New York City in 1910.  Upon arrival, the Sangers became involved in the Socialist Party Local 5, Bill going so far as to run for municipal alderman in 1911.[1] At that time, Margaret spent most of her time as a nurse in the city.  After viewing the class divisions in the city and the poor living arrangements, Sanger wrote to the editor of Woman’s Sphere about the situation of the lower class woman and her political freedom saying that women evidently are not aware that political freedom does not mean industrial freedom. In this letter, Sanger postulated that socialism was the answer to woman’s political, industrial, and her intellectual freedom. Sanger emphasized that the working woman was not aware of her bondage. She asserted that socialism could give women all three freedoms with, “one stoke of the pen.”[2]

Filled with political assertions, this letter does not focus on reproductive hygiene, but on the freedom that should be allowed to women in a lower class. All women are entitled to political, industrial, intellectual, and in the future, moral freedom. This letter, written in 1911, fights for the rights of the lower class, or working class, not necessarily for women’s reproductive rights. However, this letter reveals Sanger’s political understandings and social leanings prior to her indictment.

1912 was a turning point for Sanger. In 1912 she encountered a young woman named Sadie Sachs, whom she nursed through complications following a self-induced abortion. Sanger recalled the story in her autobiography as the moment when she would pick up the torch in full-time activism for women’s health and childbirth conditions.  The Sachs story could be true, or the fruit of Sanger’s imagination. Ellen Chesler asserts that

Sadie Sachs may have existed in fact or may have emerged as an imaginative, dramatic composite of Margaret’s experience, but the prevalence of maternal mortality and morbidity in the urban ghetto she confronted is indisputable, a situation directly attributable to the absence of effective public health programs that offered prenatal care and to a high incidence of criminal abortion among the poor.[3]

Chesler holds that Sanger’s motives in 1912 and prior to her indictment flowed from an intense need for better health care for women in the area of contraception and sanitary childbirth conditions. However, Angela Franks disagrees and says that Sanger’s activism, even before her trip to England, was motivated by eugenic ideology. She had the worldview, but not the substance. Franks asserts that if Sanger truly wanted to help women, the approach was not to limit female fertility, but to discuss the issue of male sexual desire.  Franks observes that, contrary to popular works suggesting that Sanger desired to liberate women through better health care and contraception education, her “vision of liberation demanded the ability to disconnect fertility from sexuality through birth control, to control female fertility instead of male desire.”[4]

This is a bold assertion on Franks’ part. Is there evidence that shows Sanger encouraging women to control their fertility and therefore control their birth rate?  There is evidence that Sanger was writing material that encouraged women to control the reproduction of children, rather than attempt to change the way men acted toward women. Sanger began to write regularly in the Woman’s Sphere and in 1912 wrote an article titled, “What Every Girl Should Know: Sexual Impulses Part II.” Concerning sexual impulses and the desire to be “loved,” Sanger wrote that the current attitude will change within a few years “when women gain their economic freedom they will cease being playthings and utilities for men.” In this article, Sanger suggests that women should seek the ideal father for their children, rather than being a pawn in man’s game. Woman must, “hunt down her ideal in order to produce the Superman.” Sanger called women to assert themselves and make a choice, rather then be instruments wielded by a male dominated society.[5]

This article, written one year after her letter to the editor of The Woman’s Sphere, displays an increased interest in women’s freedom from the tyranny of a male dominated society. However, in this article, Sanger does not mention birth control, but a self-controlled method of preventing enslavement to procreation and maternal exhaustion by not relenting to sexual impulses while young.

In March 1914, Sanger published the first edition of The Woman Rebel. Prior to 1914 most of Sanger’s writings and involvement concerned enslavement of the working class to the gluttony of the higher echelon of society. Her work was toward the emancipation of the working class from all slavery.[6]

One of the main articles in the first edition of The Woman Rebel was titled, “The Prevention of Conception.”  Class division was still a chief concern to Sanger, but the language of the necessity for hygiene and sexual education arose in this first edition. Sanger boldly asserted that, “The woman of the upper middle class have all available knowledge and implements to prevent conception. The woman of the lower middle class is struggling for this knowledge.”[7] Sanger fought for the right to educate women of all classes about birth control and sanitary conditions for raising children.

After the distribution of the first edition, Sanger received a letter in the mail from the Postmaster that read,

 Dear Madam, You are hereby notified that the Solicitor of the Post Office Department has decided that the Woman Rebel for March, 1914, is unmailable under Section 489, Postal Laws and Regulations.[8]

The Woman Rebel was in violation of the Comstock Law. The law stated that contraceptive discussion or education was vulgar and therefore prohibited. Sanger recalled this event in her autobiography saying, “I reread the letter. It was so unexpected that at first the significance did not sink in. I had given no contraceptive information; I had merely announced that I intended to do so.”[9]

Up to that point, Sanger was not focused solely on birth control, but on a plethora of political, social, and ethical debates. Franks observes that Sanger’s, “single-minded focus on birth control crystallized only after her flight to England in late 1914.”[10] Franks asserts that Sanger was motivated by eugenic ideology prior to her trip to England. However, it is not until after her return to America in 1915 that one begins to see phrases and statement from Sanger that have eugenic overtones.  To avoid being imprisoned, Sanger fled the United States in the fall of 1914 and sailed to England where she began her education in population and birth control.

 In America, Sanger was criticized not only by opponents, but by supporters as well because of her radical actions and extreme views concerning birth control the legalization of contraceptive material and information. She felt alone and weighed down by her surroundings. However, in England there was a chance to grow and give some muscle to the movement. Sanger felt alone in the United States, not because of her ideals, but the way that she acted out her beliefs. She felt that her piers in the U.S. disapproved of her because they did not desire to assert themselves as blatantly as she had in opposition to the government and society. However, when she sailed to England, she found friends who saw eye to eye with her. Instead of criticisms, she received praise. In place of fear there was courage. Sanger spoke of her English friends as those who, “offered all the force of an international organization,” with their “encyclopedic minds” to support her ideals.[11]

These “new friends” were C.V. Drysdale, Bessie Drysdale, and Havelock Ellis. After arriving in London in late 1914, Sanger proceeded to study the ancestors of her cause such as Thomas Malthus, Francis Place, and Havelock Ellis.

The Drysdales were members of the Neo-Malthusian league, which was a society that sought to educate the upper echelon of society concerning population control.  The main concerns were food shortages, unsanitary living conditions, and limited land space. However, these three friends were also members of the Eugenics Education Society, which sought to educate society about population control by means of negative eugenics(or the practice of birth prevention as a means of eradicating members of society that prevent the upper stratum from prosperity and progress).  C.V. Drysdale’s parents were members of the Neo-Malthusian league and were proponents of positive eugenics(or the practice of encouraging the upper level of society to procreate more often in order to spread the good genes throughout the society with the hope that it would influence the lower classes or at least outnumber them).

Drysdale was not convinced that the Neo-Malthusians were practical in their pursuit of positive eugenics. Therefore, he concluded that eugenicists, in emphasizing positive selection rather than negative restriction, were making a serious error. He and his wife joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1909 to persuade the members that fertility among desirable families, which at best increased arithmetically, would never be sufficient in a democratic, welfarist society to offset the geometric proliferation of the racially inadequate.[12]

The Drysdales offered Sanger lodgings and supplied her space at the British Museum to study the doctrines of Malthusianism and eugenics, specifically negative eugenics.

Sanger’s other friend was Havelock Ellis, a sexologist and eugenicist. Sanger defined Ellis as one who “radiates truth, energy, and beauty. I see him in a realm above and beyond the shouting and the tumult.”[13] Sanger held Ellis in high regard and learned of eugenics and population control under his tutelage.

Ellis was a proponent of negative eugenics, which is clearly seen in his book, Essays in War-Time: Further Studies in the Task of Social Hygiene. Ellis was skeptic of positive eugenics as a solution to population control and instead encouraged the lowest classes to use contraceptives or be sterilized . Ellis discouraged propaganda in favor of procreation, as he called it “a truly imbecile propaganda.” He believed it was imbecile because the social group they desired to eradicate were the ones procreating. In the place of positive eugenics (propaganda in favor of procreation), Ellis asserted that a better option was a “wise policy of regulative eugenics.”[14]

Ellis was clearly a proponent of negative, or preventative, eugenics. Ellen Chesler observes that Ellis had the greatest influence on Sanger and that he made the most important contribution to eugenic doctrine for Sanger when he assigned women to act as its chief enforcers. Women are critical agents of civilization’s progress to produce and nurture fewer, fitter babies, while, collectively, they can exercise the will to reduce substantially the pressure of population on the environment and the competition of labor in the marketplace. Increased sex expression and wider use of birth control were thus significant tools in the eugenic program, and accordingly, he condemned eugenicists who refused to endorse birth control because they wanted more children for the better classes. Though he never saw birth control alone as a panacea for social ills, and often encouraged Margaret to diversify her interests, he assumed a necessary equation among women’s emancipation, contraception, and human betterment.[15]

The Drysdales and Havelock Ellis had a lasting influence on Sanger. Sanger dedicated every February issue of Birth Control Review to Ellis, going as far as to say that she, “never felt about any other person as I do about Havelock Ellis. To know him has been a bounteous privilege; to claim him friend my greatest honor.”[16]


[1] Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 57.

[2] Margaret Sanger, “Dirt, Smell, and Sweat,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 28.

[3] Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992),63.

[4] Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertitlity(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005),25

[5] Margaret Sanger, “What Every Girl Should Know: Sexual Impulses-Part II,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 43.

[6] Margaret Sanger, “The Paterson Strike,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 58.

[7] Margaret Sanger, “The Prevention of Conception,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 72.

[8] Margaret Sanger : An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 110.

[9] Ibid, 110.

[10] Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertitlity(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005), 30.

[11] Margaret Sanger : An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 129.

[12] Richard Allen Soloway, Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877-1930(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 198.

[13] Margaret Sanger : An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 140.

[14] Havelock Ellis, “Essays in War-Time: Further Studies in the Task of Social Hygiene,” 241 in Angela Franks, Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertitlity(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005), 31.

[15] Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 123.

[16] Margaret Sanger : An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 141.






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  1. Poor Miserable Sinner
    January 14th, 2014 at 09:25 | #1

    Thanks for this great piece on Margaret Sanger…a woman who has done so much damage to the structure of the family that it’s sickening. And…the eugenics movement is still alive and well today.

    Today, Bill Gates is following in Sanger’s footsteps as he is one who is openly promoting a reduced population and population control. He publicly stated in 2010 during a conference for TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) that:
    “The world today has 6.8 billion people… that’s headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.”

    Does the above quote look in line with the new healthcare act and all it’s reproductive mandates that have been included? Also, vaccines are becoming mandatory in some places in order to even work.

    It looks like we still have a lot of work to do!

  2. helen
    January 14th, 2014 at 10:32 | #2

    @Poor Miserable Sinner #1
    Does the above quote look in line with the new healthcare act and all it’s reproductive mandates that have been included? Also, vaccines are becoming mandatory in some places in order to even work.

    There is no doubt that Planned Parenthood/its adherents had a hand in “Obamacare”.

    Effective vaccines and health care in general should improve people’s lives so the sentence seems contradictory, unless they are estimating that more children will be aborted than will be saved from malaria, and other childhood diseases by vaccination and health care.

    If that’s the object, Gates’ support of disease prevention is a mask.

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