Life Sunday Stuff — Margaret Sanger, part I

MargaretSanger-Underwood.LOCThis is the first part in a series on Margaret Sanger. This is not a complete study on Sanger, but rather an introduction into the worldview espoused by Sanger. This paper asserts that Saner was a eugenicist and was driven by eugenic ideology, rather than women’s health and rights. Eugenics is defined in the body of the paper.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was an early Twentieth century proponent and champion of reproductive education and reform. Known as the “Woman Rebel,” Sanger edited various journals such as The Woman Rebel and Birth Control Review. She is best known for her advances and activism in contraceptive education and distribution, woman’s rights, and sexual reform, and as the matriarch and founder of Planned Parenthood.[1] Viewed as a concerned advocate for women’s health, Sanger is narrowly read as a sponsor of birth control solely as a women’s rights issue. However, there is literature that suggests that another influence was her belief in the doctrine of eugenics. Sanger advocated birth control at first to defend women who could not survive another pregnancy. However, after her exile in England from 1914-1915, she began to articulate her views concerning birth control using the language of the eugenicists. Sanger was not only influenced by the eugenicists while in England, but upon her return to America she was convinced that eugenics and birth control had the same goal, which was the cleansing of the unfit in society.  Sanger not only used the language of eugenics after her exile in England, but also agreed with its more negative principles.

In the midst of the Progressive Era, Sanger found herself as an activist for women’s health and reproductive rights. The Progressive Era(1890-1920) was a time in America of rapid increase in the industrialization of the work force. Progressivism was a social and eventually political movement that grew as a reaction to the growing economic climate and the greed that was produced by corporate leaders. It was a time of social, political, moral, and ethical change.  Sanger was not an individual woman rebel, but played a role amongst many in the changing scene in America.

In order to fully grasp the gravity of Sanger’s influence and struggles, it is necessary to understand the role that women had in the early Twentieth century. Sanger published the first The Woman Rebel in 1914, six years before women won the right to vote. Women primarily worked as domestic servants, factory workers, and in agricultural settings. However, during the Progressive Era many middle class women worked as clerks, typists, and as employees in department stores. During this time, more women graduated from universities and entered professions such as medicine, law, and science. The lower class female did not progress as the middle and upper class women did. However, there was a movement of women during this time from homemakers to members of society along side of men. Most women that did not enter the workforce still participated in the changing climate by engaging in the reform movements. In this light, Sanger is seen as a great reformer of women’s rights during the Progressive Era.

In the early 1910s, Sanger began organizing groups focused on the education and distribution of birth control, a phrase that Sanger herself coined. Trained as a nurse, Sanger witnessed the poor conditions that many women suffered in both pregnancy and childbirth.

This was not an abstract or academic issue for Sanger.  Her mother, a devout Catholic, died at the age of fifty on March 31, 1899, after eighteen pregnancies, eleven of which reached birth.  In Sanger’s early years as a nurse, she witnessed the death of one Mrs. Sachs who struggled with childbearing. Sachs struggled after one labor and was told by the doctor that if she desired to prevent another pregnancy, she should have her husband sleep on the roof. With little help from the doctor about pregnancy prevention, Sanger recorded in her autobiography that Sachs waited until he was out of the room and said “He can’t understand. He’s only a man. But you do, don’t you? Please tell me the secret, and I’ll never breathe it to a soul. Please?”[2]

Sanger’s work began as an outcome of her experiences as a nurse and as a daughter who watched her mother struggle through multiple pregnancies. She fought for the legalization of contraceptives, birth control clinics, reproductive health, and sexual education. Sanger was an advocate for the silent women in the world who struggled against a society and government that would not allow them to explore their body, vote, and make decisions for themselves. This is the portrait that most people see when they read about Margaret Sanger. She was a positive move forward for America and the world. Today there are more than 750 Planned Parenthood health centers in the United States alone, all because of the voice of the Woman Rebel.

Sanger was a leading voice and advocate for birth control in American. But why? Part of her work can be attributed to her concern for women’s health and sanitary reproductive practices. However, another influence, which is rarely discussed, is her belief in the doctrine of eugenics, which she learned while in England in the mid-1910s.

Sanger was rather radical and rebellious in her first publications of The Woman Rebel.  In March 1914, Sanger wrote of the purposes for The Woman Rebel,

 Because I believe that woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child-rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions. Because I believe that woman’s freedom depends upon awakening that spirit of revolt within her against these things which enslave her.[3]

Though witty, provocative, and captivating, Sanger could not overcome the social weight of her times.  The Comstock Law, enacted in 1873, prohibited any offensive or obscene materials to be distributed via the postal service. Contraceptives and birth control education were considered vulgar and lewd and therefore in violation of this law. So in August 1914, Sanger was indicted on three counts of violating the Comstock Law.  The material that was deemed offensive was The Woman Rebel pamphlet first published in March 1914. These materials were deemed offensive because of their contraceptive content and anti-government sentiments. To avoid a prison sentence, Sanger fled the country and sailed to England in August 1914.

Once in England, Sanger befriended many of the active eugenicists of the age, including Havelock Ellis, Dr. C. V. Drysdale, and Bessie Drysdale.  These three individuals were members of the Neo-Malthusian league and later the Eugenic Education Society.

While in England, Sanger studied philosophy, history, and ethics concerning the birth control initiative. She studied at the British Museum. The bulk of her readings were about the doctrine of eugenics. Eugenics was a termed coined by Francis Galton (1822-1911), the half-cousin of Charles Darwin.  Richard Allen Soloway in Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877-1903, said that as early as 1873 Galton,

Had proposed a society to study the laws of ancestral inheritance. Its goal was the formulation of scientifically sound policies for improving the quality of the race by increasing the distribution of the hereditary fit. “Viriculture,” as he first described his new science, gave way ten years later to “eugenics,” a new “brief word” he coined from the Greek eugenes, meaning, “well-born” or “good-in-stock.” He meant it to take “cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have.[4]

Galton died in 1911, three years before Sanger landed in England to begin her education. Grant Sanger, Margaret’s son, said of his mother that she had “Havelock Ellis for a tutor and the Reading Room of the British Museum for her library. And she stayed there for a year, and said, ‘This is where I was educated.’”[5]

Sanger said that she was educated in England. Her studies in exile gave her the substance for her writings once she returned back to America in September 1915. Sanger was heavily influenced by Havelock Ellis, the Drysdales, and other eugenicists in England and it is evident in her writings upon her return to America. She still wrote about women’s rights and reproductive sanitation. However, eugenic phraseology and ideology began to flood the pages of Birth Control Review upon her arrival home.

[1] For more biographical information, see the following books. Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971); Emily Taft Douglas, Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future(Garret Park, Maryland: Garret Park Press, 1975); Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertitlity(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005); David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career Of Margaret Sanger(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

[2] Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 91.

[3] Margaret Sanger, “Why the Woman Rebel,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 71.

[4] Richard Allen Soloway, Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877-1930(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 35.

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

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