"Sanger in the USSR," #3, Fall 1992

"Russia today is the country of the liberated woman," remarked Margaret Sanger upon her return from a 1934 tour of the Soviet Union. "The attitude of Soviet Russia toward its women...would delight the heart of the staunchest feminist," she wrote in 1935 for the Birth Control Review. But while Sanger was impressed with a growing Soviet effort to liberate women from "housework drudgery...and no pay or recognition tasks," she witnessed severe limitations in reproductive choices for women and foresaw a crisis in Soviet women's healthcare that has received extensive coverage in the media since the dismantling of the Soviet state.

Like most Westerners visiting the USSR, Sanger traveled with a tour group (led by American writer Sherwood Eddy) under official state guidance. But her international reputation, friendships with American and European expatriates, and sheer audacity enabled her to see "anything that I asked to see and many things I was not supposed to see," including dispensaries, hospitals, clinics, and Institutes for the Protection of Motherhood in Lenigrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Odessa, and several smaller cities and towns.

What Sanger observed during her six week tour led her to label the USSR a country of "great contradictions." While she found posters urging the use of contraceptives, and was told repeatedly that people were learning about birth control from the government, she was disappointed on several occasions to find devices too old to use, or clinics that had long ago run out of supplies.

Sanger also disapproved of the Soviet dependence on abortions. While she applauded the Soviets for giving official sanction to abortion and thereby taking the practice out of "the hands of quacks" and under the auspices of hygenic and professionally staffed hospitals, she criticized Soviet doctors for using abortion as a means of family planning. When Sanger pleaded for the adoption of birth control as a safer and more humane alternative to repeat abortions, one Soviet doctor responded that as long as women had to depend on the state doctors for abortions, the state could control its rate of population growth. In her speeches after the trip, Sanger warned of the danger of growing state control over women's reproductive choices. Just ten years later, Stalin imposed an edict which provided monetary incentives for childbearing, outlawed abortions and made access to contraceptives more difficult.

Traveling with her son, Grant, and her secretary, Florence Rose, Sanger saw more than clinics and hospitals on her trip. She and her tour visited many of the popular tourist sites, including the Kremlin and the Hermitage, sailed down the Volga, and took a harrowing bus ride through the mountains of Georgia and then on to the Black Sea, where Sanger boasted that she bathed au naturel.

Although frustrated with the unfulfilled potential of the Soviet Union, Sanger returned home optimistic about aspects of the Soviet system; for instance she spoke enthusiastically about the special care given to mothers and children and the equality of women in the workplace. And she thought, at a time when free distribution of birth control was still officially illegal in America, that the U.S. could learn from the Soviet example, however flawed it may have been: "The right of women to birth control is clear. And this right need not be bulwarked, as in our country by health reasons, economic reasons, eugenic reasons, but is granted as a simple human right."

(The record of Sanger's trip is preserved in letters, articles, and clippings, and fragments of speeches and writings at Smith College that we have recently identified, linked together, and reorganized in preparation for the microfilm edition. All quotes above have been drawn from these documents at the Sophia Smith Collection.)