"Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life," Winter 1995, #11
They were two of the most notable women of their era, eulogized as great humanitarians of the 20th century, who struggled with the demands of public and private life. Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt came from very different backgrounds – Sanger from Irish working-class roots and Roosevelt from old New York aristocracy. Yet they lived oddly parallel lives. Their fathers were alcoholics and their mothers succumbed to fatal illness at an early age. Neither found happiness in marriage, and each sought intimacy apart from their spouses. Both women experienced the joys and pains of motherhood and each was criticized for being a less than a perfect mother. Most significantly, Sanger and Roosevelt also shared a commitment to enhancing the status of women in America. And both endured the hardships that attended women who sought to change society's view of women's proper place.
Both of these remarkable women, pulled by cause and circumstance into public life, displayed the ability to define a public role and agenda without teams of advisors and media specialists. Sanger's uncanny ability to create media events, whether by sitting on a Boston podium with her mouth taped shut to protest censorship or by getting arrested for opening an illegal clinic, publicized the issue of birth control and made it a respectable subject of public debate. As First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt's regular press conferences with women reporters, her ubiquitous newspaper columns, and her willingness to use media coverage of her own achievements on behalf of the social causes she espoused enabled her to change public expectations not only about the role of the First Lady, but about the presence of women in public life. Roosevelt and Sanger's success, however, came at a cost. Their public activities prompted frequent and often vitriolic personal attacks that revealed the depth and persistence of hostility to women in public life, and as public figures they had to be careful about what they said and did.
Before Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House, few women received as much public scrutiny or repelled as many attacks upon their character and motives as did Margaret Sanger who was regularly castigated as a "nationally-known defender of vice" and by one opponent a "neurotic, immoral allegedly Christian woman," for her promotion of birth control. (Massachusetts Mother's Health Council Statement "Concerning the Holyoke Situation," October 23, 1940, Sophia Smith Collection-PPFA, Box 39 and Buffalo Echo, January 25, 1936). As one editorial noted "Pretty nearly everything and everyone has been against her – pulpits and legislatures and newspapers, public men and private citizens, and whole regiments of the prejudices, fears, bogies and dragons that still infest the mind of civilized man." (New York Herald Tribune, November 13, 1931) When the sexist chides were not made to her face, they were communicated to others associated with her work. One paper reported that during her husband William Sanger's 1915 trial for selling a copy of her Family Limitation pamphlet, the judge told him, "If you and your ilk would marry decent women, you would not have time to think of such worthless projects." (The Masses, September 17, 1915)
While the mainstream press seldom resorted to name calling or offensive insinuations about Sanger's morals, it was often condescending and remained remarkably gender conscious. Journalists seemed preoccupied with Sanger's appearance and demeanor: "...she seems about as dangerous as a little brown wren. Perhaps you have noticed, however, that her full, firm lips press shut in an upward curve, so that her face in repose seems almost smiling – the expression of one who bites off nails with all the amiability in the world." (The New Yorker, July 5, 1930) Or as another reporter noted: "...there is nothing of the fighter in Mrs. Sanger's appearance. Mild in manner and calm even while discussing the most turbulent of her experiences, she is the antithesis of the proverbial feminine champion of Amazonian proportions, booming voice and mannish attire." (Washington Post, February 9, 1935) The reporter then proceeded to describe Sanger's clothing in great detail. Another columnist noted "I expected to meet a pugnacious, assertive, positive type of woman – loud, big-boned, and large. What a surprise and pleasure to find a diminutive soft-cornered gentle looking woman... How could such a tiny figure be such a powerful leader among womankind." (Los Angeles Times Mirror, June 8, 1934, p. 21)
As its main spokesperson, it was Sanger who provided the face for the birth control movement. Never a reluctant belligerent, Sanger vigorously fought all efforts to undermine her message. At the same time she believed the movement's success required broader spectrums of support and allowed herself to be publicly distanced from many of the radical ideas that had driven her to found the movement. Her involvement with the Socialist Party and the International Workers of the World, as well as her strongest feminist statements were muted once the birth control movement began to seek "respectable" supporters among women's organizations and the medical profession. Sanger also tried to keep her personal affairs out of the press: announcements about her divorce from William Sanger and remarriage to J. Noah Slee came years after the events.
If Eleanor Roosevelt seldom faced the angry, fruit-throwing response that Sanger, the professional propagandist for birth control, engendered with her direct-action tactics, she too was cruelly denigrated and harshly judged. Criticized for transforming the role of First Lady from a purely social office to a powerful political and civic one, Roosevelt was regularly attacked for being overzealous, for exercising a degree of power inappropriate for a woman, and most of all for operating beyond the context of her husband. If Sanger's feminine appearance received excessive emphasis in the press, Eleanor Roosevelt's femininity was regularly assaulted with reports criticizing her appearance, dress, voice and behavior. And Catholic opponents like Cardinal Spellman, also a frequent antagonist of Sanger's, denounced Roosevelt for her support of supposed leftist causes and proclaimed her record "unworthy of an American mother." (quoted in Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone, 1972, p. 158) Yet Eleanor Roosevelt emerged as an overwhelmingly popular American figure, for even as she tread new territory as a First Lady, she also embodied a traditional image of womanly duty and morality.
As Sanger's public agenda was increasingly defined by her desire to court mainstream support for birth control, Eleanor Roosevelt was constrained by her husband's political aspirations and she had to choose carefully the issues with which she allowed herself to be publicly identified. Evidently an advocate of birth control during the 1920s, Roosevelt had chaired the Legislative Committee of the influential Women's City Club, which supported Sanger's effort to gain passage of a birth control law. In 1928 she joined the Board of Directors of the American Birth Control League. Though her active participation in the ABCL was minimal, her willingness to lend her name to it surely added a significant dose of respectability to that organization.
However once FDR entered the White House Eleanor Roosevelt's public support for birth control became problematic. As FDR's administration was unwilling to support birth control, Eleanor Roosevelt muted her own opinion. As Hazel Moore of the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control observed, "Press asked Eleanor Roosevelt her position on narcotics, Hauptman case, appropriation for schools and then after she freely discussed all that ...[they] asked her 'What is your opinion on Birth Control and the need of changing Federal Laws.' 'That is something I never discuss,' said she." (Hazel Moore to Margaret Sanger, February 1935, LCM, 68:396) It was not until 1940 that Eleanor Roosevelt made even a mild public statement on birth control when, in response to a reporter's question, she indicated that she was not opposed to the "planning of children," but did not seek to impress her views upon others. (New York Times, January 17, 1940).
Whatever her disappointments about the New Deal's failure to support birth control, Margaret Sanger evidently understood the political constraints under which Eleanor Roosevelt operated. Beginning in 1940 Sanger had several private meetings with the First Lady, both at the White House and at Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park. In 1946, Sanger hosted a reception in Eleanor Roosevelt's honor when she visited Tucson to deliver a speech to the University of Arizona. While there is not a great deal of correspondence between the two, Sanger clearly admired Roosevelt, remarking to a friend: "She is an extraordinarily intelligent & capable personality....I've always liked her courage but close up you like her maternal nature, & dignity...." (Sanger to Juliet Rublee, July 12, 1945, MSM-C)
The experiences of Sanger and Roosevelt as female public figures have influenced the way American women negotiate public life. Though vilified for their public roles and their tireless advocacy of women's empowerment, each argued for women's advancement by defining and celebrating women's difference from men. Yet both women lived lives that demanded that their difference not impede their right to be treated with the respect, dignity and attention accorded to men in public life. And both paid a price. Friends of Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned to have the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to each in 1960 and 1961 (Roosevelt's supporters attempted to obtain a posthumous Nobel prize for her in 1963-1965 as well). Not surprisingly, neither one of these outspoken, controversial women of achievement ever received the award.
Revised: November 14, 2002