"Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth," #3, Fall 1992.
Since pundits have declared 1992 the "year of the woman," and Democratic presidential hopefuls have enthusiastically pursued the pro-choice vote, project staff thought it would be interesting to see how the pioneer of reproductive rights voted in presidential elections.
Not surprisingly, Sanger generally derided party politics and admonished the majority of politicians in both major parties for their unwillingness to support birth control legislation and federally-funded birth control clinics. She cast her vote almost exclusively for Socialist candidates: for Eugene V. Debs in 1920 (when he ran his campaign from prison) and for Norman Thomas in every subsequent election with two exceptions. In 1928 when the Democratic candidate was Al Smith, Sanger rippled with anger over the emergence of a Catholic nominee and wrote in her journal, "we are for Hoover, tho ordinarily I'd be for Norman Thomas – except that Al Smith must be kept out!"
In 1960, Sanger went public with her politics and her anti-Catholic rancor when she openly opposed the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy. Despite his public commitment to separation of church and state, Sanger told reporters, "In my estimation a Roman Catholic is neither Democrat or Republican. Nor American, nor Chinese; he is a Roman Catholic." Not content with just voicing her opposition, Sanger, at the age of 82, threatened to leave the country if Kennedy won the election. The response to her statement was immediate. Throughout the election year, Sanger was flooded with hundreds of letters, mostly hostile, many in the form of farewell cards, mock plane reservations, and an assortment of sarcastic insults signed "JFK." From all accounts, it appears that Sanger cast her vote for Richard Nixon. However, when Kennedy was elected, Sanger reconsidered her threat, and decided to give Kennedy a year, "and see what happens. I will make my decision then." Fortunately for Sanger, by the next year the press and public soon forgot her ultimatum and she quietly decided she could live in the U.S. with Kennedy as president after all.
If Sanger usually reserved her vote for Norman Thomas, she did voice her preference among the other candidates. In a 1932 letter to Havelock Ellis, she predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would defeat Herbert Hoover and would be "more agreeable" than Hoover who had "given to bossing the job without consultation," and that "Congress does not want that type in the White House." After Roosevelt's election, however, Sanger blamed him for the nation's financial woes. More typically, she was also disturbed by what she perceived as the increased power of Catholics in his administration. "Priests having tea at the White House....," she complained to Ellis, "I want to die and leave the country never to return." Her only comfort was the knowledge that "well-anyway the cause of birth control marches on!" Sanger tolerated Truman and liked Ike (a little), but not enough to change her socialist vote, surely one of the few to be cast in Tucson during the 1950s.
Though Sanger's participation in presidential elections was minimal, she convinced thousands of Americans to cast their votes for birth control in local, state, and national elections. And while Sanger's determined voice is notably absent from today's rancorous debate on reproductive freedom, her legacy is realized in the strong pro-choice and "women's vote" that may well decide the 1992 election.
Revised: November 14, 2002