"Writing Sanger's Life," #14, Winter 1996/7
From the time she first gained significant attention as the leading proponent of birth control in 1914, Sanger recognized the necessity of selling her own story in order to win a following for her cause. In interviews and speeches given during the early years of her crusade, Sanger spoke often of her mother's suffering after the births of eleven children and she reminded audiences of her own maternity. She offered vivid accounts of her nursing career, in particular the dramatic story of Sadie Sachs, the young mother cast off by medical indifference who died of complications related to repeat abortions. Later in life she continually retold and often revised accounts of her 1916 arrest and imprisonment for opening the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn, and other episodes that marked her years of protest. Sanger's version of her life story cloaked her in authenticity (she was clearly not another elite suffrage veteran far removed from working class strife) and often camouflaged the more unsavory aspects of her protest movement: the endless promotion, the lobbyist's deal-making, the bitter in-fighting.
In fact, Sanger's well-honed story became, in effect, the standard narrative history of the birth control movement. In a savvy public relations move she put out her first autobiography in 1931, long before anyone had completed a proper biography of her or a comprehensive account of the birth control movement. Just seven years later when more publicity was needed for the final stages of her decade-long, faltering congressional lobbying campaign, she wrote another. Advancing Samuel Johnson's belief that "every man's life may be best written by himself," Sanger knew that by writing her own life (twice) she could best control and continue to make use of her past.
Sanger had written several books by the time she sat down to work on her first autobiography, My Fight for Birth Control (1931), in 1930. Her approach in composing most of her books was the same: work with writers and movement veterans that she trusted to outline the book, sketch out or draft chapters on her own, then turn the manuscript over to more seasoned writers and editors. For My Fight Sanger approached journalist Guy Moyston, an early socialist friend, a former foreign correspondent with the Associated Press, and the author of several plays, film scripts and magazine articles. Before agreeing to help, Moyston expressed several concerns with Sanger's plans:
... it is a dangerous project – dangerous because it well might imperil the important work you are now engaged in. As I see it, a work purporting to be a real history of the movement must necessarily attempt to evaluate judiciously all of the factors concerned in it. Blame, as well as praise, would have to be assigned, and it seems to me that a lot of chips would fly if you hewed to the historian's line. . . Another consideration is that your modesty would not permit you to play up yourself adequately, and as you yourself are the movement, you could not possibly do justice to the subject. (Guy Moyston to MS, January 31, 1930, LCM 9:742).
In the midst of beginning a major congressional lobbying campaign in Washington, Sanger was unconcerned about conforming to a historian's methodology (in fact she would later back-track from claims that the book was a history). Her goals were much more immediate and practical. Both the hurried pace of her writing and the decision to compose the book during the hectic summer and fall of 1930 (wedged in between her work to inaugurate the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and organize the Seventh International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in Zurich), suggest that Sanger, on the eve of her battles with Congress, wanted to swiftly reach out and grasp a public that was finally swinging around to her side. The danger Moyston feared – the book rekindling feuds within the movement – had never silenced her before. What Sanger did fear was a loss of momentum if the movement grew quiet and complacent and discontinued the successful practice of recycling past trials and glories. She wrote in her second autobiography, "I could sympathize with the indignant old radical who left a birth control congress sniffing, This thing has got too darned safe for me!" (Autobiography, p. 412.) The potential gains of getting her story out to a larger audience far outweighed any clear or hidden dangers.
As for Moyston's concern that Sanger's modesty might inhibit her writing: he must not have known her very well. Sanger had successfully put herself in the forefront of the movement for over fifteen years and wasted few words in various publications and speeches in reducing fellow and sometimes competing birth control reformers – Marie Stopes, Emma Goldman, Mary Ware Dennett, to name the most prominent – to subsidiary roles. She seldom hesitated to give herself credit or promote her efforts, although sometimes it was done with a hint of modesty.
Nevertheless, the portrait Sanger created in My Fight resembles the autobiographical depictions of other women reformers of the day in its use of what historian Jill Kerr Conway describes as "the convention of being drawn to act by forces of destiny outside their control." However, in My Fight Sanger largely abandoned the passive character structure that was used in many biographies of women: a depiction of the central figure as a beneficiary of circumstance, someone who relies on the wisdom of a parent or mentor, one who ultimately is led to act, as opposed to biographical treatments of men that tended to show greater independence and decisive, purposeful actions. In Sanger's story, even though destiny calls forth ("I knew a new day had come for me and a new world as well" [My Fight, p. 56]), she is firmly in charge, assertive, a catalyst, a leader, and others are powerless to stop her: "When once I believed in doing a thing, nothing could prevent my doing it," (My Fight, p. 3). She also doesn't shy away from reminding us that her heroism was evident even in pedestrian moments:
When one of the deck stewards asked if I had a nurse or maid to help me attend [to my three children] I said No,' that it was no trouble. He replied with grave concern: Well, Madam, it's the likes of you that has in em the makings of a real 'ero" (My Fight, p. 75).
It is not clear how much of a role Guy Moyston or others played in drafting My Fight for Birth Control. It appears that Sanger deviated from her usual book writing methods and actually wrote much of this first autobiography. Her calendars and letters during the summer and fall of 1930 make mention of the steady progress of the manuscript as well as the difficulties of drawing out and culling memories. She wrote to Blakely Hall, her editor at Farrar & Rinehart:
When I begin to dig down deep in my memory I get sick in the solar plexus. (Thats doubtless a meaty bit for the Freudians' or Psychologists) Especially is this true when I think of the days & weeks of mental turmoil when it was impossible to decide what to do next (MS to Blakely Hall, July 24, 1930, MSM S5:727).
But just a day later Sanger reported on her progress to her husband:
I wrote & wrote on my autobiography most of the day & while its still very scrappy & disconnected, I am going to keep on digging down & back into my memory until I dig all the vital things up - then patch them into a proper pattern (MS to J. Noah Slee, July 25, 1930, MSM S5:737).
And the next day she told him that the "autobiography runs like golden sand" (MS to Slee, July 26, 1930, MSM S5:740).
Apart from Moyston, several other individuals may have worked on the manuscript, including early co-worker Anne Kennedy, the biographer, editor and drama critic Robert Parker, and charities organizer John Kingsbury, although Sanger does not credit anyone else with helping her. The final prose was surely polished by others, but there is little doubt that Sanger composed the basic text of the book; much of it is close in both tone and content to material she wrote for earlier speeches and articles.
Although My Fight received mostly favorable reviews when it came out in 1931 (the New York Times Book Review's one-hundredth anniversary edition included a reprint of Florence Finch Kelly's celebratory review [October 6, 1996]), Sanger found herself defending it from friends and foe alike. Some accused her of ignoring contributions by a host of movement workers, while others discounted the book as poor history. After making some attempts to support the work as accurate history, Sanger down-played her efforts in the pages of the Birth Control Review and claimed emphatically that it was neither history nor autobiography, "nor was it intended to be more than reminiscences of the part that one person played in the movement" (MS to Editor, Birth Control Review, Vol. XV, no. 11, November 1931).
Whether it was poorly marketed, as Sanger later claimed, or simply mistimed, My Fight fizzled and quickly went out of print. Knowing she had a marketable story on her hands, Sanger kept up interest in books about her life, and finally tempted W. W. Norton to publish another autobiography in 1938. Again, Sanger hoped a revival of her story would jump start her cause as she scrambled to secure the endorsements of politicians, major medical associations, religious institutions and social welfare groups to counterbalance her failed attempts to get favorable legislation passed in Congress.
This time around Sanger passed off the writing duties to two ghost writers, Rackham Holt and Walter Hayward, who both had journalism and business writing backgrounds. They taped conversations with Sanger over several months in 1936 and 1937, rummaged through movement records, and reconstituted much of My Fight to complete Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography in 1938. A busier and less directed book than its predecessor, the Autobiography toned down the drama and heroics and provided a more leisurely tour of Sanger's career to date. Sections on Sanger's personal life were generally short and anecdotal. The reviews were more mixed than before, but still mostly positive. And this time Sanger made sure to distribute the book with more vigor through her birth control movement channels, sending copies to governors wives, philanthropic organizations, community centers, and a long list of prominent individuals. But once again sales were low, and Sanger accused the publisher of lackluster support and poor marketing.
It was during the initial stages of piecing together the second autobiography that Sanger learned that Harold Brainerd Hersey, a free-lance writer and poet who worked with Sanger on the Birth Control Review as an editor and occasional contributor, planned to write a history of the movement with Sanger as the central figure. Sanger wrote to him that she thought their similar projects might be redundant, but essentially dismissed Hersey's intention as just another old friend with a flattering proposal (MS to Hersey, October 20, 1936, MSM S11:713). When she heard from friends and family in January and February of 1937 that Hersey was conducting interviews and deeply engrossed in his work, she sought a meeting with him. Not only was Sanger worried about potential competition with her own book, she abhorred the idea of a former co-worker and lover – the two carried on a brief love affair in the early 1920s, just prior to Sanger's marriage to J. Noah Slee – digging up her past. She wrote in an obvious panic to longtime secretary Florence Rose:
Well Hersey did go out to Corning & my brother said he was cheap & awful – He ran about wild talking to everyone over 80 that he could find. He has a complex which makes him avoid talking to intelligent people. He caters to the poorest, most ignorant & likes what they say . . . He is no biographer but a pulp journalist & I'm finished. I've written his publisher & to him. He gives me a pain so there – (MS to Florence Rose, February 11, 1937, MSM S12:537-538)
In an attempt to diffuse the situation Sanger extracted a verbal agreement from Hersey in which he would write an "interpretation of MS as a crusader" and that every word would meet with Sanger's approval before she would grant her consent. In better spirits she met with Hersey and his literary agent/publisher Robert Speller over drinks at the Ambassador Hotel in New York. But following some pleasantries, Hersey pulled out a book jacket and advance publicity materials for his book. According to Sanger, he then declined to submit his manuscript to her. Incensed, Sanger refused to cooperate any further or endorse the biography. She even considered the possibility of buying Hersey off (MS to Florence Rose, March 1937, MSM S12:774). As late as October of 1937 Sanger remained intransigent and angry. She wrote to ghost writer Hayward: " I hoped against hope that Hersey would drop dead or have some other calamity befall him before he finished what he calls a Biography'" (MS to Walter Hayward, October 19, 1937, MSM S13:625).
In the end Sanger triumphed for Hersey grew disenchanted with his book once she refused to back it, and then saw his publisher go under. Instead Hersey donated the manuscript to the New York Public Library in 1939, calling it a "lamentable venture," though he did not explain his final reasons for abandoning hopes of publication. (Hersey to H. M. Lydenburg, August 29, 1939, a letter included in the manuscript). It seems probable from reading the manuscript that Hersey's respect and affection for Sanger prevented him from publishing his book against her wishes, even though it turned out to be an adulatory biography. A year later he explained to Sanger:
I regret that my stern pride forbade me to permit you to examine the manuscript of the book I had long dreamed of writing . . . The sardonic element in the entire sad affair is that the book is and never was anything but a friendly piece of work (Harold Hersey to MS, August 6, 1940, MSM, S18:247-248).
Full of exclamations and poetic flourishes, Hersey's unpublished Margaret Sanger: Biography of the Birth Control Pioneer is nevertheless an excellent history of the early roots of the birth control movement, particularly the chapters covering Sanger's early radicalism. Hersey depicts Sanger as having taken a conscious, step-by-step approach to advocating and championing birth control. In Hersey's account Sanger did not stumble into the work or get swept along with the movement; rather she made careful decisions and shaped events. She was, he concludes several times, a true visionary: "It is most illuminating the way Margaret Sanger has always seen far, far ahead" (p. 135). The final work is sharply focused on Sanger's career with little attention given to her personal life. It is also disjointed, overly laudatory and generally uncritical. However, it remains the only biography of Sanger written by a contemporary and survives as a valuable source for information on Sanger's activism in the pre-World War I years.
While Hersey's manuscript collected dust in the New York Public Library, and Sanger's autobiographies became little more than collectors' items and fodder for Planned Parenthood Federation of America public relations staff, several other parties approached Sanger with plans for a biography. Each project had a fatal flaw for Sanger (an unaccomplished writer, an unknown publisher, bad timing) until a young free-lance writer and magazine editor named Lawrence Lader contacted her in 1953. Armed with an appealing biographical article he wrote in 1949 for Coronet magazine on the New York theater family, the Lunts, and with the backing of a respectable publisher in Doubleday, the enthusiastic and charming Lader promised Sanger a detailed and uplifting biography over which she would have the final say. Although cautious, Sanger agreed, no doubt seeking a public reminder of her past achievements as she organized the International Planned Parenthood Federation following a triumphant international conference in Bombay in 1952.
In the early stages of his work, Lader's flattering enthusiasm for his subject kept Sanger responsive and engaged. "But how does one put over the radiance, the inexhaustible flame of your own driving force?," he wrote to her in July of 1953 (Lawrence Lader to MS, July 25, 1953, MSM S41:639-640). Lader made significant progress in pulling together interviews and documentation on Sanger's early career. However, only a few months into his research, Lader began encountering many dead ends in pursuing material on Sanger's personal life. Sanger commiserated, telling him she had "much sympathy for your having started to write a whole life of a person who grudges every episode of her life in the telling of the memory. But I really want to help you as much as I can" (MS to Lader, December 3, 1953, MSM S42:297). However her offers to help were sometimes disingenuous.
Sanger not only forbade access to her diaries and to correspondence with husbands, lovers, family and many friends, she also subtly discouraged her close friends from cooperating. She even restricted conversations between herself and Lader, over such things as her recollections of her daughter Peggy's death. Finding many of his chapters to be uneven (too spotty in sections discussing Sanger's personal life, her own reflections and her two marriages in particular), Lader kept pleading for Sanger to release more material to him. Exasperated, she wrote "you seem to be reaching for the untouchable – why? There is so much material available to you to use but nothing seems to satisfy ever wanting the forbidden fruit – a male characteristic" (MS to Lader, December 3, 1953, MSM S42:300). She later wrote a friend that Lader was "like a dog with a bone, digging and digging into the past, and into the psychic experiences of ones life that really could make you quite ill" (MS to Ellen Watumull, MSM C18, April 4, 1955).
When Sanger did offer her recollections or views they frequently ran counter to the contents of the restricted letters and diaries. For instance, she provided Lader with a humorous and benign summary of her marriage to J. Noah Slee, but her journals held evidence of a destructive relationship marked by petty behavior. Always the lobbyist for her own best place in history, Sanger also offered negative innuendos about other birth control reformers who might compete with her legacy and discounted them as women "who never touched the subject until after I returned from England at the end of 1915...." (MS to Lader, October 13, 1953, MSM S41:865-866).
When Lader completed "one of the hardest jobs, maybe the hardest I'll ever tackle" in the summer of 1954, his largest obstacle still lay in his path to publication (Lader to MS, April 16, 1954, MSM S43:582). Sanger criticized the book as being gossipy, poorly structured and exhibiting toward the end a loss of enthusiasm on the part of the author. Not willing to admit that the book's major shortcomings were due to its lack of source material, Sanger went so far as to suggest another writer be brought in. However, she respected Lader, admired his hard work and perseverance, and in the end met her obligations to him. After making many corrections and deletions on the final manuscript during a convalescence from a bout of pneumonia (in which, she later admitted, she had trouble concentrating on the work), Sanger reluctantly okayed the manuscript. The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control was published in the spring of 1955.
Sanger seemed pleased to have yet another well controlled incarnation of her life's story making the rounds, noting that "as I had the last word I was able to eliminate a great deal of gossip that he picked up here and there, and I think altogether the book stands very well (MS to Ellen Watumull, MSM C18, April 4, 1955). Yet when friends noted errors or who criticized the book for disregarding the work of others in the movement, Sanger became defensive, explaining:
I did not approve of the book! I approved of the corrections that were made, and that one can never be sure of, for over and over again I made a correction on one page, only to find the same error carried over in perhaps a little different language two or three chapters on. The changes made your head dizzy trying to catch up to the tricks of the trade of that young man (MS to Dorothy Brush, March 3, 1955, MSM S46:374).
Without Sanger's unqualified enthusiasm, The Margaret Sanger Story was doomed to the same fate as her autobiographies. While Sanger did arrange a few book signings and helped set up distribution through Planned Parenthood offices, the book registered only modest sales. The Book of the Month Club picked it for their recommended list, but Doubleday could not work out a deal with a major magazine to excerpt portions. Reviews were generally favorable but not especially prominent. Both Sanger and Lader cited pressure against the publisher from the Catholic Church as having a negative impact on sales.
In the end Lader's biography did not differ markedly from Sanger's autobiographies, though it updated her work since 1938. Possibly reflecting her input, it reads like a long tribute and lacks objectivity in its assessments. The most valuable result of his work for us today may be found in the rich correspondence between Lader and Sanger in which she discussed her past at length and with emotion, a relatively uncommon occurrence in Sanger's letters.
Sanger died in 1966 without an objective, independently written biography of her having been published in her lifetime, a circumstance she might have privately applauded. It is not surprising then that Sanger's autobiographical work, even though it served as propaganda and tailored many facts, established a definitive life story and movement history that fed the public relations departments of the various birth control organizations Sanger founded. It is surprising that her story went essentially unrevised and unchallenged for a good thirty years. In fact it would take several years after her death before David Kennedy's controversial and highly critical study of Sanger's pre-World War II career, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), found an eager university audience. But Kennedy's book was a study of the American birth control movement, not a full-scale biography of Sanger. Two more traditional biographies were published in the 1970s, Emily Taft Douglas' Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future in 1970 and Madeline Gray's Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control in 1978, but both works were riddled with inaccuracies (many carried over from Sanger's autobiographies), poorly documented, and, in the case of Gray's book in particular, preoccupied with gossipy tidbits and Sanger's tabloid-worthy love affairs. Two excellent studies of the birth control movement produced provocative but limited interpretations of Sanger's role and impact: James Reed's From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society, published in 1978, and Linda Gordon's 1976 Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. The first detailed, comprehensive, scholarly biography of Sanger was not written until 1992 when Ellen Chesler weighed in with Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, a book that builds significantly on Sanger's autobiographical work by correcting errors, offering ample context and addressing the second half of Sanger's career, a period overlooked by previous scholars.
Chesler's biography is intimate and compelling. It merges Sanger's public and private lives in a single account, a task that Lader and Hersey failed to accomplish in the midst of the living Sanger, and a challenge that frightened off many would-be biographers, including Sanger friends Dorothy Brush and Robert Parker. As is the case with most biographies however, the subject's own voice is muffled in Chesler's work. Part of the problem stems from Sanger's writing style and phraseology. Sanger's words are illustrative but rarely resonate or give dimension to the biographical portrait. Her unpublished writing is anything but epigrammatic, seldom self-revealing in short passages, and frequently unclear or contradictory when taken out of context. Her two autobiographies fail to compensate as the first is largely a work of propaganda – bearing little resemblance to memoir – while the second was almost completely ghost-written.
Clearly Sanger's own words need to be made accessible in a usable, condensed format that will complement the fine interpretive scholarship contributed by Chesler, Reed, Gordon and others, and will revitalize and inform the two autobiographies. Now that the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has published the extensive two-series microfilm edition of her previously unfilmed papers and is completing an index to all extant Sanger documents, providing scholars with access to nearly every word written by Margaret Sanger, we aim to publish a selective two-volume book edition of transcribed and annotated letters and unpublished writings by Sanger that will speak in her own voice. The book edition will not only highlight the events that propelled Sanger's leadership of the birth control crusade, and the strategies, ideas and controversies that underlay this momentous protest movement, the volumes will include letters and other writings that provide crucial insights into Sanger's struggle to balance her roles as mother, wife, lover, and friend against her all consuming cause. At a time when Sanger's words are increasingly being appropriated by reproductive rights workers, anti-abortion advocates, the press, politicians, and even playwrights and filmmakers, it is imperative that an accurate and readable source of her unpublished writings is available.
At the end of his unpublished biography of Sanger, Harold Hersey cautioned future biographers:
My attempt to write the story of this extraordinary woman can never hope to be any more than the faint, shadowy outline of the substance itself. Nor do I believe that any later biographer will find his assignment a comfortable one. Somewhat like a paleontologist, he will be compelled to do the work of reconstructing an elusive personality on paper from the scattered bones of contention. The official records will increase, but the personal records, already sparse, will decrease (Margaret Sanger: Biography of the Birth Control Pioneer, p. 336).
Others undoubtedly agreed with him and abandoned work along the way. Yet the Margaret Sanger Papers Project continues to find new material by and about Sanger every year. No one who wrote about Sanger in the past had access to all of the documents uncovered by the Project (several hundred in just the past two years), nor did they benefit from our organization and arrangement of this material. In terms of the written record, the best time to write Sanger's life is now.
Revised: November 14, 2002