News & Sanger Sightings > 2007
Making it Black and White
A Los Angeles Times article back on March 21 (Stephanie Simon, “Tailoring an Antiabortion Message to Blacks”) discussed recent efforts by anti-abortion activists to draw more African -Americans into the movement. That one way was by trying to paint Margaret Sanger as a racist bent on eliminating blacks. The paper reported that a flier, mailed to 10,000 homes in minority neighborhoods in Waco, Texas, ties Sanger to the Ku Klux Klan and compares “Klan Parenthood” clinics to Nazi death camps. The Times clarified that “Sanger did associate with proponents of eugenics . . . but she did not support coerced birth control; civil rights leaders, including King, embraced her work.” (Fall 2007)
Gang of Four
U. S. News & World Report, in a special issue on “1957: The Year that Changed America,” commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the birth control pill and noted Sanger’s efforts in bringing the pill to fruition (Katherine Leitzell, “The Passions Behind the Pill,” August 13, 2007). Reporter Leitzell writes that “The Pill didn’t emerge from a grass-roots movement or any widespread discontent with available birth control. Instead, it resulted from the passions of four quirky individuals who were committed to the idea of a safe, reliable, and – most important – female-controlled type of contraception.” The “quirky” four were of course Sanger, the philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick, and doctors Gregory Pincus and John Rock. (Fall 2007)
Sanger vs. Sanger
In the July 30, 2007 issue of the Nation, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow reviewed both Volumes I and 2 of the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, noting in part:
"Today, of course, the most controversial of these is the disgraced philosophy of eugenics, which attempted to apply the principles of horse and dog breeding to human reproduction in order to improve the human race. By the 1920s, eugenics courses were taught at American universities, and fairs sponsored "fitter families" contests. Sanger was never a bona fide eugenicist: She always disdained a key component of the eugenics program--encouraging the "fit" to breed prolifically--and eugenicists for the most part shunned her. But she accepted their premises regarding the "unfit," and she borrowed their metaphors. In 1924 she compared ideal childbearing to the careful strategizing of the gardener: "How are we to breed a race of human thoroughbreds unless we follow the same plan? We must make this country into a garden of children instead of a disorderly back lot overrun with human weeds."
"Remarks like these are a gift to today's reactionaries, whose websites feature Sanger's more embarrassing quotes, as well as misattributed and fabricated ones. Reading certain extremist "prolife" literature, you would think Sanger was a genocidal racist and a proponent of infanticide. More responsible antiabortion sources, such as the National Right to Life Coalition and Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy, a 2005 book by Catholic scholar Angela Franks, make an effort to be factually accurate and attack her for her problematic beliefs, such as her advocacy of sterilization of the "unfit." Still, their opposition to reproductive rights opens them to charges of historical selectivity, since Sanger's positions were mainstream at the time. Harder to dismiss are the critiques of black feminists like Angela Davis, who points out that minority women's longstanding alienation from mainstream white feminism has roots in Sanger's association with eugenics. What is more, some of Sanger's contemporary defenders, notably those at Planned Parenthood, have themselves quoted her out of context, downplaying her offensive views. Between the sanitizing and the smearing, it's difficult to discern who Margaret Sanger really was."
"Against this polarized backdrop, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger is a refreshing antidote. (The first volume, The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, was released in 2003; the second, Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939 has just been published. Two more volumes are planned, to cover the last third of Sanger's life and her international work.) The editors have burrowed through an archive of more than 120,000 documents to select speeches, diary entries and, mostly, letters. The papers they've chosen reflect the commendable as well as the unsavory in Sanger's political views and personal life. This fidelity extends to scrupulously transcribed misspellings and heroically comprehensive footnotes. Altogether, the two completed volumes offer a singular record of her life and times. (Ellen Chesler's 1992 biography, which likewise avoids the common biases, makes an excellent companion.)"
For the entire review, see http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20070730&s=tuhus-dubrow
Posted: July 25, 2007
Hardly a month goes by without a Sanger quote – or one erroneously attributed to her – making news. Anti-abortion and pro-choice groups tangled at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in December of last year over a cartoon ad in The New Hampshire, the student newspaper. According to a December 22 follow-up report in same newspaper, the ad, taken out by the groups Students for Life and Young America’s Foundation, “pictured Sanger and a cartoon speech bubble containing a quote excerpted from a letter she wrote in 1939 to a colleague fretting about the public’s impression of her efforts.” The quote is well-known by now to readers of this newsletter. It comes from a December 10, 1939 letter to Clarence Gamble about the Negro Project in which Sanger lays out a strategy for employing black nurses and clergy in certain southern districts to help educate African-American women about birth control. Sanger raised the concern of a black backlash; she was not promoting any involuntary contraceptive program or implying that the Negro Project had a racist agenda. To the contrary, Sanger’s goal was to empower black women in poor southern communities by giving them access to safe and effective birth control. She had the backing of most of the major black leaders of the time. Both sides in the reproductive choice debate on the UNH campus wrote in to comment on the ad. The Students for Choice co-president called the ad misleading and incorrect. The Students for Life president moved beyond the quote to argue that Sanger was a eugenicist who wanted to exert her control over who is allowed to reproduce. A group of seven UNH English professors then sent in a letter accusing the anti-choice groups of a smear” against Sanger.
Sanger’s grandson and MSPP board member, Alexander Sanger, recently addressed the other quotation most frequently mined by Sanger critics on the left and right: “More children from the fit. Less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.” As Alex, this project and many others have pointed out repeatedly in recent years, Sanger never uttered or wrote these words. The quote had been misattributed to her in several early biographies. The actual quote comes from a 1919 American Medicine editorial reprinted in the Birth Control Review alongside Sanger’s rebuttal. Alex Sanger addresses this and other “misattributions, misunderstandings, and outright falsehoods about eugenics, race, and Margaret Sanger,” as well as his grandmother’s views on eugenics and race, in the March 2007 issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. You can access the article at his website: www.alexandersanger.com/. (Spring 2007)
Badass Birth Controller
Jane magazine “for 20-something women who get it” featured a lengthy special report in the November 2006 issue: “The Jane guide to birth control: An insanely comprehensive overview of all your contraceptive options. Besides prayer.” Before reviewing just about every known contraceptive method, Jane offered a little bit of birth control history: “But the actual concept of ‘birth control’ has been around only since about 1914, when badass reformer Margaret Sanger first used the term in The Woman Rebel (a journal clearly after our own hearts).” (Spring 2007)
Sanger’s First Podcast
On February 21, the Sex History Show, “a frank but polite discussion across the landscape of human sexual history,” featured a dramatic discussion about Sanger that included excerpts of her 1954 “This I Believe” radio essay. “This is history in a whole new light,” said the hosts. They called Sanger “the most important person in the history of sex.” www.sexhistoryshow.com (Spring 2007)
Sanger in the Middle
The December 2006 issue of the Atlantic Magazine listed “The Top 100 most influential figures in American History.” Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and FDR head up the list, and Booker T. Washington, Nixon and Herman Melville sure up the rear. Sanger is listed as the 51 st most influential, ahead of, among others, Joseph Smith, Bill Gates, Elvis and “the Babe.” The other women in front of her are Elizabeth Cady Stanton (30), Susan B. Anthony (38), Rachel Carson (39), Harriet Beecher Stowe (41) and Eleanor Roosevelt (42). (Spring 2007)
Crucible of Experience
In an October 15, 2006 New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Margaret Sanger’s Obscenity,” former PPFA president Gloria Feldt describes her visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, near where Sanger worked as a visiting nurse in the early 1910s, an experience that propelled Sanger on her life-long crusade. “According to the 1900 census,” Feldt writes, “18 wives in the Orchard Street building had given birth to 111 children altogether, of whom 67 where then alive.” The maternal mortality rate was 100 percent higher than it is today; “40 percent of those deaths were caused by infection, of which half resulted from illegal or self-induced abortion. Birth control was to revolutionize women’s health. But it would take a social revolution to get there.” She then reviews how Sanger challenged the laws that labeled birth control “obscene” and built a social revolution that grew into “a movement for women’s reproduction.” “When Sanger opened her  clinic,” Feldt concludes, “women wouldn’t get the vote for four more years. And yet the debates of her day over suffrage and contraception sound strikingly familiar to modern ears. Would such policies promote women’s equality or destroy the family? Would they advance justice or spread promiscuity? Where was the line between medical care and pornography? The answers, then as now, depend on your views about women, sex and power.” (Spring 2007)
This I Believe
Some of you may have heard Margaret Sanger’s high-toned voice and stilted enunciation emanating from your radio on October 16. The National Public Radio program “Fresh Air” included the opening section of Sanger’s recorded 1954 essay for Edward R. Murrow’s popular radio program “This I Believe.” Independent radio producer Jay Allison has revived the program for NPR and selected new and old “This I Believe” essays for a new book and CD.
From 1950 to 1955, Murrow invited both ordinary Americans and famous figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson and Harry Truman, to state their personal convictions and philosophies in succinct three to five-minute essays. Sanger had never heard the program and had to query friends for advice just days before she was scheduled to record. “Any suggestions for my theme?” she asked, writing from Tucson to Dorothy Brush, “I never heard the program as it is not given out here. So have not an idea of what I do believe which could be broadcast & not poo pooed.” (MS to Brush, Oct. 15, 1953 [MSM S41:875-878].)
You can listen to an mp3 file of the speech at our website:
Here’s the opening section:
“This I believe, first of all: that all our basic convictions must be tested and transmuted in the crucible of experience – and sometimes the more bitter the experience, the more valid the purified belief.
As a child, one of a large family, I learned that the thing I did best was the thing I liked to do. This realization of doing and getting results was what I have later called an awakening consciousness.
There is an old Indian proverb which has inspired me in the work of my adult life. ‘Build thou beyond thyself, but first be sure that thou thyself, be strong and healthy in body and mind.’ Yes, to build, to work, to plan to do something, not for yourself, not for your own benefit, but ‘beyond thyself’ – and when this idea permeates the mind you begin to think in terms of a future. I began to think of a world beyond myself when I first took an interest in nursing the sick.” (MS, “This I Believe,” May 18, 1954 [LCM 130:620].) (Winter 2007)
Photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Revised: February 17, 2009