News & Sanger Sightings > 2008
In March, Sanger Project advisory board member Ellen Chesler, currently the distinguished lecturer and director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Initiative on Women and Public Life at Roosevelt House, Hunter College/CUNY, gave a lecture on Margaret Sanger as part of the “Great Lives” lecture series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
According to the March 21 edition of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, members of the Christian Defense Coalition marched outside the lecture hall in protest. Before the event, the project director for the coalition stated "It is a shame and a disgrace that the University of Mary Washington, an institution that was once only for women, that is named for a great women in American history, and prides itself on teaching and empowering women today, would honor Margaret Sanger, an avowed racist and bigot. Ms. Sanger's racist views have created a legacy of pain and hurt for women and other minorities." (WordNews.org, Mar. 20, 2008)
In her new afterward to a revised reprint of her biography of Sanger, Woman of Valor, first published in 1992, Dr. Chesler includes a substantive discussion on Sanger, race and eugenics and the roots of the “smear campaign” against Sanger’s legacy. (Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America [Simon & Shuster, 1992; revised paperback edition, 2007], 489.) (Fall 2008)
Population Control on the Rocks, Twist
Many of the press reviews of Matthew Connelly’s new book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, 2008), include a reference to Sanger or a quotation from her on population control policy. Reviewing the book for the New York Times Book Review (Mar. 23, 2008), Nicholas Kristof pulled out a quote from Sanger, used in the book, to condemn the birth control movement’s “fondness for eugenics.” Kristof writes, “Margaret Sanger, who courageously pioneered the cause of birth control, icily promoted contraception ‘to be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles and among the most ignorant people.’” What Kristof doesn’t explain is that Sanger was referring to the need for a “simple, cheap, safe contraceptive” in parts of the world where women had little or no education, often no running water and few if any contraceptive choices.
The quotation was taken from an October 27, 1950 letter to benefactor Katharine McCormick that set in motion their partnership in funding research for the pill. Sanger dedicated much of the final two decades of her life to trying to find safe, effective and affordable contraception for women in the most impoverished parts of the world – precisely because the movement had so far failed to reach these women that were most in need of contraceptive and reproductive health services. In his global history of population control, Connelly does give Sanger her due for leading the struggle for reproductive rights and improving people’s lives, and he properly places quotations from her in a broader context, but he also links her to insensitive population controllers consumed with raw numbers and with little concern for women’s autonomy. (Fall 2008)
That Old Gag
n May 29, Planned Parenthood president, Cecile Richards, gave a talk at the Old South Meeting House in Boston to commemorate Sanger’s Ford Hall Forum appearance in April 1929 when she stood on the stage with a gag over her mouth while Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. read her speech. Sanger had been banned from speaking in any public forum in Boston, and took to the stage that night as a participant in a “Frolic” to poke fun at Boston Mayors Curley and Nichols who had imposed and continued the ban respectively, and to draw attention to First Amendment rights. The well-worn image of a gagged Sanger has become a symbol of censorship in America. Richards spoke on the meaning of free speech and Sanger’s legacy. (Fall 2008)
Accusations that Sanger was a racist always spike this time of year due to the interest raised by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Black History Month. Most of the recent attacks are confined to blogs and web-based publications but some are beginning to reach into the mainstream. Conservative author Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, which has been getting plenty of press, is introducing a more mainstream audience to allegations that Sanger was a racist. Nothing much new here – a false claim that she endorsed the Nazi eugenics program and the tired argument that activities like her Negro Project surely incriminate her as a racist. But it’s enough to convince reviewers, like the New York Sun’s Ron Radosh (“America’s ‘Fascist Moment,’” Jan. 4, 2008) that Sanger “clearly viewed blacks as inferior.” “Fans of Margaret Sanger,” Radosh writes, “perhaps the single most important feminist hero of the 20 th century, will never be able to think of her the same way.”
In January of this year columnist Allison Aldrich, writing for the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia’s oldest newspaper, questioned whether MLK, Jr. would have supported Sanger and Planned Parenthood had he known the “truth” – the truth being that Sanger sought to eliminate “undesirable traits” in people “using abortion.” Her article, “Planned Parenthood’s Negative Influence Hurts Minorities,” also suggested that Sanger set out to reduce the African-American population. There were a number of angry letters to the editor disputing these claims, including one from David Nova, Vice President of the Planned Parenthood Health Systems, Inc. in Roanoke, Va., who quoted from King’s 1966 acceptance of the Sanger Award:
“There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.”
On the other side of the equation, Dr. Shirley Turpin-Parham wrote in to the Philadelphia Daily News (Feb. 20, 2008) to inform readers that a Feb. 4 article in the paper on black history, which discussed the heroic public health career of African-American physician Rebecca J. Cole (1846-1922), the second black woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., failed to inform readers that in 1916 “she was part of Margaret Sanger’s campaign that touted birth control for all women as a means to change their lives and thereby their social limitations.” (Spring 2008)
Less God or Godless?
In “Atheism's Wrong Turn” (The New Republic, Dec. 10, 2007), Damon Linker takes a critical approach to the recent best-selling books on atheism by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and warns progressives that these recycled arguments do not fit snugly into a liberal tradition. In discussing the history of American atheism, Linker outlines a “consensus” approach taken by leading American critics of religion: “denouncing the foolishness of this or that religious institution while simultaneously affirming one of several heterodox forms of religious belief. In nearly all cases, the form of belief – whether deism, Unitarianism, pantheism, or John Dewey's religion of democratic ‘common faith’ – has been perfectly compatible with liberal government.” He goes on to say:
Those Americans who have adhered to ideological atheism have naturally taken a much less accommodating view. Some, like Russian-American anarchist Emma Goldman, have imported their strident ‘negation of gods’ directly from European sources. Others, like nineteenth-century intellectual Robert Ingersoll and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, did not so much emulate Europeans as end up in a similar position by following through independently on the logic of anti-religious ideas and combining them with a typically American optimism about the morally salutary consequences of scientific progress.
lthough she turned to both alternative and mainstream forms of faith at different times in her life, and never called herself an atheist, Sanger would find little to object to here. As she wrote to her son Grant in 1928, “I have outgrown the need of Church by my interest in Philosophy, Psychology & Humanity. Very often I find the Church narrows & limits the mental horizon of a person – when in reality it should broaden & deepen. . . . If you go in for Science you will doubtless find a constant challenge to the church in your discoveries . . . .” (MS to Grant Sanger Apr. 18, 1928 [MSM S4:424].) (Spring 2008)
Rudy and Maggie
There have been sightings galore of Margaret Sanger’s name in the blogosphere, in conservative publications such as American Spectator and even in wire reports, all citing Rudolph Giuliani’s past support for Planned Parenthood and tributes to Sanger while he was mayor of New York City. In April 2001, he issued a proclamation honoring Sanger and spoke to a National Abortion Rights Action League luncheon at the Yale Club, telling the audience: “This event shows that people of different political parties and different political thinking can unite in support of choice. In doing so, we are upholding a distinguished tradition that began in our city starting with the work of Margaret Sanger and the movement for reproductive freedom that began in the early decades of the 20 th century.” If he makes it to the White House surely someone will remind him of what he said just six years ago: “in the most personal and difficult choices that a woman has to make with regard to a pregnancy, those choices should be made based on that person's conscience and that person's way of thinking and feeling. The government shouldn't dictate that choice by making it a crime or making it illegal.” (“Opening Remarks to the N.A.R.A.L. ‘Champions of Choice’ Lunch,” The Yale Club, Apr. 5, 2001 [Archives of Rudolph W. Giuliani, 107 th Mayor].) (Winter 2008)
Frances Rich (1910-2007)
The well-know sculptor of celebrities and saints, Frances Rich, died on October 14 in Payson, Arizona at the age of 97. Rich began as an actress, but soon turned to a career in the fine arts. After the war she concentrated on sculpture, developing a specialty in casting Catholic saints even though she herself was not Catholic, and creating portrait busts of public figures, including Diego Rivera, Virgil Thompson, Katharine Hepburn and Margaret Sanger, whom Rich became friends with when Sanger stayed in Santa Barbara in the mid-1950s. (Winter 2008)
War Against Weirdos
Peter Hitchens , in his Sunday column in the London Mail, September 23, 2007 (“The weirdos we pay to 'talk dirty’ to our children”), attacked the UK’s public sex education program and the “condom-waving, pill-prescribing sex maniacs” who have “infiltrated the schools of Britain.” He compares teaching kids about sex and birth control to “training nine-year-olds to fire handguns.” His anger was inspired by a recent book, Lessons in Depravity, by a former British public health administrator, E. S. Williams, who “describes the incredible advance of, let's be frank, weirdos such as Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger and Alfred Kinsey, not to mention the unhinged Marxist Wilhelm Reich . . . .” “And we wonder,” he concludes, “why our society is falling to bits around us.” (Winter 2008)
Photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Revised: February 17, 2009