Margaret Sanger:
A Life of Passion
By Jean H. Baker
Hill & Wang,
368 pages

Recently, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer asked Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain about his accusation that Margaret Sanger’s had launched Planned Parenthood seven decades ago in order “to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world. It’s planned genocide.”

Schieffer asked for proof, and Cain replied, “If people go back and look at the history, and look at Margaret Sanger’s own words, that’s exactly where that came from.” Cain told Schieffer to look at the locations of Planned Parenthood clinics: “75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community. And Margaret Sanger’s own words—she didn’t use the word genocide, but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.”

Strange that a decades-old controversy featuring a woman dead these 45 years should emerge as a point of contention in the 2012 presidential contest. But it attests to the enduring nature of Sanger’s activism. Cain was right about one thing: It’s a richly rewarding experience to “go back and look at the history,” though the history does not bear out his complaint. But neither is that history very kind to Sanger’s enthusiasms beyond birth control—population control and eugenics.

As for Planned Parenthood, the organization indeed emerged from Sanger’s decades of agitation to legalize birth control, but she never ran it. The group has always embraced Sanger, who was its first honorary chair, more than she ever embraced it. Behind the scenes, she hated the name, as she hated the term “family planning,” and wanted to be no part of clinics that might also treat infertility. And one can only conjecture what Sanger would have thought of its transformation after Roe v. Wade into the nation’s leading provider of abortions. Sanger, inconveniently for both sides of the battle over her legacy, was always antiabortion.

History, finally, amuses us with this fact: In voicing his suspicions about Planned Parenthood, Herman Cain, a pro-life black conservative, joined a long line of black radicals, from the Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey in the 1930s through the Black Panthers of the 1960s and even including the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1970s, who saw birth control and then abortion as a white plot.

Here, for instance, is the Jesse Jackson of 1977, sounding like a more politic version of the Herman Cain of 2011:

It is strange that they choose to start talking about population control at the same time that black people in America and people of color around the world are demanding their rightful place as human citizens and their rightful share of the material wealth in the world. People of color are for the most part powerless with regard to decisions made about population control. Given the history of people of color in the modern world, we have no reason to assume that whites are going to look out for our best interests.

 Much of this story can be gleaned from Jean H. Baker’s well-timed new biography, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College, writes to restore Sanger to pride of place in the feminist pantheon. She aims to defend Sanger against the “purposeful propaganda” of those who would “caricature” her so as to “discredit Planned Parenthood of America, the most important private provider of reproductive health care for women in the United States.” That description, sounding almost like a promotional pamphlet for the group, suggests that Baker is not above engaging in a bit of purposeful propaganda of her own. But Baker is mostly a fair-minded advocate and thorough, and the story of Sanger’s life is an engrossing one. If the reader emerges from it admiring Sanger less than Baker does, that is not Baker’s fault but Sanger’s.

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Margaret Sanger described herself as a “propagandist,” and it’s fair to say that she was a brilliant one. She was born into poverty in 1879 and died in 1966 as an international celebrity whose cause of making birth control legal and respectable had met with resounding success, thanks in no small measure to her talents for confrontation, publicity, fundraising, and organization. None of this was foreordained. She was the sixth child of Michael and Anne Higgins, Irish immigrants living in Corning, New York, where Michael was a stonecutter. She left Corning for boarding school as a 16-year-old and returned only to nurse her mother, who died of tuberculosis at 45.

Anne Higgins “had given birth to eleven children in twenty-two years and suffered seven miscarriages,” recounts Baker. “She had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage.” From her mother’s life, Sanger drew the moral that birth control, as she would later put it, is “the key to civilized life.” From her atheist father, she learned hostility toward the Catholic Church, which would be a leitmotif of her later work.

She went to nursing school, married up, had three children in short succession, and briefly essayed life as a suburban wife and mother in Hastings-on-Hudson. But when the young family’s dream house went up in flames, literally, in 1910, she convinced her architect-artist husband to move into the city, where she was drawn like a moth to the flame to the burgeoning movement of radicals in Greenwich Village. The anarchist Emma Goldman was an early hero of hers, and she joined the Socialist party and immersed herself in its causes. But inspired by her work as a visiting nurse and midwife among the poor women of the Lower East Side, she had become by 1913 a full-time agitator for sex education and legal birth control and would remain so until she died.

For Sanger, the personal was the political and vice versa. “By the summer of 1912 Margaret Sanger had joined the Bohemians and taken a lover,” Baker writes, the first in what the author later describes as a lifelong “catalog of lovers,” most famously H.G. Wells. Baker cites Jack Reed’s lover Mabel Dodge on Sanger’s special niche in the radical food chain: “It was she who introduced to us all the idea of birth control, and it, along with related ideas about sex, became her passion….Margaret Sanger was an advocate of the flesh who set out to make it a scientific, wholly dignified and proper part of life.”

Baker may be a partisan, but she is not a hagiographer. We learn from her that Margaret’s first husband, Bill Sanger, was the Socialist son of Jewish parents who “concealed his ancestry.” Nonetheless, “his background never inhibited the anti-Semitism she casually expressed throughout her life.” In a letter during their engagement she wrote, “Oh ye gods I dread to meet [his family]. I wonder if they will have long noses—and own flashy diamonds.”

Baker says Sanger “adopted Greenwich Village mandates of intelligent, targeted mothering rather than mainstream America’s views of dedicated, labor-intensive maternalism.” Translation: She was a “negligent” parent. She left her young children for months at a time, including the daughter who died at age five from pneumonia—contracted at an unheated boarding school in New Jersey for the children of radicals, where she had been parked while her mother was in Europe.

Her early writing, Baker reports, was marked by “primitive rhetoric.” She was, in the words of one admirer, “unyielding, relentless and egotistical.” And perhaps even pathological: “Several relatives, including one of her grandchildren, described her as ‘a nymphomaniac’ who required frequent sex.” Baker is quick to add that nymphomania “seems inappropriately clinical and in any case is an obsolete, elusive classification,” but then, she’s the one who brought it up.

Most damning is Sanger’s embrace of eugenics, the unwholesome movement that became a fixation of American progressives in the 1920s. Baker is correct to emphasize just how mainstream this movement for the “scientific” improvement of humanity was, enlisting “presidents from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover, Supreme Court justices, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, along with scientists from the most prestigious institutions.” Sanger was not at the heart of this movement, but she thought she could use it to advance her birth-control crusade.

She couldn’t sympathize with the “positive” eugenics of Theodore Roosevelt and others, who wanted to encourage larger families among the upper classes—indeed, she was too much of a Malthusian to support the promotion of large families, whether poor or rich. But she looked for allies among those obsessed with the fertility of the unfit and signed on to their advocacy of sterilization, which she believed should be subsidized rather than coerced by the state:

To have a pension or financial support of the feeble-minded and the defective to save the country from a multiple of their offspring is a sound investment….The indignity of it [sterilization] can be quite repulsive if we are looking upon humanity from the individual point of view, but I am not looking on it that way, for I believe that many who should be sterilized would agree [to it] if they knew something about the simplicity of the operation.

To encourage them to agree to it, Sanger continued, the government should give them “say, $75 a month which such couple would receive ultimately at 65 anyway.” These words come from a speech Sanger delivered in the year 1950.

Baker, to her credit, allows that Sanger’s views on sterilization are “indefensible.” There are other, stronger words that could be used for such ideas in the immediate wake of the Holocaust and the dawning days of the civil-rights movement.

Baker is on firmer ground in defending Sanger against the charge of racial animus. It seems clear that the suspicions of Herman Cain and his predecessors about the genocidal efforts of Planned Parenthood are mostly without foundation. She did give one speech to “the women of the New Jersey Ku Klux Klan” in 1920, but she was an inveterate barnstormer throughout her life, and there was no one to whom she would not speak. In fact, she believed that birth control was a great blessing, one she was determined to bestow on the women of every race and creed. There is no evidence that her desire to see birth-control clinics in black neighborhoods was ever anything but a desire to see universal access to the “key to civilized life.” You will search her corpus in vain for anything as racially incendiary as the words of her ally W.E.B. Du Bois lamenting that “the mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly” (although she did publish that article in her Birth Control Review).

Margaret Sanger was, not to put too fine a point on it, a left-wing crank. But her obsessions were sexual pleasure (pro) and fecundity (anti) and how best to separate the two—not the Jews and not the blacks, although maybe the Catholics. Baker offers no defense of Sanger’s baiting of Catholics; because the Church opposed at the time, and continues to oppose, artificial birth control, Baker no doubt believes it deserves what it got from Sanger, even if some of it was, frankly, unhinged.

Here is Sanger in July 1939: “The future of America is not threatened by Communists, Fascists, or Jews, but the power of Rome clutches at the throat of democracy through radio, public health welfare, the post office, and part of the press and government. The Protestants have gone to sleep and the Jews and other non-Catholics are afraid.” And here in 1953: “We have fought for independence from Great Britain. Now we are enslaved to the Vatican in Rome.” In 1960, when John F. Kennedy failed to take a position on contraception despite her urging, she “denounced him as ‘neither Democrat nor Republican. Nor American, nor Chinese. He is a Roman Catholic.’” As Baker notes, “she informed reporters that if Kennedy were elected, she would leave the United States and find another place to live.”

She was also no Hitler sympathizer, despite promiscuous accusations that Google searches turn up by the thousands. The Hitler-lover in her circles was Marie Stopes, the Margaret Sanger of Britain, a sometime ally and sometime rival who in August 1939 wrote, “Dear Herr Hitler, Love is the greatest thing in the world: So will you accept from me [a book of her poems] that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?”

There is much about Margaret Sanger’s worldview to deplore; it is to the discredit of certain parts of the pro-life movement that they have fastened on sensational accusations of racism and genocide, which are in fact calumnies.

The missing chapter in this Margaret Sanger biography, as in others, has to do with her views on abortion. She was unequivocally opposed. Reviewing The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger (2003) in the Weekly Standard, David Tell summarized:

She turned women seeking abortions away from her clinics: “I do not approve of abortion.” She called it “sordid,” “abhorrent,” “terrible,” “barbaric,” a “horror.” She called abortionists “blood-sucking men with MD after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so.” She called the results of abortion “an outrageous slaughter,” “infanticide,” “foeticide,” and “the killing of babies.” And Margaret Sanger, who knew a thing or two about contraception, said that birth control “has nothing to do with abortion, it has nothing to do with interfering with or disturbing life after conception has taken place.” Birth control stands alone: “It is the first, last, and final step we all are to take to have real human emancipation.”

 Baker treats abortion only in passing, noting that Sanger did not “play any role in the crusade to make abortion legal,” and offers her own not-terribly-persuasive conjecture: “Given her priorities, she would doubtless have argued that the proper use of birth control made abortion unnecessary, but because all women needed autonomy over their bodies, in the case of oversight or failure they had the right to end a pregnancy.”

No doubt this is the party line at Planned Parenthood, which has bestowed the Margaret Sanger Award every year since her death to honor “excellence and leadership in furthering reproductive health and reproductive rights.” But one is entitled to wonder. Human emancipation has proved to be a much trickier and bloodier business than Margaret Sanger ever imagined.

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