Monday, October 10, 2016
October 10, 2016: Birth Control in America: Margaret Sanger
[On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in New York City. So this week, on the 100th anniversary of that moment, I’ll AmericanStudy Sanger and other histories and images connected to this still-controversial subject, leading up a special weekend post highlighting a great scholarly book on the topic!]
Three lesser-known sides to the woman known as the founder of birth control (and of Planned Parenthood).
1) Her Writings: Sanger is mostly known for her organizations and actions, but she was a prolific journalist and writer, and indeed launched her public career with two sex education columns for the socialist magazine New York Call: “What Every Mother Should Know” (1911-12) and “What Every Girl Should Know” (1912-13). A year later she began publishing her own monthly periodical, The Woman Rebel, which focused on birth control but touched on many other issues of gender and sexuality as well in its seven-issue run. By the time she opened that 1916 clinic, then, she had thoroughly established her views and arguments on birth control in these journalistic and public forums; she would continue to move back and forth between the two realms for the remainder of her career, as illustrated by a second, much longer-lasting periodical, The Birth Control Review (1917-40).
2) Her Views on Immigration: In recent years Sanger has come under fire for anti-black racism, a charge propagated not only by pro-life and right-wing critics but also by leftist writers such as scholar Angela Davis. It seems to me that many of those critiques are based on misrepresentations of Sanger’s views about African Americans and race—but there’s no doubt that she became later in life an ardent supporter of certain forms of eugenics and population control. In particular, Sanger became linked to the anti-immigrant sentiments that drove the 1920s Quota Acts and much of the nation’s immigration policy throughout the first half of the 20th century; her 1932 essay “A Plan for Peace” included some of her overtly exclusionary ideas and proposals for immigration policy. Recognizing such flaws and failures in a Progressive reformer is not, in this or any case, about vilifying her entire life and career; but neither can we engage with Sanger’s legacy without such recognition.
3) Her Comic Legacy: As both of those prior items, and most every hyperlinked piece therein, illustrate, Sanger’s legacy in American society and culture is as wide and deep as any one figure’s. But in recent years, public historian Jill Lepore has found a particularly surprising and striking addition to that legacy: the influence of Sanger on the creation and character of Wonder Woman. As Lepore documents, Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston was not only generally inspired by feminist pioneers such as Sanger, but also dated Sanger’s niece (and a former psychology graduate student of his), Olive Byrne. The Wonder Woman story gets much stranger and more disturbing than that, as Lepore’s book amply demonstrates; but nonetheless the connection between Sanger and the comic book superhero illustrates just how wide-ranging and potent have been the roles that this pioneering thinker and activist has played in 20th and 21st century America.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or images you’d highlight?