Monday, February 09, 2004

Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words

Reed, Miriam, Ph.D. Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2003.
In the Introduction to Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words, we find out that Margaret Sanger was a redhead, a "charismatic woman," daughter of a free-thinking father--a point which I think is very significant. The photo on the cover of the book shows her as a lovely apparently loving mother holding a smiling baby about a year old.

When Sanger was a child, the sixth and middle child of a total of eleven children, her father read and discussed the ideas of the most progressive thinkers, the radicals, of his day, feeding his family large doses of, among others . . . William Ingersoll, the atheist and early advocate of artificial contraception and women's rights."

"Hearing Margaret pray for 'our daily bread,'"her father hectored her, "Is God a baker?" He was a talker and "an improvident provider" more fond of espousing his ideas than earning a living. He also kept his tubercular wife pregnant with a total of eighteen pregnancies and eleven live births. He kept on impregnating her; even though she was ill in bed for ten years, she was pregnant every one of those years.

Her yearly rate of conception leads me to surmise that she wasn't breast feeding because breast feeding usually naturally spaces births. Margaret concluded that her mother's misery was due to a lack of birth control, but it seems to me that it was just as much due to her blowhard layabout father's lack of self control.
Very early in my childhood I associated large families with poverty, toil, drunkenness, cruelty to children, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails, and the Catholic Church.-- From Sanger's memoir Girlhood
From knowing the large families that worship with me at traditional Latin Masses, I associate large families with virtues such being able to live happily with fewer luxuries, interchange of a lot of love between the children, better moral upbringing, well-behaved children who are eager learners -- and the Catholic Church.

Sanger was a beauty, but wanted to be appreciated for her brains. At least in this area, I have to agree and say, "Good for her." At the end of the memoir quoted in the biography, Sanger wrote that she turned her thoughts away from the stage because the application to drama school asked for the measurements of her calves! "I turned my desires to more serious studies where brains, not legs, were to count."

Like Dorothy Day, who was born eighteen years after Sanger, Sanger was a big believer in socialism for a time. Like Sanger, Day  studied and practiced nursing and was friends the playwright, Eugene O'Neil. Sanger was also friends with Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle, which strongly influenced Day in her development of her own philosophy of how to help the poor.

When Sanger and her husband moved from the suburbs to NYC in 1911, and he stopped practicing architecture, she went to work as a nurse in the povery-ridden Lower East Side. Sanger attributed the hellish conditions of life among the poor to lack of birth control, and also to capitalism. Sanger cared a lot about the rights and health and happiness of poor women (but she spent her time hanging around with educated socialists and later with the upper crust of society, which might be a kind of Lady Bountiful way of life).

Sanger exhorted women to organize and to join the Socialist party, which alone out of all parties was working for the following:
  • Absolute equality between men and women.
  • Welfare (she didn't call it that) which would allow women to stay home with their children and thereby give the fathers some relief from having to support the family solely on the low wages that were available to them
  • Support and education of children at least until they were 16
  • The end of child labor
Even though Sanger was an habitual adulterer and often lied, the author refers to Sanger as having "a deep spiritual quality." The author also writes this about Sanger, that her demands for the benefit of women were specifically these: "Let women decide for herself if and when she is to have children. Let the coming of the children be spaced so that the mother has physical health, emotional strength, and sufficient funds to care for the child. Let every child be wanted."

In the moral theology class I'm taking, Father Bretzke says we should be able to summarize the main points of those who disagree with us on a matter under dispute. I would say the above are the main points that helped swayed the world and the world's churches away from prohibiting birth control towards fully advocating it in the 1930s.

Sanger's book refers to "the absurd state and federal Comstock laws, which since 1873 had made contraception advice and devices illegal and straightforward language pertaining to sexual matters legally obscene. ... Rushed through Congress in 'hot haste' just before its close in 1873, the federal Comstock law made it a crime to manufacture, sell, or send through the U.S. mails any obscene article, including any article that was intended to prevent conception, or any printed matter that offered information on preventing conception."

Margaret Sanger's advocacy of birth control was part of her socialism. in "What Every Girl Should Know" Sanger wrote, "Until capitalism is swept away, there is no hope ... [that girls will live a beautiful life ... that women can live in the family relation and have children without sacrificing every vestige of individual development. . . .Soon . . . women [will] rise in one big sisterhood to fight this capitalist society which compels a woman to serve as an implement for man's use."

I agree that nobody should be anybody's tool, but part of that freedom Sanger campaigned for, the way Sanger lived it, was something I can't agree with-- for a woman to be able to have sex with whomever she pleased. Sanger herself pursued sexual pleasure entirely for its own sake, and the author records the Sanger taught her quoted how to sexualize her entire body. Sanger was a close friend and some say lover of sex researcher, Havelock Ellis, and the promiscuous lover of many other partners. Ellis was a scientist who was also a proponent of sexuality for its own sake, divorced from reproduction.

Sanger wrote about sex education in How Six Little Children Were Told the Truth. She wasn't thoroughly a modern thinker, at least about some things. She warns the children against tampering" with "the generative organs, "which would lead to 'darkness, dullness of intellect, stupidity, physical and mental weakness.'" She described the development of marriage in terms that are part of our current mindset, telling the children that in the early days of human life, women chose their mates freely, but when men developed tools that they wanted to insure went to their own children, they bought women from the chief, and women lost their freedom of choice. [Don't know where she got her "facts" from.]

Here's an odd historical aside about a revered company now mostly associated with toothpaste:  Samuel Colgate from Colgate and Compay, "advertised the contraceptive benefits of Vaseline . . .."

Also like Dorothy Day, Sanger protested and was arrested for what she believed in. An article in the New York Call, April 20, 1913, called "With the Girls in Hazelton Jail, Sanger wrote about her arrest and jailing for walking in a picket line." Sanger was a better writer than Day was. In an unpublished article quoted in the book, Sanger uses such catchy phrases as "conscript motherhood" (for those forced to bear children they didn't want) and "their slavery, the bondage of unwilling maternity." She describes how for the first time in the world, in her newspaper "The Woman Rebel" were printed the words "birth control."

In her autobiography she told how she and her associates came up with the term "birth control."

“We tried population control, race control, and birth rate control. Then someone suggested, ‘Drop the rate.’ Birth control was the answer; we knew we had it – the baby was named.”

Even though Sanger wrote later that her goal was single-minded: to make birth control available to women, the book says that The Woman Rebel had a broader aim, no less than the end to marriage. Here is how the paper's goals were expressed in its first issue:
The fight was not only to be one against 'slavery through motherhood' and ignorance of the 'prevention of conception,' but with equal ferocity to attack prostitution, sexual prudery, marriage, middle-class morality, wage slavery--all things that enslaved women.
I am sad to say that for most of the so-called independent thinkers of our era, who all think alike, Margaret Sanger has won her battle. God help us all.

Here's another eerily modern-sounding quote from the June 1914 issue of Women Rebel. (The first sentence was echoed in the title of the 1971 book Our Bodies Our Selves, that went on to sell 4 million copies and be translate into thirty languages.)  
A woman's body belongs to herself alone. It is her body. It does not belong to the church. It does not belong to the United States of America or to any other government on the face of the earth. The first step toward getting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for any woman is her decision whether or not she shall become a mother. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman's right to life and liberty.
Sanger self-published and mailed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet describing how to prevent pregnancy, arranging to have the mailings sent out after she was on a boat to Europe to flee the prosecution she would probably be facing for breaking the Comstock laws. In her pamphlet, she described among other methods, how to prevent a fertilized egg from "making its nest in the lining of the womb."

Quote from Sanger's diary when she was in London "Women & men must be a god unto themselves."

She made a lot of progress. "By late 1915, public interest in birth control was no longer confined to liberals and lefties."

She often railed like this against the Catholic Church:
As she [Julia Rublee] pointed out, women must recognize how "the stupid decrees of men; the church; a false tradition" have deliberately turned women into tools for the ends of patriarchal institutions. . . .. With marriage under its control, the church not only made the woman subject to her fertility, but it made her subject to her husband--or father or brother--along with subject to God and all the priests, more or less enforcing a sort of triple or quadruple jeopardy. Abundantly subjected, woman accepted her role as 'that of an incubator and little more.'"
The author of the biography also mentions several times how attracted Sanger was to Neitzschean philosophy, which, as described here, seems very similar to the modern moral theologian's attitude towards traditional morality:
Neitzschean philosophy . . . gloried in the courage to challenge the convictions of centuries and encouraged the individual to stick to one's convictions in the higher truth . . ..
Sanger started her own publication called The Women Rebel starting in March 1914, again like Dorothy Day, who started the Catholic Worker a few decades later, on May 1, 1933.  Sanger went on to split with "the radical community in the early 20s" and later downplayed her Socialist associations.

On January 26, 1932, The Nation published her article, "My Answer to the Pope on Birth Control." On August 11, Margaret Sanger was "banned from Rome." In 1933, Hilter burned books by Sanger, Ellis, and Freud.

In 1921, November 10 "Margaret Sanger organizes ABCL" (the American Birth Control League), which eventually became (on January 29, 1942) "Planned Parenthood Federation of America."

Sanger is said to have wished for a magic pill to separate sex from reproduction. She was instrumental in bringing that magic pill into being. In 1951, Sanger met Katherine McCormick (major funder of research specifically dedicated to developing the Pill), and Gregory Pincus who was McCormick's chosen researcher (with John Rock). 1955, Pincus announced the Pill. On May 11, 1960, the FDA approved it. Sanger got her wish.

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