Study Guide

The Children's Era Introduction

By Margaret Sanger

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The Children's Era Introduction

Not going to lie, hearing the words "The Children's Era" makes us feel like we're about to get cuddled up to listen to a bedtime story from one of those gigantic, old school fairy tale collections.

What is this Children's Era of which you speak, Margaret Sanger? Do kids rule the world? Are we having mac and cheese with chocolate milk for dinner? Has bedtime been abolished?

Well, take those bibs off, Shmoopers, because that's not what "The Children's Era" is about at all. Margaret Sanger, whom you might know as an advocate for birth control (she literally coined the term) and the founder of Planned Parenthood, gave this speech at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City on March 30th, 1925.

And to the best of our knowledge, there was no mac and cheese or chocolate milk involved.

Anyway, "The Children's Era" is kind of an ironic title because Sanger's message is that we're not doing right by the kiddos. At the time, too many children were being born to parents who couldn't care for them, so well-intentioned reformers had set up all kinds of social services of questionable effectiveness. What they should have been doing instead, according to Sanger, was making sure parents didn't have kids they couldn't care for in the first place.

By 1925, Margaret Sanger had been advocating for the rights of women to choose when and how many children they had for over a decade, and she would continue to do so for the rest of her life. This speech falls in the middle of dozens of speeches she gave on this topic over the years.

While Sanger's main concern was always the right of women to control their reproductive lives, "The Children's Era" reflects other concerns too. In the early 20th century, governments didn't think the health and safety of women and children was a big enough deal to warrant major attention. So to get her message taken seriously, Sanger had to unite with other movements.

So whose agendas are we looking at here? Check it out:

Agenda #1: Population Control

Let's look at the Neo-Malthusians. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an economist. To summarize, Malthusian theory says that food production ultimately won't be able to keep up with population growth. This will cause all sorts of problems—obviously—so people should have fewer kids.

However, Malthus thought it was wrong for married couples to take any action to avoid pregnancy. Neo-Malthusians, on the other hand, realized that Malthus' ideas for population control weren't very practical. They thought people should use birth control to limit family size.

Agenda #2: Eugenics

Sanger often gets criticized for being tight with the eugenics movement, which came to a disastrous climax in Nazi Germany's attempt to create a "Master Race." Hitler took it way beyond anybody's worst nightmares, but he wasn't the only one thinking along those lines in the 1920s.

It was a new century! Science was king! Why shouldn't scientists (geneticists, specifically) be able to create the best, tallest, fastest, (ahem, whitest), people on earth? You got defective genes? Well, then, don't reproduce. We want only perfect people here, said the eugenics movement.

Ugh. We just threw up in our mouth a teensy little bit.


Agenda #3: Class-Based Government Anxiety

"You know who's having too many kids?" said governments worldwide. "Poor people. You know who's not having nearly enough kids to make up for all those poor kids? That comfy middle class we (allegedly) love so much. All those poor kids are going to cost society some serious cash. We're pretty sure their genes are defective anyway (See Agenda #2). Hey, we're trying to create a great nation here. And how are we supposed to do that with all these poor people hanging around wanting to eat?" (see Agenda #1).

Margaret Sanger wanted women to control their own reproductive lives, but nobody in charge (ahem, men) thought that was really a big issue. So she got in bed (pun definitely intended) with these other agendas in an attempt to bring about the same result: accessible, affordable, legal birth control.

Unfortunately, Margaret Sanger died before she could see her dream realized. But although Sanger may be long-gone, people are still fighting for what she believed in.

What is The Children's Era About and Why Should I Care?

Because the debate over birth control is still going strong.

A whole lot of things have changed since 1925. We don't use antiquated slang like "don't take any wooden nickels" or "sockdollager," men's pants are mercifully less high-waisted, and we no longer believe in the miracle of "Reducing Soap."

But even with these advances—not to mention the fact that we now hold entire libraries of information in the palm of our hands in the form of a smartphone—we're still stuck on ye olde birth control issue.

Check out these headlines from November 2016 alone: "How Donald Trump Could Affect Birth Control Access;" "Spike in Demand For Long-Acting Birth Control Strains Clinic Budgets;" "Why Birth Control Should Be Free." Birth control is hot news—these few headlines are just a drop in the bucket.

As of this writing, the hashtag #thxbirthcontrol (started by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy) has women tweeting about their experience with birth control and how it helped them cope with period pain, focus on the children they already have, finish their educations, have the same choices in life as men…the list goes on.

But—also as of this writing—people are also suggesting that Roe v. Wade be overturned, that Planned Parenthood (which Margaret Sanger established) be defunded, and that it should be harder to obtain affordable birth control.

Yeah. To say that people are divided on the whole birth control thing is a wee bit of an understatement.

1925 is a longtime ago, guys. But "The Children's Era" is still shockingly fresh when it comes to the current hot-button issue of birth control. Margaret Sanger's words still resonate—in part because they helped pave the way for the current chapter of the ongoing debate, and in part because people are still referring to the ideas she brought up in this speech.

So take a look-see. Because, when you're dealing with a subject as still-pertinent as birth control, you want to be in the know.

The Children's Era Resources


Start Here: All the Margaret Sanger in One Place
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University includes online collections of Sanger's personal and professional papers, scholarly interpretations, and opportunities for research help. It's a one-stop shop.

The Margaret Sanger Bio
The Biography program includes short videos and overviews of various parts of Sanger's life and legacy.

She's Museum Worthy
This biography from the National Women's History Museum places Sanger in the larger context of women's history in the United States.

Movie or TV Productions

Margaret Sanger's Dream Come True
Watch the PBS documentary The Pill.

Articles and Interviews

Interviews from the Front Lines
This transcript of interviews from the PBS documentary The Pill includes perspectives from doctors and patients who took or prescribed the oral contraceptive pill in the 1960s, along with members of Margaret Sanger's family.

The Mike Wallace Interview: You Know You've Arrived
This is a transcript of what is probably Margaret Sanger's most famous interview, given on September 21, 1957 on the Mike Wallace Show.


The Mike Wallace Interview: You Know You've Arrived, Part 2
This is the video of Margaret Sanger's interview with Mike Wallace on September 21, 1957.


Striking a Pose
Margaret Sanger in 1917. Check out that hat.

Family Woman
Margaret Sanger with her sons, Grant and Stuart, in 1919.

That Old Ball and Chain
From the cover of the Birth Control Review, this is one of the more famous images associated with Margaret Sanger's movement.

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