Study Guide

The Children's Era Analysis

By Margaret Sanger

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  • Rhetoric


    Pathos is a type of rhetoric that uses emotion to appeal to listeners in order to persuade them to agree with the speaker, and it is all over "The Children's Era."

    It's right there in the title. You want to play with people's emotions? Talk to them about the kiddos. Kids are cute, snuggly, and tell hilarious lies about Batman.

    Sanger goes on to do that throughout, connecting the wellbeing of children to the necessity of birth control.

    When we protest against this immeasurable, meaningless waste of motherhood and child-life; when we protest against the ever-mounting cost to the world of asylums, prisons, homes for the feeble-minded and such institutions for the unfit, when we protest against the disorder and chaos and tragedy of modern life, when we point out the biological corruption that is destroying the very heart of American life, we are told that we are making merely an "emotional" appeal. When we point the one immediate practical way toward order and beauty in society, the only way to lay the foundations of a society composed of happy children, happy women and happy men, they call this idea indecent and immoral. (28-29)

    See what she did there? She acknowledged that she's been told she's making an emotional appeal, taking away the power of her opponents to accuse her of it.

    Sanger goes on to say that continuing as we are just doesn't cut it:

    It is not enough to clean up the filth and disorder of our overcrowded cities. It is not enough to stop the evil of Child Labor--even if we could! It is not enough to decrease the rate of infantile mortality. It is not enough to open playgrounds, and build more public schools in which we can standardize the minds of the young. It is not enough, to throw millions upon millions of dollars into charities and philanthropies. Don't deceive ourselves that by so doing so we are making the world "Safe for Children." (30-35)

    Repeated emotional appeals to the safety and security of women, children, and families finally brings Sanger to her most important point.

    We want to free women from enslaved and unwilling motherhood. We are fighting for the emancipation of the mothers of the world, of the children of the world, and the children to be. We want to create a real Century of the Child--to usher in a Children's Era. (104-105)

    A time that's great for kids? Besides graham crackers and apple juice time? Sounds like an emotional appeal to us.

  • Structure

    Besides the obvious fact that we know that Margaret Sanger stood and delivered this bad boy orally at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian Conference on Birth Control, how do we know "The Children's Era" is a speech?

    Look at how it opens. Sanger addresses her speech to her audience, "Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen." That would be a weird way to open a legal document or a letter, right? Also, she continues to address her audience directly throughout.

    "The Children's Era" follows that great pattern of modern speeches: Introduction, Transition, Body, Transition, Conclusion.

    How it Breaks Down

    Introduction (Sentences 1-12)

    In the first two paragraphs, Sanger introduces her subject, "The Children's Era," a title inspired by Ellen Key's The Century of the Child. She rebukes her audience for failing to achieve a true Children's Era, or a world in which children are adequately cared for and loved.

    Come on, people: think of the children.

    Transition #1 (Sentences 13-27)

    In paragraphs 3 and 4, Sanger transitions into the body of her speech with an extended metaphor about gardening, in which children are both the flowers and the weeds. Social activists like Sanger and her listeners are presented as the gardeners, responsible for keeping the garden healthy.

    So far, they're not very good at it. This garden is going crazy with dandelions and Bermuda grass.

    Body (Sentences 28-101)

    As with any speech, the bulk of "The Children's Era" is the body: paragraphs 5-15. In the body, Sanger presents her arguments for providing contraceptives and education, which will allow mothers to plan for when they will become mothers and thus make a better world for children and mothers and all of society.

    So basically, the body of Sanger's speech is all about…the body.

    Transition #2 (Sentence 102)

    We'll be honest: it's not the greatest transition ever. If you say, "In conclusion, let me repeat" (102), in your speech class, you might get points docked. 

    Conclusion (Sentences 103-109)

    Sanger returns to the themes of her Introduction. She says that the way to create the Century of the Child is to care for children before they are born by making sure their parents are ready to have children and healthy enough to do so. She ends with a call to action to her listeners to make this conference the turning point at which people started to move toward a brighter future.

  • Tone

    Accusatory, Frustrated, Satirical, Imperative

    Sanger cycles through several tones over the course of this speech. She's pretty worked up over the state of maternal and child health, and she makes no bones about it. Meek and mild? Not so much Sanger's style.

    In Sentences 2-26, Sanger accuses her audience and everyone else who has been working to make the 20th century better for children of not being very good at their jobs:

    So far we have not been gardeners. We have only been a sort of silly reception committee. A reception committee at the Grand Central Station of life. (20-22)

    What they've been doing isn't working, and Sanger is pretty peeved about it.

    Next, Sanger exhibits (even more) frustration:

    When we point to the one immediate practical way toward order and beauty in society, the only way to lay the foundations of a society composed of happy children, happy women and happy men, they call this idea indecent and immoral. (29)

    She knows what people need to do, but they won't do it. That's more angry shiver-inducing than hearing nails on a blackboard.

    Sanger then drifts into the Jonathan Swift school of satire where she talks about doing something with babies she doesn't intend to ever do…just to make a point. Swift suggested eating poor babies; Sanger suggests letting them interview their parents to see if they want to be born in the first place:

    At such a bureau of the unborn, the wise child might be able to find out a few things about its father—and its mother. Just think for a moment of this bureau where prospective parents might apply for a baby. Think of the questions they would be asked by the agent of the unborn or by the baby itself. (72-74)

    Finally, Sanger winds up with an imperative call to action, where she tells her audience what they need to do to rectify this situation:

    We want to create a real Century of the Child—to usher in a Children's Era. We can do this by handing the terrific gift of life in bodies fit and perfect as can be fashioned. (106-107)

    You tell 'em, Sanger.

  • Writing Style


    Sanger paints us a picture—actually, more like a gallery—in this speech. First we get the image of "this old world of ours converted into a beautiful garden of children" (6).

    Aww. That sounds really nice. (It also sounds really noisy and sticky.)

    But wait a minute, because that's a mirage. What we actually have is something different. Our garden doesn't look like that. Our garden has a bunch of weeds:

    Trainload after trainload of children coming in, day and night—nameless refugees arriving out of the Nowhere into the Here. (23)

    Sanger asks us to picture "the filth and disorder of our overcrowded cities" (30) and to imagine what we can do to help. The only effective solution, she concludes is "prenatal care" (37) that will allow babies to "grow in a chemically healthy medium" (39).

    (And yes; "chemically healthy medium" sounds sort of like the vats of goo that Keanu Reeves is hanging out in in The Matrix. But Sanger means it in a good way.)

    With the assumption that the only way to make the world safe for children is to ensure that their parents are healthy and wealthy enough to care for them adequately, Sanger moves on to her description of the Bureau of the Unborn, where a baby interviews its potential father.

    By the end of her speech, it's clear that Sanger is still looking for that garden, which she calls " a real Century of the Child—to usher in a Children's Era" (106).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "The Children's Era" is an ironic title, because Margaret Sanger is saying that we're not in the Children's Era. (Other unused titles may have included "The Calorie-Free Pizza Era" "The Cats Are As Nice As Dogs Era" and "Free Penthouses For Everyone Era.")

    The Children's Era doesn't exist—yet. By using this as her title, Sanger emphasizes the way children's welfare is neglected in the real world.

    Sanger understands a point that often gets ignored by all sides in arguments about birth control. The child's welfare is directly related to the mother's welfare because the child will be affected by the mother's body during the pregnancy…and by literally everything else about the mother (income, physical and mental health, ability to parent) after birth.

    Opponents of birth control have frequently characterized the use of birth control as an inherently selfish act, saying that people just want to have sex without consequences, and presenting the hypothetical children whose conception is prevented as victims. Sanger says nuh-uh: birth control is good for children. Birth control ensures that parents have enough time, money, and maturity to care for the children they do have.

    Sanger knew that people didn't care enough about women's health and reproductive rights to get on board with her just for women's sake. Children, on the other hand—well, what jerk is going to say we shouldn't do what's good for the kiddos?

    Certainly nobody in her audience, which is full of social reformers who like to think of themselves as leading us all to a better place called "the future."

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:
    My subject is "The Children's Era." "The Children's Era!" This makes me think of Ellen Key's book--The Century of the Child. Ellen Key hoped that this twentieth century was to be the century of the child. The twentieth century, she said, would see this old world of ours converted into a beautiful garden of children. Well, we have already lived through a quarter of this twentieth century. What steps have we taken toward making it the century of the child? So far, very, very few.

    Sanger really wants to hammer this whole "Children's Era" idea home, as you might guess since the opening paragraph flows directly from the title.

    My subject is "The Children's Era." "The Children's Era!" (2-3).

    Okay, Sanger, we get it: you're talking about the Children's Era. You don't have to yell at us.

    Sanger goes on to cite Ellen Key's book The Century of the Child and to point out that we're not living in either "The Children's Era" or "The Century of the Child"…which really ruffles her feathers.

    She gets down to business by claiming that the problem is we haven't really done much to improve children's lives. This lets us know she plans to give us strategies for solving this problem in her speech.

    Wherever she's going with it, though, "The Children's Era" starts out with a bang. We're guessing Sanger would have a problem keeping her fingers off Caps Lock when hanging out in comments sections.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    We want to create a real Century of the Child--to usher in a Children's Era. We can do this by handing the terrific gift of life in bodies fit and perfect as can be fashioned. Help us to make this Conference which has aroused so much interest the turning point toward this era. Only so can you help in the creation of the future. (106-109)

    Well, nobody could accuse Sanger of not linking her actual speech to its title, because she talks about the kiddies throughout. She opened by lambasting her listeners for not creating the Children's Era already.

    But don't worry, Shmoopers, because Sanger's conclusion tells us how we can fix that little problem.

    In Sentence 106, Sanger hearkens back to her opening lines: "We want to create a real Century of the Child—". Throughout the speech, Sanger has given options for how that can happen. She winds up at Sentence 107, which says that the Children's Era will become a reality only when children have bodies as "fit and perfect as can be fashioned."

    So, no pressure.

    In the very last lines, Sentences 108-109, Sanger issues a call to action for her listeners. She wants them to help put her plan into practice so that the Children's Era can become a real thing, not just an ironic title for a speech. (Read more about the irony in our "What's Up With the Title" section.)

    We say, as long as we're throwing out ideas for a Children's Era, can we get a three-hour afternoon nap in there?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    That Sanger sure does like to make outside references. And that's all fine and dandy…but it does kind of make for a confusing read.

    Sanger was trying to further her own agenda by linking it to several others. Because of this, this text seems to go in a lot of different direction. It can be hard to figure out what Sanger's real concerns are and how they relate to the other issues of the time…unless you've done some digging around in the context.

    Lucky for you, historical padawan, digging around in the context is pretty much our favorite hobby (outside of playing vintage Pac Man). We've got you covered like the softest duvet on the coldest January morning.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Ellen Key, The Century of the Child (4, 5) 

    Historical and Political References

    Child Labor (31)
    Republicans and Democrats (58)
    Prohibition (61) 

    References to This Text

    "The Children's Era" on its own doesn't have many pop culture references. Margaret Sanger, on the other hand, shows up in some pretty interesting places, which is right where we'd expect her to be.

    Literary, Artistic, and Philosophical References

    The iconic feminist artwork The Dinner Party (1979) features a place setting for Margaret Sanger and thirty-eight other significant women. (Source)

    "The Children's Era" appears at #81 on a list of Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century by American Rhetoric. (Source)

    Historical and Political References

    Gloria Steinem dedicated her 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Margaret Sanger. (Source

    The Margaret Sanger Awards are given annually by Planned Parenthood to honor achievement in promoting reproductive freedom. (Source)

    Pop Culture References

    Margaret Sanger was one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman. (Source

    In 1917, Margaret Sanger produced a film about her work called Birth Control. It was heavily censored. (Source)

    Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story is a 1995 TV movie. (Source)

    Margaret Sanger appeared at #50 on a list of 100 Most Important People of the Millennium in 1999's Biography of the Millennium: 100 People—1000 Years. (Source)

  • Trivia

    1925 was a big year for the U.S.: The Great Gatsby was published, the first motel opened, the Scopes Monkey Trial happened, and Sears Roebuck opened its first brick and mortar store. So before you could read Fitzgerald while staying at a motel in the same town as the Monkey Trial while wearing a suit you bought at Sears. (Source)

    In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first female governor in the United States. She couldn't legally access birth control, but she could run Wyoming. (Source)

    Margaret Sanger sometimes claimed her birthday was in 1883 instead of 1879, which is why some sources still have it wrong. Way to shave a few years off, Margaret. We're impressed. (Source)

    You could say Margaret Sanger came from an eclectic family. Her brother Bob Higgins was a well-known football coach who worked at Penn State, Washington University in St. Louis, and West Virginia Wesleyan. In 1954, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. And you thought you and your siblings were different. (Source)

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