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Ah, Margaret Sanger.
Like those candy corn pumpkins that show up in the fall, people either love her or they hate her. And most people pick one camp or another without knowing much about her…just like they never have actually tasted those waxy little pumpkin treats.
We can't decide for you if Margaret Sanger was a hero or a villain, but we can give you the information to decide for yourself. (After all, getting information and deciding for yourself were what Margaret Sanger was all about.)
Sanger was born into the large, poverty-stricken, Irish-Catholic Higgins family. She was the sixth of eleven live births of the eighteen pregnancies her mother had in twenty-two years. We'll hold on while we all catch our breath from the effort of just imagining that.
Sanger blamed her mother's early death at age forty-eight on exhaustion from constant pregnancy. The story goes that she stared down her dad over her mom's coffin and accused him of indirectly killing his wife.
Sanger didn't want to end up like her mother, so she went to college and later trained as a nurse. She worked on the Lower East Side, an impoverished area of New York City. Think Call the Midwife…except a lot of the time instead of delivering babies, she was called in to deal with the aftermath of botched abortions women performed on themselves or got from sketchy back alley providers.
After nursing a mother through the aftermath of one of these abortions, she overheard the doctor advise the desperate woman to tell her husband to sleep on the roof if she wanted to avoid another pregnancy. Six months later, the mother died from another abortion.
This was a turning point for Sanger. She's quoted as saying:
I came to a sudden realization that my work as a nurse and my activities in social service were entirely palliative and consequently futile and useless to relieve the misery I saw all about me. (Source)
These early life experiences inspired Sanger to work toward a world in which women could choose if and when they became mothers. That idea was her true north. It inspired everything she did.
So remember that as we get into some of the questionable ideas and causes she allied herself with in order to accomplish that.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, Sanger was all about getting information about birth control out to the people who needed it: women. It was rough going. She was thrown in jail a few times, she had to leave the country to escape jail, and she was constantly dealing with haters who thought it was crazy talk that women should get to make their own decisions.
Then, after World War I, people had a bunch of new concerns about population. (See the "Historical Context" section for a discussion.) Sanger discovered that she could get more support for her ultimate goal of providing women with contraceptives if she allied herself with other groups, like the eugenicists and the Neo-Malthusians, and piggybacked on their agendas (See the "Summary" section for a discussion.) But the idea that women should have some choice in whether or not they bear children was still a little out there for most people.
During this era, Sanger became the founder of what today is known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and ongoing controversies over the services Planned Parenthood provides are partly why people either love her or hate the organization today.
During the 1950s, she intended to take a backseat in the birth control movement, but that's when she achieved her dearest dream of creating a "Magic Pill" that would allow women to control whether or not they became pregnant. Enovid, the medicine that put the "pill" in "the pill" went on the market in the 1960s. After more than half a century fighting for women's right to birth control, that had to feel like a satisfying end to an earth shattering career.
Today, opponents of abortion often vilify Margaret Sanger because she founded Planned Parenthood, which is ironic because Sanger herself was generally opposed to abortion—especially having seen firsthand the effects of poorly performed abortions on women's health. She believed that the best way to lower the rate of abortions was to lower the rate of unintended pregnancies by providing women with access to contraceptives.
Sanger's efforts to allow women to choose whether or not they have children were groundbreaking, but her critics often cite her links to the eugenics movement, her instances of racism, and her apparent prejudice against the poor in an attempt to discredit her.
Sanger and the eugenicists agreed they wanted to use birth control to assist "the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." (Source)
By that they meant anyone with any kind of disability or neurodifference, and while Sanger didn't go quite as far as the eugenicists, some of whom were all for euthanasia (which: not good, not good at all) she was definitely involved with the movement.
But to be fair, there weren't many people of science in the early 20th century who didn't dip a toe in eugenics.
Claims that Sanger was racist also have some basis in fact. She was all about limiting immigration, especially from places that weren't white enough—including Eastern Europe—because she thought it would cloud up the gene pool she was working on putting a nice filter on. While she did work with the African American community to provide birth control in Harlem and around the country, her views would certainly be considered racist today because she tended to exhibit a paternalistic attitude toward people of color. However, for her time, "she would likely be considered to have advanced views on race relations." (Source)
There's also truth in the idea that she particularly wanted to keep poor families from reproducing, and evidence for that can be found throughout "The Children's Era," such as when she refers to poor children as "human weeds" (27) and declares,
Look into the family history of those who are feeble-minded; or behind the bars of jails and prisons. Trace the family histories; find out the conditions under which they were conceived and born, before you attempt to persuade us that reckless breeding has nothing to do with these grave questions. (47-48)
As harsh as these words sound, her concerns about large family size among the poor probably stemmed from her own experiences growing up poor in a large family and working with poor women as a nurse. Poor women have always had less access to birth control than middle and upper-class women, so her emphasis may derive from her ultimate goal of ensuring all women could make their own choices about childbearing.
For good measure, let us emphasize again that Sanger's main concern was ensuring that women could choose whether or not to become pregnant. Does the end justify Sanger's means? What do you think?
Whatever you think of Margaret Sanger, there's no question that she contributed greatly to changes in the 20th century that reshaped the world, especially for women. The oral contraceptive pill is sometimes cited as the most important invention in history in terms of the impact it had on the world.
Take a moment to imagine a world without birth control.
Then try to imagine a world without Margaret Sanger. We bet you can't do it.