Study Guide

The Children's Era Quotes

By Margaret Sanger

  • Hypocrisy

    Why has so little been accomplished?--in spite of all our acknowledged love of children, all our generosity, all our good-will, all the enormous spending of millions on philanthropy and charities, all our warm-hearted sentiment, all our incessant activity and social consciousness? Why? (11-12)

    Sanger poses some serious questions to get her listeners to think about the fact that just doing a lot of charitable work doesn't solve the real problem: too many babies are born into poverty. How would you answer her questions, and how do you think her listeners would answer them?

    So far we have not been gardeners. We have only been a sort of silly reception committee. (20-21)

    What Sanger doesn't mention is the difference between gardening and throwing a tea party. Gardening requires getting your hands dirty, but you can hold fancy receptions all day long and feel like you're doing something good without actually having to deal with anything gross. That's her point, in fact: she wants her listeners to get involved in the birth control movement and get their hands dirty. (Metaphorically, anyway—but also perhaps literally. Slums aren't known for their cleanliness.)

    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. (29)

    Sanger is talking about birth control, and she highlights both the link between birth control and happy families she believes exists and her opponents' failure to acknowledge it. Imagine you were one of Sanger's opponents. What do you find "indecent and immoral" about birth control? What would you present as an alternative to help create happy families?

    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." (33-35)

    Oh, snap. Sanger lowers the boom on people who like to throw money at things and feel good about themselves. None of this is going to do any good, says Sanger, until we recognize that there's a limit to the number of children women can safely and happily carry and care for, and that limit is up to no one but the woman herself.

    Our opponents declare that children are conceived in love, and that every new-born baby converts its parents to love and unselfishness. My answer is to point to the asylums, the hospitals, the ever-growing institutions for the unfit. Look into the family history of those who are feeble-minded; or behind the bars of jails and prisons. (45-47)

    People still say stuff like this. There's even a country song that claims every single person is born because "two people fell in love." It's a nice thought, but it's obviously not true, which is Sanger's point. People are born, she says, because their parents have sex without using contraception. Love may or may not have anything to do with it.

  • Women and Femininity

    We have learned in the preceding sessions of this Conference that, if we wish to produce strong and sturdy children, the embryo must grow in a chemically healthy medium. The blood stream of the mother must be chemically normal. Worry, strain, shock, unhappiness, enforced maternity, may all poison the blood of the enslaved mother. This chemically poisoned blood may produce a defective baby--a child foredoomed to idiocy, or feeble-mindedness, crime, or failure. (39-42)

    Yeah, sure, Sanger. Blame the mother for everything. That's one thing everyone can agree on. But seriously, because many people weren't on board with the whole "let women decide when they have babies" thing, Sanger's choice to present maternal health as inextricably tied to child health is smart.

    Nobody wants an innocent baby to suffer, so hey, let's take care of the mothers in order to take care of the babies.

    There is only one way out. We have got to fight for the health and happiness of the Unborn Child. And to do that in a practical, tangible way, we have got to free women from enforced, enslaved maternity. (49-51)

    Sanger makes the connection here between the mother's body and the Unborn Child. She acknowledges that, at least until birth, they're connected, an idea that both the pro-life and pro-choice movements seem to struggle with today.

    There can be no hope for the future of civilization, no certainty of racial salvation, until every woman can decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother and when and how many children she cares to bring into the world. That is the first step. (52-53)

    Big words, Sanger. "The future of civilization?" That's where we're going with this? Hyperbole much?

    Sounds like it at first…but maybe it's an exaggeration and maybe it's not. Birth control affects big issues like population and class mobility. What do you think? Is it a stretch to say the future of civilization depends on birth control, or is it actually true?

    The problem of bringing children into the world ought to be decided by those most seriously involved—those who run the greatest risks; in the last analysis—by the mother and the child. (63)

    Well, now that actually makes sense, but unfortunately, we don't have the child here to ask about things, so really only the mother can make the decision, which is ultimately Sanger's 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. (104-105)

    Sanger says children can't be free unless mothers are free. These lines come near the end, but she's used this extended metaphor of slavery to describe lack of access to birth control throughout her speech. What effect might this metaphor have had her listeners in 1925 (only sixty years after the end of the Civil War)? How do we respond today to Sanger's use of the language of slavery to describe something that isn't technically slavery?

  • Children and Childhood

    Before you can cultivate a garden, you must know something about gardening. You have got to give your seeds a proper soil in which to grow. You have got to give them sunlight and fresh air. You have got to give them space and the opportunity (if they are to lift their flowers to the sun), to strike their roots deep into that soil. (13-16)

    Well, that all sounds beautiful. Too bad children aren't actually flowers.

    But, says Sanger, the same principles apply. Flowers need certain things to grow, and children need certain things to grow: things like good parents and a positive home life, which birth control can help create. Hey, says Sanger to her listeners, everybody wants to help create a pretty garden right? Nobody wants to be that one house on the block with a yard full of weeds.

    Those of you who have followed the sessions of this Conference must, I am sure, agree with me that the first real step toward the creation of a Children's Era must lie in providing the conditions of healthy life for children not only before birth but even more imperatively before conception. Human society must protect its children--yes, but prenatal care is most essential! The child-to-be, as yet not called into being, has rights no less imperative. (36-38)

    This is very interesting because today Margaret Sanger is a huge villain to pro-life groups, but here she's actually advocating for the rights of children not only not yet born but not yet conceived. Again, she's linking child and maternal health in a way not often seen in modern rhetoric, which tends to emphasize one or the other.

    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)

    This sounds weird and amazing. What would you ask your parents if you had this opportunity? Would you ask some of the same questions the imaginary baby does in the speech? Questions like, "Are you ready to be a parent? Are you healthy? How many siblings would I have? Where would I live? Would I get my own room and go to a good preschool?" Are there any answers that would make you think twice about being born? Can you imagine answering these questions for your future children? (We know, that's a lot of questions, but this quote is all about questions.)

    And if we could organize a society for the prevention of cruelty to unborn children, we would make it a law that children should be brought into the world only when they were welcome, invited and wanted; that they would arrive with a clean bill of health and heritage; that they would possess healthy, happy, well-mated and mature parents. (92)

    This is Margaret Sanger's ideal world, which she's attempting to create not only through the use of birth control but also through a list of requirements for parents. Does this ideal world come at price? If so, what is that price and who pays it?

    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)

    Sanger couches her birth control goals in language intended to demonstrate that birth control is good for children as well as for women. How does Sanger plan to arrive at the "Children's Era"? Have we reached it today? If not, which of her ideas could lead us closer to it?

  • Poverty

    And always—do not forget this—you have got to fight weeds. You cannot have a garden, if you let weeds overrun it. (17-18)

    This is a clip from Sanger's little known PBS series, Margaret Sanger: Master Gardener. Okay, we're kidding about that Master Gardener part. Sanger was worried about poor women having more kids than they could care for. Now, was she solely concerned with poor women's welfare, or did she also have some of that classic middle-class nervousness about large numbers of poor people eventually overthrowing them? It's hard to say, but her speeches and writings suggest it might have been a little of both.

    The reception committee arouses itself heroically, establishes emergency measures: milk stations, maternity centers, settlement houses, playgrounds, orphanages, welfare leagues and every conceivable kind of charitable effort. But still trainloads of children keep on coming--human weeds crop up that spread so fast in this sinister struggle for existence, that the overworked committee becomes exhausted, inefficient and can think of no way out (26-27)

    We get it, Margaret Sanger. This is a tough job. Still, it seems a little cold to refer to poor kids as "human weeds." Sanger would definitely get in a lot of trouble if she said that today, so score one for the 21st century. But, to be fair, Sanger was trying very hard to appeal to an upper middle-class audience—one that probably did see the poor as inferior.

    First: "Mr. Father, a baby is an expensive luxury. Can you really afford one?"
    "Have you paid for your last baby yet?" (75-76)

    Hold on to your hats: the speaker in this quote is a baby, who despite being Unborn (yet), has a very good grasp of vocabulary and grammar. He or she (who are we kidding? in 1925, it's definitely "he.") wants to make sure there aren't a bunch of other kids already in this growing family and using up all of Daddy's sweet, sweet paycheck. Who is this kid, an IRS auditor?

    "Can you provide a happy home for one? A sunny nursery? Proper food?"
    "What's that you say? Ten children already? Two dark rooms in the slums?"
    "No, thank you! I don't care to be born at all if I cannot be well-born. Good-bye!" (83-91)

    The (unborn) baby is still interviewing his father, and wow, this kid sounds like a little snob. He doesn't want to be born unless his parents meet all Margaret Sanger's requirements for parenthood. We get it—we'd all like to be born with a silver spoon in our mouths, but this is a bit excessive. Still, look at where Sanger is coming from: a nursing career in the slums, where she no doubt saw children born into truly horrifying conditions. That's what's driving her, and why her insistence on limiting the size of poverty stricken families is so strong.

    6. Economic circumstances adequate (100)

    Frankly, we're surprised this is only number six on Margaret Sanger's Top Ten List of Requirements for Having a Baby. Concerns about money dominate this speech.