Study Guide

The Children's Era Themes

By Margaret Sanger

  • Hypocrisy

    Don't front around Margaret Sanger.

    She addresses two levels of hypocrisy in "The Children's Era." First, she calls out her listeners (and on another level, society as a whole) for acting like they care about kids and yet taking charitable social action to improve living conditions only once piles and piles of babies are already born, rather than getting to the root of the problem and making sure all these unwanted, uncared for kids aren't conceived in the first place.

    She also calls out the people who say they care about families and yet are actively opposed to birth control…which Sanger sees as the one thing that can lead to happy families. You want happy families, asks Sanger? Better not stand in the way of birth control.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Do the Neo-Malthusians and those who are actively opposed to birth control have anything in common, according to Sanger?
    2. Why might people who are so concerned about the wellbeing of children not see birth control as a valid solution to the problem of overwhelmed parents?
    3. We can assume that Sanger's audience is composed of people who support birth control since they're attending a conference about it. Why does Sanger feel they're not doing enough to promote the use of birth control?
    4. Is Sanger hypocritical in the speech? Does she ever contradict herself?

    Chew on This

    Sanger presents evidence to show that both her listeners and her opponents are guilty of hypocrisy.

    For Sanger, the antidote to hypocrisy is action.

  • Women and Femininity

    This theme is kind of unavoidable when you're talking about childbearing, right?

    The element of womanhood at issue in "The Children's Era" is motherhood. Over and over, Sanger emphasizes that there's no hope for the future of children, the family, or civilization itself unless women can decide for themselves whether and when they become mothers.

    Remember that old saying, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy"? Sanger would wear that on a t-shirt.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What do you think of Sanger's characterization of "enforced […] maternity" (51) as slavery?
    2. What are the consequences of Sanger's discussion of how the wellbeing of the mother and child are connected for today's pro-life and pro-choice movements?
    3. Sanger says "the future of civilization" (52) literally depends upon birth control? What are some concrete ways that might be true or false?

    Chew on This

    Sanger uses the language of slavery and emancipation to give weight to her arguments.

    Sanger's insistence that only a healthy and willing mother can produce healthy children is her primary appeal to those concerned with the future of the nation-state.

  • Children and Childhood

    Woohoo! We made it to the fun theme! Or, wait...sorry.

    For a second we thought this might be all about Saturday morning cartoons and sledding and waiting up for Santa, but...it's not. Instead, we're dealing with the flip side of childhood: turns out, kids are really vulnerable, and "The Children's Era" really highlights that.

    Her main concern about children is that so many are being born that no one can care for them all, not their parents and not even the charitable organizations meant to provide assistance. She wants to get right down to the root of the problem and make sure children are born only to parents who want them and who are emotionally, physically, and financially prepared to care for them.

    She sees this as a fundamental right of children and sees birth control as one means toward creating a world of healthy, happy children. A world where those Saturday morning cartoons and sledding and waiting up for Santa are a reality instead of an ideal.

    Questions About Children and Childhood

    1. Sanger seems disproportionately interested in preventing poor families from having children. What might be the reasons for and consequences of this position?
    2. Sanger's concern is that we have failed children because everything we try to do for them won't help if there are too many. What do you think of her assessment?
    3. According to Sanger, what do adults, particularly parents, owe children?
    4. What might an ideal childhood look like, according to Sanger?

    Chew on This

    Sanger's thoughts on children and childhood remain relevant to us today.

    Sanger's thoughts on children and childhood are dated by her views on poverty.

  • Poverty

    Yeah, it's a real downer of a theme. It brings to mind the Great Depression and The Grapes of Wrath, neither of which arrives all that far after 1925.

    Poverty was nothing new in 1925 and it's nothing old today. Poverty and lack of access to birth control coupled with a lack of money to support lots of children has been a big theme forever and ever in American politics and life. Sanger is no more supportive of the poor relying on public assistance for their children's welfare than the average conservative politician.

    But in "The Children's Era" she is supportive of providing the poor with birth control to limit the size of their families—and perhaps even in coercing them to do so. Poverty is no laughing matter, but it is kind of funny-weird to think that Sanger was advocating for women's choices even as she had clear ideas about what those choices should be.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Do Sanger's questionable comments about poor children affect the way we read the rest of her speech?
    2. How are issues of birth control and poverty linked?
    3. Why do you think Sanger would say she is so concerned with ensuring parents can adequately support a baby?
    4. Do you think Sanger would defend her use of the term "human weeds" today?

    Chew on This

    Sanger's comments about poor children may be offensive, but her concerns about parents being able to support their children are nonetheless valid.

    Sanger's speech is a symptom of the concern about policing the sexuality of the poor.