In the last issue of Ceres Magazine, we looked at the events that led to the opening of Sanger’s first clinic and to the first victory of the birth control movement in 1918. We learned of Sanger’s many attempts to be portrayed as a martyr and its results, for better or worse.
In this issue, we discuss Margaret Sanger's involvement with eugenics. Why did she look for help there—along with her regrets for such association—and why is she mistaken for a racist?
I would recommend as a good informative read, Birth Control in America, The Career of Margaret Sanger, by David M. Kennedy, in which Sanger is depicted for who she was, a woman with conflicting ideas and motives, with no attempt to canonize her or give credit that she doesn’t deserve.
A very popular question in the many discourses on Sanger is where did she go wrong? Eugenics, at the time, was a respectable scientific field, promoted by scientists, politicians and intellectuals of all classes. Eugenics was even taught in colleges and prestigious universities such as Yale, Stanford and Harvard, where it appealed to faculty members. Therefore, it is not surprising that Sanger believed that she could find the support the American Birth Control League so desperately needed in this revolutionary movement, thus gaining the prestige she so hungrily desired.
An attractive argument, at first, eugenics carried also an ideology that Sanger rebuked, which opposition she explains in details in her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization.
In fact, the irony resides in the interpretation of Sanger’s work based on an ideological movement that hardly accepted her at the time. Many papers and articles have examined the differences between Sanger and the birth control movement, and the academics who lead the eugenics movement showing how much at odds she was with many of its central adherents.
Sanger prioritized birth limitation among those who were not mentally and economically fit, and for those who did not want children, as poverty and illnesses reigned rampant within the lower classes and immigrant populations.
Eugenics leaders wanted not only to control reproduction of those deemed genetically inferior, even seeking legal sterilization and euthanasia, they also believed that the state should oversee it and apply the same regulations to immigrants of certain ethnic groups.
Margaret Sanger (September 14, 1883—September 6, 1966) has always sparked controversy. Her way of thinking, political and modernist values, association with Eugenicists (who wanted to weed out defects and improve the qualities of the human species) angered and provoked many, both in her lifetime and today. She is still the target of ambiguous discourse accusing her of racism, even a promoter of black genocide, along with faulty Nazi claims in order to attack women’s rights and discredit her work for reproductive freedom. Many haters depict her as being an advocate of abortion. Instead, once a nurse, she fought to protect women from abortion and against repeated pregnancies that destroyed their lives and bodies. Maybe it is time to set the record straight without going too deep into Margaret Sanger’s private life. Interestingly enough, across the web and in books, nobody can agree on her date of birth. If this simple fact is open for discussion, one would wonder what else about Margaret Sanger is left to one’s own interpretation.
Sanger in 1922
70 | Ceres Magazine | Fall 2016
Margaret Sanger with a client in a family-planning and birth-control clinic. Source: Bain News Service/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ggbain-23218)