Monday, September 5, 2016

A Praiseworthy Pioneer for Women’s Freedom

In stark contrast to my previous article about Mother Teresa, who was canonized just yesterday, this article is about a woman who throughout her lifetime opposed the Roman Catholic Church and was constantly opposed by the RCC as well as by many traditional Protestants.
Even though she died 50 years ago, this woman is still being severely criticized by some people, and Hillary Clinton’s approval of her is one of the reasons Hillary is currently being vilified, as I also wrote about recently.
Introducing Margaret Sanger
The person in question is Margaret Sanger, who was born in 1879 and died on September 6, 1966. Her lifelong passion was providing women with the knowledge about how to prevent pregnancies. In 1914 she coined the term “birth control,” and she was a fearless crusader for that cause, which culminated with the FDA’s approval of the use of “the pill” in 1960.
As a young nurse working in New York City, Margaret saw firsthand the misery of people living in poverty with more children than they could possibly care for adequately. And she saw the extreme suffering and even the death of some women who sought to have illegal and often unsafe abortions—or who tried to perform abortions on themselves.
Consistently an opponent of abortions, Sanger sought to help women gain the knowledge and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
After several years of publishing and distributing literature that was deemed illegal according to the Comstock Act of 1873 and after spending in time in jail following her opening of a birth control clinic in Brooklyn in October 1916, Margaret started the American Birth Control League in 1921.
That group developed into the organization that since 1942 has been known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America, even though Margaret did not like the new name. 

Vindicating Margaret Sanger
In addition to charges that Sanger favored abortion, which she didn’t, she has also been charged with being a supporter of eugenics, which she was, as well as being a racist, which is patently false.
There was much interest in and support of eugenics in the first part of the twentieth century—and one of the main political supporters was the Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Sanger probably said things that we now would find problematical, but her view on eugenics in the first third of last century was very similar to that of many respected academics and politicians.
The biggest lie being told about Sanger is that she targeted African-American families. Two of her early supporters, though, were Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the largest African-American church in the U.S. and W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP—hardly people who would be on the side of a racist.
Sanger’s vocal critics also fail to note that in 1966 Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the first recipients of the newly-established Margaret Sanger Award and that Mrs. King publically spoke in praise of Sanger and her activities. (Hillary Clinton received that award in 1999.)
There were questionable aspects to Sanger’s personal lifestyle, things that I would not condone, but her single-minded dedication to women’s freedom and the right to control their own bodies and the size of their families was a praiseworthy contribution to the well-being of our nation.
Resources consulted
Jean H. Baker, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011) – A sympathetic biography 
Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (1938, 1999) – In her own words 
“Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story” (1995) – TV movie 
“Margaret Sanger,” Cobblestone Films (1998) – Available online at Mid-Continent Public Library


  1. A Thinking Friend, whose opinions I always take very seriously, wrote,

    "Interesting that you’re confident that she couldn’t have been a racist, given the times in which she lived. I expect everyone not a minority back then would be hard pressed to measure up to current standards."

    1. Well, you may be right -- just as it may be right that everyone not a minority now is hard pressed to measure up to current standards.

      I actually wondered about that statement myself, but I was mainly reacting to the charges of racism against her being made by the Religious Right and conservative Republicans today -- as a way to criticize Hillary.

      The movie "Hillary's America" shows Sanger on the porch of a house surrounded by KKK members covered with white sheets (as they often were). The implication was that she was pals with and a supporter of the KKK, which seems clearly not to be the case, and the picture seems to be clearly fraudulent.

      In her autobiography, Sanger has one mention of the KKK. She wrote, "I have found women's psychology in the matter of childbearing essentially the same, no matter what the class, religion, or economic status. Always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing" (p. 366).

      She gives absolutely no indication that she talked about anything other than birth control--for the women gathered there, not for Black women.

      There are regular charges that she was trying to use birth control as a means of diminishing the number of Blacks in America, that she was engaging in a kind of war on Blacks. It is that in particular I had in mind when I said that such charges were "patently false."

  2. Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen, who is widely known and loved throughout the whole Kansas City area, shares this brief comment:

    "I consider Margaret Sanger a champion of women's health and our general wellbeing."

  3. Here are, once again, important comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Margaret Sanger was a heroine for millions of women. She realized that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is through sex education, birth control, and viable alternatives to abortion, both financial and moral, for those women who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies.

    "Note that the number of abortions has declined substantially in recent years primarily because of a drop in the number of teenage pregnancies."

    1. Note that the drop in teen pregnancies circles back to access to birth control. Modern longterm birth control is considerably more effective than "the pill" made famous in the 60s. Fewer unwanted pregnancies leads to fewer abortions. Katha Pollitt had an article in the June 20 2016 "The Nation" titled "Poverty and Choices" that looked at several factors affecting abortion rates, and gave credit for recent drops mostly to improving birth control. See link here:

    2. Thanks, Craig, for your pertinent comments and the link to the article in The Nation.

      It seems quite clear that one of Sanger's strongest motivations for developing birth control was her desire to cut down on the number of abortions being performed. That makes it ironic that currently she (as the founder of what became Planned Parenthood) and Hillary are being attacked by those who are strongly anti-abortion.

  4. “Thanks in part to Margaret Sanger, many of the world’s women live with a freedom they take for granted: to decide when and if to become mothers, without sacrificing sexual expression.” Those are the words of Kathryn Cullen-DuPont in the 1999 Introduction of Sanger’s "An Autobiography."

    (Ms.Cullen-DuPont is a contemporary scholar of women's issues. Her first book is "Women's Rights on Trial," Gale, 1997).