I first learned about birth control advocate Margaret Sanger from a TV movie starring Bonnie Franklin, Portrait of a Rebel which aired in 1980. She became one of my feminist idols. I read about various aspects of her life and legacy. There is no doubt that she is an important figure and that women owe her a great deal. Yet she is also controversial for a number of reasons.
I found out that there was a new biographical novel dealing with Margaret Sanger from my co-blogger Tara on Flying High Reviews. She reviewed Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman here. I wanted to find out how Feldman approached Margaret Sanger. I also thought that a book about her presents an opportunity to discuss some difficult issues in my review.
Sources that I've previously encountered dealing with Margaret Sanger didn't emphasize her Socialist Party membership and involvement in the Socialist community. I thought this aspect of Terrible Virtue was particularly significant especially given charges that she was right wing due to her support for eugenics later in her life. There was one scene at a meeting in which Socialist leader Big Bill Haywood said that in a socialist society women would stay home and take care of the children. I found that scene emblematic because it reminded me of second wave feminist Robin Morgan's complaints about the New Left. This lack of support in male dominated organizations for women's freedom to choose is what caused feminists like Margaret Sanger and Robin Morgan to realize that women needed their own movement.
Feldman portrays Sanger as latching on to eugenics because of its popularity. I don't think that this is a persuasive defense of Sanger. While researching for this review, I read an article that Sanger wrote on this subject which originally appeared in 1921 in The Birth Control Review here . It seems to me that if you don't want people to interpret your words as racist, you shouldn't use phrases like "improving the race". So if she intended her association with eugenics as a pragmatic decision to make her cause more politically viable as Feldman has her claim, she was being shortsighted. There is really no way to incorporate eugenics in an approach to birth control without being offensive. When eugenics isn't perceived as racist, it's seen as an attack on the disabled or people with variant sexuality. It was inevitable that the eugenics paradigm would discredit Sanger and her movement. She should have seen its implications and stayed far away from it. I believe that birth control should be framed as an individual choice based on individual life circumstances. "Improving the race" pollutes the discourse on this issue. Regardless of her intention, Sanger was allying herself with fascists.
On the personal front, I was at first impressed by Sanger's feelings about her daughter. Yet eventually I realized that she had these deep feelings about having a daughter before she had one, and she gave her daughter her own name. Sanger also called her by her own nickname, Peggy, and she imagined her as an adult joining Sanger in the birth control struggle. In other words, Peggy wasn't an individual to her. She was an extension of herself. Many parents think of their children that way, but I thought it was sad that Feldman was presenting Sanger as a woman whose strongest personal connection was essentially narcissistic.
I knew before I read this novel that my feminist idol had feet of clay. Feet of clay can crumble and cause the idol to topple from the pedestal. I no longer put Margaret Sanger on a pedestal. Feldman's biographical novel reminds me that she was a flawed human being who made mistakes in her life. Yet we mustn't forget her accomplishments. Sanger was still a great feminist fore-mother. Women's options would have remained constricted without birth control. We must continue to fight to preserve that freedom.