In 1873, the US passed The Comstock Act, a dicky little law that made it illegal for contraceptives, tools to be used in abortions, sex toys, erotica and even sexually charged letters (!) to be sent in the post.
In stricter states it was illegal for a person to possess these items (let alone post them!) and you could be damn sure that if you were caught you were facing a hefty fine or jail time.
This was the repressed world Margaret Sanger was born into.
Born in 1879 Margaret was one of 11; part of a huge Irish Catholic family that lived in poverty on the edge of New York.
Her Dad, Michael, was a drinker but also a radical free thinker, he’d dreamed of being a doctor (though poverty had made that impossible!) instead becoming a stone mason; but he still urged his children to become more, to better themselves and the world around them.
And Margaret’s Mum? Well her job was making babies! And in 11 kids in, she was clearly good at it.
But you can’t have almost a dozen kids (and 7 miscarriages) without your health being affected; after one pregnancy to many, she died in her 40s
At just 19, Margaret had lost her mum. Devastated, she immediately blamed her Dad (a very teenager in grief move) Margaret was angry, surely if her Dad hadn’t knocked up his wife so much, if she’d had some control in how many kids she’d had, then she wouldn’t have died so young.
Something had to change and with nobody also doing anything, Margaret had to do it herself (again, a very teenager move!) so she became a nurse.
Margaret soon found out that working as a nurse in New York’s lower east side was, pretty damn bleak. The work was tough, the hours long and every day she had to face the strangle hold that The Comstock Act had over women’s life’s.
Without access to contraceptives, more women were falling pregnant and, just like Margarets mum, more women were dying in birth.
There was no way safe alternative as The Comstock Act also barred postage of abortion tools. Desperate, women were turning to heinously dodgy back alley abortions, even self-abortions…both methods almost always ended disastrously.
Every other day, Margaret had to watch another woman’s future being wiped out as she died in her arms.
First her Mum, now this… Margaret was angry and she sure as hell wasn’t going to let this shit continue, saying:
‘No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother’
So Margaret buckled and worked to change things. She started writing a sex column and in 1914 set up (the amazingly named) magazine, ‘The Woman Rebel‘, dedicated to showing women who to take back control of their bodies.
…Unsurprisingly The Woman Rebel immediately broke The Comstock Act and Margaret had to flee to Britain to avoid being thrown in jail.
But despite is constant dicketry, The Comstock Act couldn’t keep a good woman down!
Whilst in Britain, Margaret researched contraceptives, got involved in women’s rights and came back to America way better connected and with big ideas on spreading contraceptives throughout the good ol’ US of A.
On 16 October 1916, Margaret opened her first birth control clinic in New York. She employed a Yiddish translator (hoping to make the areas large Jewish community feel welcome) along with her sister and fellow nurse.
That first day more than 100 women poured through the doors.
Aaaaand 10 days later the police shit down the clinic and threw Margaret in jail.
Margaret wouldn’t be deterred though. On her release she re-opened the clinic…and it was shut down again…and so she re-opened it again!
While that was going on, she also fought against her initial Comstock Conviction; which led to the law being changed to allow doctors to prescribe contraception to female patients if it was for a medical reason.
Margaret clung onto this loophole and on the back of it she formed The American Birth Control League (later planned parenthood!) in 1923 the league opened Americas first legal birth control clinic. From there they created a network of safe contraceptive clinics that would become Planned Parenthood.
The end right? No….see Margaret wasn’t satisfied; sure having a safe, legal birth control network was great…but what could it truly achieve without foolproof contraceptives?
Margaret dreamed of some kind magic pill that would offer blanket coverage, but the science just wasn’t there!
So she started to look at alternative options… and found eugenics
In the 1920s and 30s, eugenics was a theory gaining traction. Now it’s very easy to imagine that the only people supporting eugenics were the same people who would soon prove themselves to be the worst of humanity (looking at you Adolf), but that just wasn’t the case.
You see, Eugenics was a mainstream theory, it had support from doctors, presidents, philanthropists, teachers and scientists; it was taught in most US colleges and was seen as a far more acceptable way of controlling birth than birth control.
Yeah…historys kind of messed up.
Margaret wrote about eugenics as a way to give birth control more clout and for it to be taken more seriously. By tapping into the eugenics community she hoped that one day birth control would become just as mainstream and supported.
So, what did she actually write about? Well thats check out her most cited work:
The Eugenic Value of birth control propaganda (published in 1921s Birth Control Review)
Yeah…not the snappiest title.
At the beginning of the article, Margaret likens Eugenics to birth control…in that both were initially met with scorn and skepticism; and though Eugenics has moved passed this to be taken seriously, birth control is still in that stage.
It’s all going fine…until Margaret starts saying things like this:
‘the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.’
(speaking on ‘idealistic sexual ethics) ‘Such systems have in the past revealed their woeful inability to prevent the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has today drifted.’
‘Drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.’
Yeah…its a lot.
In the past several years this chapter in Margarets work has been getting a lot of attention. Arguably more attention than the work she did setting up birth control clinics and giving woman some autonomy over their bodies.
The majority of this started in 2015 when US Senator, Ted Cruz, led a republican group in demanding a museum remove a bust of Margaret; citing this quote from a letter Margaret wrote when opening a clinic in a predominantly black community:
‘We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population’
I think we can all agree, thats pretty fucked up Margaret – well it would be, if she said it. You see Ted got a tiny bit lazy and only used half a quote…out of context.
What Ted forgot to mention was that Margaret was writing a letter that voiced her concerns; after a spate of false rumours suggested Margaret was planning to use the clinic as a genocide machine, she wanted to work with the local church to make sure that the community would feel comfortable going to the clinic. Heres the full quote:
‘We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.’
This is just one example of the majority of articles around Margaret Sangers involvement with eugenics (seriously google it, it’s a cluster fuck of a rabbit hole). Most of these articles are maybe 10% fact and the rest is twisted to fit a current political narrative…that narrative, is -of course- abortion.
It seems strange to be calling for the removal of statues, busts, paintings, etc, of one supporter of eugenics…and not all.
After all, it was a mainstream theory, other pro-eugenic people include Helen Keller (who referred to it as like ‘weeding’ a garden), Winston Churchill, social reformer Beatrice Webb, H.G Wells, not to mention multiple presidents, a noble prize winner and many many more.
The only reason I can think of is that Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood…and with most of the people calling for these removals, anti-abortion campaigners, that would seem to be the answer.
So where does that leave us? Well, with the history of a complicated woman.
A woman who overcame countless hurdles to bring reproductive rights to America, but who also supported an incredibly shitty theory that manages to be discriminatory against pretty much all minorities at once; yet the same woman also also fought for minority staff to be bought into her clinics – Margaret Sanger is the definition of a complex person.
And I think thats good; too often we idolise our historical heroes, with Margaret, you can’t do that (well you shouldn’t anyway!) and that means we have the opportunity to explore a female historic figure in the kind of way we don’t normally do…just make sure you do whilst using all the facts!
That was interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest Sabrina Jones, Our Lady of Birth Control; it’s a graphic novel and a deep dive history read at the same time (the dream!)