By Alena Yarmosky, Outreach and Grassroots Fellow
Margaret Sanger was one cool chick. And I don’t mean cool in the way that a pop song is cool – hip for .3 seconds before losing its grip to the most recent summer jam. Margaret Sanger was cool in the unique sense of the word reserved for people who have the courage to fight for a cause they believe in, the grit to keep fighting, and the tenacity to succeed.
But Margaret Sanger’s cool factor is also based on something infinitely more real and beautiful than any superficial melody. Margaret Sanger was flawed.
Sanger’s view on reproductive rights and fight for universal access to birth control (as well as her controversial teachings on safe sex, child bearing and maternal health) make her a frequent target of those on the religious right, even today. But recently those on the pro-choice, progressive side of the aisle have also shied away from Sanger, allowing words like “eugenicist” and “egotistical” to mar her story and deter from her accomplishments.
Jean H. Baker’s biography “Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion” rejects the narrow-mindedness that has characterized many previous Sanger biographies and instead focuses on Margaret Sanger’s life as a whole – her flaws and missteps yes, but also her determination, intelligence, and steadfast commitment to improving the lives of millions of women and their families.
The sixth daughter of poor parents in Corning, N.Y., Margaret Sanger watched her mother endure five more pregnancies before succumbing to tuberculosis at a young age. After training as a nurse in what was to become New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger helped young women deliver child after child, many of whom could not afford to feed their growing families and begged for the “secret” of pregnancy prevention. Horrified by the injustice she saw, Sanger began in earnest the campaign that would dictate the rest of her life: She wrote many books, gave countless speeches all over the country, opened the first women’s health clinics in the U.S., and ultimately spawned a birth control movement that would expand around the world.
She was tough, she was dedicated, and perhaps unsurprisingly, she was difficult to befriend. Too often Sanger engaged in heated rivalry with her feminist counterparts, choosing personal notoriety over potential collaboration. She was known to bend the facts, ignore the contributions of her co-workers, and occasionally pass off others’ stories as her own. She left her children for long stretches of time, preferring a life of travel and activism to the comforts and responsibilities of home.
Yet as ruthless as she was – and Baker makes this point clear – Margaret Sanger was nothing if not effective. Born into a world where sex and pregnancy were rarely discussed (much less sex for pleasure and pregnancy by choice) Sanger lived to see the historic creation of the birth control pill and the declaration of birth control as a constitutional right.
Margaret Sanger, then, was not the perfectly packaged hero we read about in historical textbooks, nor the demon described by the right. In “Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion,” we have the unique opportunity to see the activist as she really was: bold, ruthless, compassionate, flawed. And that, I think, is pretty cool.