Q: Quick, who was Margaret Sanger?
A: A champion for modern womanhood, one we don’t hear about in history textbooks. Yes, she was an avant-garde figure who lived in Greenwich Village. Yes, she opened the first birth control clinic in a Brooklyn storefront. Yes, she was banned in Boston.
Thank you, Margaret Sanger. How little has changed since you founded Planned Parenthood — the major women’s health care provider Republican lawmakers threaten to “defund.” That kind of sore talk was nothing new to you.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaking Thursday at the Washington Ideas Forum hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, defended Planned Parenthood from critics in Congress. She noted, “Not one federal dollar goes to pay for abortions.” She added, “All I can say is we’ve been in that world before. … I’m talking about a world where women committed suicide rather than go forward with a pregnancy.”
Speaking of the threat to cut off access to cancer screenings, Warren said, “They’re going to have a real fight on their hands. Let them do it.”
A century ago, Sanger sat before a House committee, fielding the “sometimes hostile questions of congressmen,” as biographer Jean H. Baker described the scene.
Used to fire, Sanger deftly handled her congressional squad. So did Hillary Clinton on the civilian deaths at Benghazi. (She has to face the same committee on her email server.) But it’s not pretty to see a woman get harassed by a gaggle of ganders.
Apparently, that’s still the treatment you get if you are president of the organization Sanger founded. Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards gamely answered questions from a House panel this week. Yet chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, treated his witness so rudely that he left people gobsmacked.
Sanger, a nurse galvanized by immigrant women’s plight, started a movement that traveled the world. She invented the term, “birth control,” and publicized contraception as a way for women, to control their destiny. She saw too many women die in childbirth on the job.
Also advancing American women’s status at the same time, in the same spirit, was suffrage leader Alice Paul in Washington. Both were early 20th-century women, only six years apart. The leaders were also jailed for their actions — roughly 100 years ago. Birth control was seen as “pernicious” and to this day is frowned upon by Rome and the pope.
Sanger and Paul departed from the old ways of being “good girls” as they defied authority. Paul was not one to obey President Woodrow Wilson, the main target of her Votes for Women movement. In their eyes, they were not there in the public square to compromise, but to realize their bold vision of women’s emancipation. They were not friends, but allies on different fronts of a shared struggle.
As Sanger put it, she followed her own compass:
“I never asked advice. I just kept going, night and day, visualizing every act, every step, believing, knowing that I was working in accord with … a moral evolution.”
They were each improvising, since they were pioneers leading into the unknown. Neither felt their work was ever finished.
There’s much to learn right now from Sanger’s fiery civil disobedience in these times when women feel under siege in Congress. In my favorite Sanger story, she is gagged onstage in Boston, to protest the mayor’s ban on her speaking on birth control in the 1920s. In a dramatic scene, the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. read her speech while she was gagged. This took place in 1929.
Sanger led a full life of passion, to borrow Baker’s phrase. Men found her captivating. Her family life was streaked with the loss of a young daughter, Peggy. An intense presence, she went door to door on her crusade. She soon launched a magazine, The Birth Control Review, and organized international conferences.
Sanger’s early turning point was on the Lower East Side, where she saw Sadie Sachs, 28, beg a doctor to tell her how to prevent another pregnancy, saying it would kill her. “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof,” he said. The next time Sanger went to the Sachs apartment, Sadie was gone from a botched abortion.
“It was the dawn of a new day,” Sanger wrote. She was so right.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.
Photo: Margaret Sanger, 1922, via Library of Congress.