In Control


Margaret Sanger

From Barnes and Noble Review:

Now is a fitting time to reconsider the life of Margaret Sanger. The United Nations marked October 31st as the day the global population reached 7 billion, a milestone greeted with both celebration and consternation around the world. Sanger would have no doubt felt the latter: after World War II, the activist who worked for decades to make contraception legal and available for women in the United States and around the globe condemned “the worldwide congestion of population which cannot continue without worldwide misery, famine, and wars.” She was, as historian Jean H. Baker demonstrates in Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, tenaciously single-minded, adept at linking any social problem to the need for birth control.

Though she’s been dead for forty-five years, Sanger herself made it into the headlines around the time of the UN announcement, after Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that Sanger’s aim in founding the forerunner to Planned Parenthood was “preventing black babies from being born.” Cain’s ill-considered assertion demonstrates the extent to which Sanger’s legacy has been distorted, but one need only turn to the first page of Baker’s fine biography to discover the pervasiveness of such beliefs. Sanger, in addition to sounding prescient early warnings against overpopulation, was a visionary in her advocacy for female sexual autonomy, driving scientific research on a “magic pill” to prevent women from conceiving and exhorting women to enjoy sex whether or not its aim was reproduction. Yet Baker opens the book not with a summary of her accomplishments but with a rebuttal aimed at those who have, since Sanger’s 1966 death, dismissed her as a eugenicist and a racist. Bemoaning the “inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and sound-bite misquotations that now encrust her historical reputation,” the author marvels that even a staffer at a New York branch of Planned Parenthood — which grew out of Sanger’s American Birth Control League — admitted that he avoids any mention of Sanger.

Without giving Sanger a complete pass — Baker acknowledges that her subject’s backing of involuntary sterilization is “indefensible” — she constructs a vigorous defense of Sanger’s career as a whole, assessing Sanger’s positions on eugenics in the context of her time and noting that her support for eliminating the unfit never focused on “a specific race or religion, only genetic or behavioral unfortunates.” Baker argues that Sanger allied herself with the eugenics movement for pragmatic reasons. Up until the late 1930s eugenics enjoyed widespread approval; associating herself with what was seen as a progressive, scientific field offered increased legitimacy to her own program, which was then both marginal and shocking.

“Review of Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion“, Jean H. Baker, Barnes and Noble Review