Margaret Sanger, Badass Mother Lover

by Grace Bello

Well, now that we’re SlutWalking, creating alternatives to marriage, defending Planned Parenthood, and basically bringing feminism back (you’re welcome!), it’s about time we re-acknowledged one of the most important figures in women’s lib, turn-of-the-century birth control activist Margaret Sanger.

Sanger’s own mother gave birth to 11 children in 22 years, suffered seven miscarriages, and died at the age of 48. At the time, Comstock laws prevented women from accessing contraception or even receiving information about family planning through the mail; such matters were considered obscene. Seeing firsthand the perils associated with pregnancy, Sanger made it her life’s mission to provide a legal, accessible, female-controlled method of birth control. She opened the first U.S. family planning clinic, founded Planned Parenthood, and played a key role during the ’50s in helping to fund the development of the birth control pill.

Professor Jean H. Baker has written a biography, which comes out tomorrow, called Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. I spoke with Prof. Baker about the genesis of Sanger’s birth control movement, her many brushes with the cops, and her affair with H.G. Wells.

So Margaret Sanger worked in the Lower East Side of New York City as a nurse, which was kind of the catalyst for her work on birth control…

Yes, the story is the famous episode with the Sachs family. Sanger, as a young nurse [in 1912], is called out. Sadie Sachs has just had her fourth child — a difficult delivery — and she asks the doctor what she and her husband can do to not have another child, and the doctor says — in the somewhat negligent way of doctors during the period — “Tell [him] to sleep on the roof.”

In Sanger’s autobiography, this really is the key moment when she goes home and determines that birth control is going to be the focus of her life. She talks about coming home to her dark apartment and looking over the city and thinking about what’s going on in New York and all the dead babies and the little coffins, etcetera, and determining that what she’s going to spend her life on is birth control.

Can you give me a little bit of context as to what the social climate was like when Margaret Sanger first started doing her work?

Yes, well it’s New York, and it’s New York at the turn of the century during the progressive movement. Margaret Sanger comes to New York from Hastings-on-Hudson, which is pretty suburban. Almost immediately, she’s swept up in these great, cultural, and social and political movements. She does join the socialist party, a culture of “let’s go to the very heart of what’s wrong with America and change things.”

Can you tell me more about the Comstock laws and obscenity laws that were in place at the time?

In 1873, George Comstock, who had worked in New York as part of the anti-vice squad, [rallied to] pass a law which makes it illegal to convey information or to send articles [on] contraception. In states like Connecticut, it was illegal to use contraception.

Can you do a little name-dropping? Who was in her bohemian social circle?

[Laughs] Well, the folks that influenced her and that interested her were men like wild Bill Haywood, the one-eyed leader of the Industrial Workers of the World; Jack Reed, the famous Harvard-educated poet who ended up dying of typhoid fever in the Soviet Union… I don’t think she was really friends with [Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist] Walter Lippmann, but he was a part of this group based in Greenwich Village.

As far as women are concerned, some really important women revolutionaries [were in her circle]: Emma Goldman, who had become a real favorite of the radicals, and the fiery-eyed Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about her personality?

This is an incredibly determined, resilient woman. She’s able to take criticism that would make most of us simply cringe and run home and get under the covers.

She’s not really physically so prepossessing — she’s not beautiful, she’s not even attractive-looking, her clothes are somewhat conventional — she’s the kind of person who radiates charisma. And she attracts not just men — and she’s somewhat notorious for that — but also women who become invested in the movement.

She is really one determined woman, but beyond that, she has a sure sense of how to use publicity. How many others are able, when they’re arrested, to refuse to ride in the police wagons but have enough sense to walk to the magistrate’s court with all of her followers behind her?

What Sanger is doing is pressing Americans to go public and to try to make birth control legal, and, of course, it was not legal during the Comstock laws.

These Comstock laws were rooted in religious beliefs?

Yes. The courts had a horrible time trying to decide what exactly obscenity is. And one of the judicial descriptions is “you know it when you see it.” Comstock wanted to say, “We’re going to include birth control with obscenity and pornography.” So what Sanger has to do is to take birth control out of that definition.

If women were using birth control at the time, what did that consist of? Was it the rhythm method?

What they were using were various forms of douches. They’re using what that generation called “pessaries” — what we would call “diaphragms.” And that was, for Sanger, the best method. And that’s why she wanted to open the [first-ever U.S. birth control] clinic. They were measuring women and then fitting them with various sizes of diaphragms. Of course, there are other forms of contraceptives, but she’s after a female-controlled contraceptive.

Sanger is promoting this movement — and there won’t be a truly effective female-controlled birth control until The Pill, and that’s not ’til the 1960s.

You said that Sanger knew how to use publicity. I wonder how the media viewed her. Did The New York Post bash her?

The reporters loved her. I mean, she was good copy! She talked well. She was talking about this thing that everyone wanted her to talk about, and yet she was the only one who really was doing it.

But the good old, staid Times, for example, and many of the mainstream magazines thought that any discussion of birth control was vulgar. And so they opposed her and really contributed to this notion of Sanger as being beyond the pale, disgusting.

What can you tell me about Sanger’s time in jail?

When she opened the clinic in Brooklyn, that really was running up the red flag, so she was arrested in October 1916. And she was tried, and she went to jail in 1917 for a month.

What can you tell me about her affairs with Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells?

She was a woman who was entirely authentic and spontaneous about her sexuality. Havelock Ellis, in terms of his own sexuality, it’s uncertain about the degree to which they could have had an affair. But he educated her about the various margins of sexuality: you don’t have to do what everyone else does. If you want to have an affair, then have an affair.

H.G. Wells is one of maybe four of her English lovers. Sanger managed these love affairs and nobody knew much about them. She kept them quiet because she didn’t want to harm the birth control movement, and the birth control movement didn’t want to have a leader that was sleeping around. Wells and Ellis were only part of this huge stable of men that Sanger has sexual affairs with.

What else did Sanger do that created positive turning points for the birth control movement?

Well, besides going to jail for it about three or four times and opening the first [family planning] clinic and going to jail for it, she published these magazines. She wrote a pamphlet called Family Limitation while she was waiting to go to jail. And it became the most important manual describing various birth control techniques for years and years and years.

Her whole life was lived on the margins of respectability. She used to stand out in Times Square and give out her newspapers. She would go up to St. Nicholas Avenue and give a speech on birth control. So there is this constant dedication. In the meantime, public opinion was changing. By 1938, more than half of all Americans favor birth control.

Is there anything that you came across in your research that surprised you about Margaret Sanger or the social climate in which she did her work?

Well, what surprised me was the obdurate response of the Catholic church who went well beyond criticism of Sanger and tried to manipulate authorities by telling them not to let Margaret Sanger speak. In a famous incident in Town Hall in 1921 when Sanger and one of her friends from England arrived to give a talk, they were taken off the stage by the New York police, who were really in the pocket of the Catholic church. It was the New York cardinal who had decided to close Sanger down.

And that truly surprised me, although it shouldn’t, given the degree to which the church still opposes contraception.

Grace Bello is a freelance writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Atlanticand McSweeney’s.