Margaret Sanger Writes on Race and Reproduction

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Margaret Sanger

This month, Our Daily Lives presents an excerpt from a recently reissued 1922 book by Margaret Sanger. A turn-of-the-century feminist, instrumental in founding Planned Parenthood, Sanger was the leading proponent in her day of women making motherhood a choice and of women enjoying sexual freedom. A hero of the current women’s movement, Sanger’s complicity with eugenics movements of the 1910s and ’20s has received little attention.

Now, however, Inkling Books, a small publisher in Seattle, Wash., has re-released Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization: In Historical Perspective.” Its editor, Michael W. Perry, added works from other social theorists and scientists from the early years of the 20th century as well as modern historians’ writing and commentary to place Sanger’s ideas about reproductive freedom, population control, eugenics, philanthropy and class into context.

In the book’s preface, Perry makes clear his antagonism toward Sanger and the birth control movement; however, as the section below also makes apparent, Sanger’s legacy is one of brilliant advocacy for a woman’s right to control her fertility and sexuality. Her elitism and racism, however, are still very much part of today’s public policy discussions on the reproductive rights of low-income women. (See: “Women of Color Pressing Reproductive Health Agenda” by Cynthia L. Cooper.)

From Chapter 12, Women and the Future, The Pivot of Civilization:

If I am criticized for the seeming “selfishness” of this conception it will be through a misunderstanding. The individual is fulfilling his duty to society as a whole not by self-sacrifice but by self-development. He does his best for the world not by dying for it, not by increasing the sum total of misery, disease and unhappiness, but by increasing his own stature, by releasing a greater energy, by being active instead of passive, creative instead of destructive. This is fundamentally the greatest truth to be discovered by womankind at large.

And until women are awakened to their pivotal function in the creation of a new civilization, that new era will remain an impossible and fantastic dream. The new civilization can become a glorious reality only with the awakening of woman’s now dormant qualities of strength, courage, and vigor. As a great thinker of the last century pointed out, not only to her own health and happiness is the physical degeneracy of woman destructive, but to our whole race. The physical and psychic power of woman is more indispensable to the well-being and power of the human race than that even of man, for the strength and happiness of the child is more organically united with that of the mother.

Parallel with the awakening of woman’s interest in her own fundamental nature, in her realization that her greatest duty to society lies in self-realization, will come a greater and deeper love for all of humanity. For in attaining a true individuality of her own she will understand that we are individuals, that each human being is essentially implicated in every question or problem which involves the well-being of the humblest of us.

So to-day we are not to meet the great problems of defect and delinquency in any merely sentimental or superficial manner, but with the firmest and most unflinching attitude toward the true interest of our fellow beings. It is from no mere feeling of brotherly love or sentimental philanthropy that we women must insist upon enhancing the value of child life. It is because we know that, if our children are to develop to their full capabilities, all children must be assured a similar opportunity. Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual; but it is of scarcely less importance to the rest of us and to all of our children who must pay in one way or another for these biological and racial mistakes. We look forward in our vision of the future to children brought into the world because they are desired, called from the unknown by a fearless and conscious passion, because women and men need children to complete the symmetry of their own development, no less than to perpetuate the race.

They shall be called into a world enhanced and made beautiful by the spirit of freedom and romance–into a world wherein the creature of our new day, unhampered and unbound by the sinister forces of prejudice and immovable habit, may work out their own destinies. Perhaps we may catch fragmentary glimpses of this new life in certain societies of the past, in Greece perhaps; but in all of these past civilizations these happy groups formed but a small exclusive section of the population. To-day our task is greater; for we realize that no section of humanity can be reclaimed without the regeneration of the whole.

Margaret Sanger was an advocate for the widespread availability of access to birth control for women. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916, and was instrumental in the founding of Planned Parenthood. She wrote columns and distributed her own pamphlets, such as “The Birth Control Review,” and wrote many books, including “Happiness in Marriage,” “Motherhood in Bondage,” “The New Motherhood,” “Sayings of Others on Birth Control,” “What Every Girl Should Know,” “What Every Mother Should Know: or How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth” and “Women and the New Race.”

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