Sanger Opposed War and 'Breeding Soldiers'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jean H. Baker writes about the strong antiwar stance of Margaret Sanger and the reformer's increasingly single-minded focus on contraception in this excerpt from her forthcoming biography of a ferociously passionate and flawed pioneer.

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During the war, no reform leader faced as many challenges as did Sanger and her nascent, but still unsavory, birth control movement. For anxious Americans birth control came to summarize an accumulating cascade of alarming social, political, and sexual transformations, exaggerated in war time and particularly focused on women's roles. In the 20th century for some Americans, not just those in Greenwich Village, sex had changed in behavior as well as perception, from dutiful procreation to a pleasurable activity now enjoyed by even unwed daughters of conventional parents. Former guardians of the hearth now worked outside the home in growing numbers--some 17 percent earning wages in 1915--a figure that did not include those in domestic service. More young women attended college and volunteered for community activities. But such alterations were still contested.

After she resigned from the Socialist Party, Sanger acknowledged few public issues not directly linked to birth control, believing it the universal reform of transformative power. Her cause surpassed superficial efforts to end drinking, improve labor standards for children, and clean up politics. She calculated as too dangerous the loss of credibility through guilt by association with any controversial cause, especially during war time. Besides, birth control demanded all her energy.


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Jean H. Baker is the author of "Sisters: The Lives of American Suffragists" and many other books on American history. She is professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore. This article is excerpted from Baker's new book, "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion," to be published Nov. 15, 2011 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Jean H. Baker. All rights reserved.

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